Sport Gaelic Football

Saturday 22 July 2017

Humble pie and other treats

Eamonn Sweeney

A is for Astounding, no other way of putting it. Back in May, Tipperary minor footballers trailed 3-6 to 0-5 at half-time in their Munster championship semi-final against Kerry. They not only recovered to win but followed up with demolitions of Cork, Meath and Roscommon to earn a place in the All-Ireland final against a Dublin team that had received so much hype it was as though they'd won three All-Irelands already. It didn't bother Tipp as they overcame a routine, by their standards, five-point half-time deficit to win their first title at this level since 1934.

B is for Boos, which rang round the Aviva Stadium as Ireland were held to a 0-0 draw at home by World Cup quarter-finalists Slovakia. The Best Supporters In The World were not happy at all. A few days later, Richard Dunne produced one of the finest individual performances in the history of Irish football to earn us a point in Moscow and the victories over Macedonia and Armenia which followed put us on the way to our first major tournament finals since 2002. A summer of drunk lads with sunburn telling RTE they sold the wife and kids to get to Poland looms. A single point out of the three games will be an achievement.

C is for Curse, apparently placed on Kieran McGeeney by some witch he's annoyed along the way. Kildare, blackguarded in last year's All-Ireland semi-final, got the dirt done to them on the double this year, a phantom free denying them a deserved draw against Dublin in Leinster, and a perfectly good goal which would have put the final nail in Donegal's coffin being ruled out in the All-Ireland quarter-final. The Lilywhites, once more, were the unluckiest team of the year.

D is for Different Class, to which Barcelona belonged as they humiliated Manchester United in the Champions League final. It's not just Messi, it's not even just the blessed triangle of Messi, Iniesta and Xavi, it's their whole method of playing which makes everyone else look like they're engaged in some altogether lower form of endeavour. Jose Mourinho's hunch that Barca could be stopped by negativity proved to be the biggest losing gamble since Seán Quinn chanced a few bob on the stock market.

E is for Embarrassment, the emotion written all over Usain Bolt's face after he was eliminated from the World Championship 100m final for a false start. He did bounce back to win the 200m and anchored the Jamaican team to a world record-breaking relay victory. But for the first time Bolt seems to have a real rival in young team-mate Yohan Blake, who won that world 100m title in the absence of the big man and whose 19.26 over 200m at the Brussels Grand Prix was the second fastest time ever. Their Olympics clash should be one to savour.

F is for Future, which was supposed to belong to Rory McIlroy. Unfortunately for his rivals, the Holywood man is an impatient sort and decided to put a down payment on the present as well with his US Open victory at Congressional. Three shots clear after the first round, McIlroy kept pouring it on to finish with eight shots to spare over Jason Day in a record score of 268, four shots better than the previous tournament best. The Tiger comparisons weren't premature anymore. No one else has been so imperious in a modern-day Major.

G is for Golden Age, currently being enjoyed by men's tennis. If it wasn't enough to have two of the greatest players of all-time, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, slugging it out for supremacy at the top of the game, they both had to give way this year to Serbia's Novak Djokovic. Beginning the season with a 43-game winning streak which brought him within three of Guillermo Vilas' record, he finished it with three out of the four Grand Slam titles, the last of them at the US Open where he saved two match points against Federer in the semi and repeated his Wimbledon victory over Nadal in the final. By some distance the most impressive individual sportsman in the world this year.

H is for Handstand, performed by Mayo's Ray Moylette after he won the European light-welterweight title in Ankara. If Moylette subsequently disappointed at the World Championships in Baku, it was probably because he was the most high-profile victim of the IABA's demand for pre-championship box-offs, which caused a great deal of upset among our top fighters. At the moment, we have three boxers, John Joe Nevin, Darren O'Neill and Michael Conlan going to London. The number might well be higher had IABA officials not lost the run of themselves.

I is for I Shot JR and It's Hard To Be Humble, the two greatest hits of that colossus of Irish music, Dadaist performance provocateur, and Fianna Fáil councillor, TR Dallas, who until this year looked certain to be the most famous man ever to come out of Moate. Now he has some competition from Joe Ward. The 17-year-old light-heavyweight shocked almost everyone by beating the tar out of Kenneth Egan in the national championships and created an even bigger upset when winning gold in the Europeans. Just to show how much he likes surprising people, Ward then failed to qualify for the Olympics at the World Championships in Azerbaijan. A rematch with Egan awaits at the Stadium.

J is for Joy, which was unconfined as Irish horses almost went through the card on the Wednesday at Cheltenham, winning six of the seven races. The Festival total of 13 winners was a new record and the more restrained post-Tiger era manner in which these triumphs were greeted added to rather than took from the occasion. Best of them all was Champion Hurdle winner Hurricane Fly, trained by Willie Mullins and ridden by Festival specialist Ruby Walsh. Hurricane Fly is currently 7/4 to become the first repeat winner since Hardy Eustace.

K is for Kids, the youngsters of Irish athletics having given notice this year that we may be on the verge of something very big. West Waterford walker Kate Veale took pride of place with her World Youth title over 5km but there were others. Ciara Mageean finished the year as world number two junior over 1500m, Ferrybank's Thomas Barr rated number five in the same age group at 400m hurdles. At the European Youth Olympics, there were golds for Donegal 1,500m runner Ruairi Finnegan and Waterford 400m hurdler Ben Kiely. With Ciarán O'Lionaird's world final place showing how promise can be converted into achievement, there are exciting times ahead.

