Monday 22 May 2017

History will ensure Keane commands greater respect

We were hoping there wasn't going to be too much back-slapping and cheerleading and, in fairness, the opening line from the presenter was reassuringly moderate.

"You know," said Aidan Power, "for a small island nation of not much over four million people, we've produced a long line of sporting success stories."

Grand, not too over the top, not hammering us with the hyperbole. And The Greatest Irish Sportsperson Ever! was a well-researched, diligently produced TV show that made a respectable effort at compiling the top ten Irish sports stars of all time.

It was only when they got to number four that Power's script started to jar because at number four was George Best, who was born and reared in Belfast. The part of this "small island nation" with a population of four million is known as the Republic of Ireland and George was from that part of the island known as Northern Ireland, which has an additional population of 1.7 million.

At number three was Joey Dunlop, also from the North and who, despite his legendary status among fans of motorbike racing, barely registered as a sporting icon south of the border during his long career.

Naturally, the mysteries of the voting process were not explained to the viewer. But if Northern Ireland was going to be included then surely the likes of Tony McCoy and Mary Peters had to be contenders too. Paul McGrath came in at number ten, Vincent O'Brien at nine, Christy Ring eight, Sonia O'Sullivan seven, Sean Kelly six, Roy Keane five. Pádraig Harrington topped the poll, Brian O'Driscoll was number two.

It's only television but these things matter to the people involved, and more especially to the people not involved: you can be sure that some legends of Irish sport who didn't feature were more than a bit miffed.

Stephen Roche? You could argue the toss for hours but it should be sufficient to say that he won the Tour de France. Simple as that. He won the Tour de France. And in that miracle year of '87 he became only the second cyclist in history to achieve the triple crown of Tour, Giro d'Italia and World Championship road race in the same season.

With four majors available every year, a professional golfer with a good 20-year career has 80 chances to win a major. Roche did not have the consistency -- injuries and perhaps temperament saw to that -- but even the best of the best cyclists have only a window of five or six peak years in which to win the Tour, arguably the greatest prize in all of sport bar an Olympic gold medal.

Top athletes, if they're lucky, get two or three chances at an Olympic medal in their entire career. Ron Delany claimed his gold medal at the 1956 Olympics in one of the most prestigious of all events, the 1,500m. Like Roche, he didn't dominate his sport over a prolonged period but their triumphs were of such rare distinction in this country that to exclude them from any top ten is to underestimate the historic scale of their achievements -- not to mention the sheer statistical improbability of it ever happening.

Personally, I'd have had Roy Keane at number one. Maybe it will require the perspective of a future generation to truly appreciate what he did, first of all, and how his influence radiated throughout Irish sport in the years thereafter. O'Driscoll, for one, has already acknowledged the impact Keane had on him in terms of his own playing standards and personal ambitions. Any serious sportsman or woman in this country would cite Keane as an influence and an inspiration.

The sport at which he excelled has by far the biggest global appeal. He was captain of one of the biggest clubs in world soccer for eight years. He won seven championships with that club and when Manchester United ushered him out the door in November 2005, Alex Ferguson described him as "the best midfield player in the world of his generation". In the one truly universal sport, he was for a period one of the best and one of the most famous.

Inevitably, the programme showed his tackle on Marc Overmars in that World Cup qualifier against Holland at Lansdowne

Road in September 2001. It has to be the most overrated tackle in Irish history. He was of course immense that day, but for some reason his display three months earlier against Portugal has been overlooked -- the man practically put the team on his back that day. It was the performance not so much of a footballer as a force of nature. Rugby is a tiny sport by comparison but O'Driscoll has come closest to reaching that level of influence within a team sport which Keane routinely exerted.

The really heartening aspect of Ireland's Grand Slam success in '09 was the manner in which they seized it in the dying minutes of the final match. They didn't throw the kitchen sink at Wales, it wasn't the stereotypical charge of the Irish light brigade. It was method, strategy and patience that yielded the O'Gara drop goal that made history.

And Harrington epitomises these qualities too. The number one and number two are still working men. They are showing the way. They are therefore not just the past and the present but, in more ways than one, the future too.

the.couch@hotmail.com

Sunday Independent

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