L is for Leek, the national vegetable of the team which ruined Irish rugby's year on the international front. The Six Nations defeat prompted much apocalyptic speculation about Declan Kidney losing his touch but by the time the World Cup quarter-final came round our emotional sporting barometer was set for a spell of riot amid much wild talk of tournament victory. Wales responded by giving us an even worse beating.

M is for Momentum Shift and also Manchester, where City seem to finally be on the verge of surpassing United. Though given both clubs' poor performances and early exit from the Champions League there's a distinct bald-men-fighting-over-a-comb feel to this much ballyhooed rivalry.

N is for Narrowest of Margins, by which Kerry lost the All-Ireland football final. That defeat meant that Tomás ó Sé, Tom O'Sullivan and Eoin Brosnan became the first footballers in the game's history to lose two All-Ireland finals by a point, a cruel fate for three of the Kingdom's best performers on the day.

O is for One Woman Band, which Irish swimming was portrayed as after Gráinne Murphy's European heroics last year. It turns out to be not as simple as that. Belfast's Sycerika McMahon looked to be an outstanding prospect in the Murphy mould when she won two golds at the European Junior Championships in Belgrade, while another Northern swimmer Melanie Nocher came in under the radar to win bronze in the 200m backstroke at the European seniors in Poland. Nocher looks a possible Olympic finalist. As does Murphy, who'll probably benefit from sharing the limelight.

P is for Pie of the humble variety, devoured in great quantities by those of us who thought Kilkenny's defeats in last year's All-Ireland final and this year's League decider showed a team on the wane. The magnificent renaissance which culminated in the Ali v Foreman dramatics of their final victory over Tipp showed that the most important rule when writing about the GAA is to never write off Kilkenny.

Q is for the Quintet of All-Ireland titles Dublin were driving for at one stage this summer. In the end they got one. Galway, on the other hand, ended up with three, under 21 hurling and football titles and a minor hurling crown which confirmed Mattie Murphy as the great underage maestro of the GAA. Now watch him lead Gort to an All-Ireland club title. The Tribesmen were only the second county to win three of the four underage titles in one year, Cork having done it in 1970 and 1971.

R is for Rubbish, the best description of the hyped-to-death insanely elongated festival of mediocrity which was the Rugby World Cup. It began with the normal ritual slaughter of barely competent teams, continued with a whole heap of boring games -- Australia v South Africa anyone? -- and concluded with a victory for a uniquely graceless All Blacks team which owed a great deal to the referee. There's more drama in one weekend of the Heineken Cup than there was in the whole three and a half years which this awful tournament seemed to take up.

S is for Sentimental, which you couldn't help feeling as Darren Clarke approached the 72nd green in the British Open with three shots in hand. Clarke, without a top-ten finish in a Major since 2001 or a top 20 since 2006, looked set to end his career as one of those great golfers who couldn't make the big breakthrough. But he was inspired at Royal St George's, making it six Majors in five years for Ireland. The Americans have seven in that period, no one else has more than two. The English haven't won one since 1996. Is it any wonder they're getting over-excited about Luke Donald?

T is for Turbo Boosters, which appeared to have been fitted to Frankel before his run in the 2,000 Guineas. He led from the front, won it by six and could easily have doubled the winning margin. Timeform rate him as the fourth best horse of all-time, after Sea Bird, Tudor Minstrel and Brigadier Gerard. Who are we to argue with the numbers men? But it's very hard to imagine any horse being commensurate with the fan's capacity for wonder in quite the same way as Frankel was at Newmarket. Jockey Tom Queally from Dungarvan provided the almost inevitable Irish connection.

U is for Unexpected, it wasn't just England's cricketers who were surprised to see Kevin O'Brien bludgeon their bowling all over the ground in the World Cup, he caught Irish sports fans on the hop too. But you didn't have to be a cricket expert to admire the savage beauty of his six sixes and 13 fours. Imagine how good we'd be at cricket if we actually played it.

V is for Vengeance, exacted by Dublin on the Tyrone and Kerry players who had put so much humiliation their way in recent years. But exacted with remarkably good grace.

W is for Women, the Cork lady footballers to be exact whose comeback against Dublin in the All-Ireland quarter-final was one of the most stirring spectacles of the year and who were the only All-Ireland champions I predicted correctly in a forecast competition run by my former club in Sligo. The Irish economy performed better than I did.

X is for Xenaxis, a Greek avant-garde composer whose music divided critical opinion. There are those who say it's an ugly travesty which spits in the face of musical tradition. Others agree with the late Iannis that it was the logical culmination to modern developments in his line of work. People still aren't sure whether the man was a genius or a charlatan. Iannis Xenaxis isn't the Greek for Jim McGuinness. But it should be. Aren't you dying to see what he comes up with next?

Y is for Yawn. Will Roy Keane and Alex Ferguson kiss and make up? Does the International Rules series have a future? Isn't John Terry a bold boy? Sepp Blatter. Sailing. Retired hurlers fighting in bars and boxers drinking unwise amounts of Guinness off the nipples of two hookers simultaneously. Wake me up in 2012.

Z is for Zombies, creatures which are apparently dead and buried but spring back to life and cause all sorts of trouble. Which is a good description of Leinster in the Heineken Cup final. In the first half they played like they had a big communal bet on Northampton and trailed 22-6 at the break. Cue the most awesome 40 minutes ever produced in the competition decider. It yielded 27 unanswered points and confirmed Jonny Sexton, with his 28 points, as a genuine world-class act. Their attempt to become the first team to win back-to-back cups since Leicester in 2002 isn't looking bad at the moment either.

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