Just taking part still counts for a lot in a bittersweet year

Sport Review of the Year 2017: Comment

Paul Brennan

With the finishing line in sight on the sporting year that was, how will 2017 be remembered? Depends on who you are, where your persuasions lie, and what floated - or sank - your boat, really.

Locally, and with respect to everything else, it's all about the football in Kerry, and even in another Sam-less year there was plenty of big stories to keep us involved. We say stories rather than contest or achievements because two of the three most memorable (should that be unforgettable?) stories about Kerry GAA in 2017 didn't involve a match or a ball or a result.

April brought the curtain down on the inter-county career of one of Kerry's - and the country's - greatest ever Gaelic footballers, but it was Colm Cooper's testimonial dinner six months later that produced more column inches and ariwave minutes than the news that he would no longer play in the green and gold. News that Cooper was ending his 15-year senior career with Kerry wasn't altogether surprising - his All-Ireland Club success with Dr Crokes the previous month seemed as good a way to say to farewell to inter-county football as any - and the gratitude for the memories and the sadness at his leaving was enormous and sincere.

Aidan O'Mahony had announced his inter-county retirement in January, and by year end Bryan Sheehan would also have stepped away, but Cooper's departure signalled the end of a career and a talent the likes we may never see again.

If Gooch's retirement left a lump in many throats in April, by October many were finding his plans for a testimonial dinner a little hard to digest. The news that Cooper would have a €500-a-plate dinner in his honour didn't sit well with some GAA people, in Kerry and around the country, but many others saw it as due recognition for a player who has been beloved all over the country.

Cooper could hardly have imagined how divisive an issue a corporate dinner to celebrate his magnificent career would become, but the fact is that he pledged to give a share of the profits to two charities - later revised to also include some money for Dr Crokes and Kerry GAA - and it was a fitting final tribute to a player who has given so much joy to so many over a glorious career with Kerry.

Sandwiched in between Cooper's retirement and testimonial was the bombshell news that Kerry senior footballer, Brendan O'Sullivan, had served a suspension imposed by Sport Ireland for testing positive for a banned stimulant. It was, understandably, a major story, not least because O'Sullivan's failed test occurred after the 2016 National League Final, and by the time the news broke in late May 2017 the Valentia man had already served an 11-week ban from May to July 2016, and another 10-week suspension that started at the end of February this year.

O'Sullivan's 'crime' as it were was to buy an over-the-counter substitute for the proscribed caffeine gel he didn't like the taste of and that tablet was subsequently found to contain the banned stimulant methylhexaneamine (MHA) when his post-2016 National League Final tested showed a positive. O'Sullivan contested the suspension on the grounds that what he took in good faith turned out to be contaminated, and that he had conducted extensive research on the product before he consumed it.

In the end Sport Ireland, in their reasoned decision, accepted that it was a contaminated product case, and that O'Sullivan "bore no significant fault or negligence". In a matter of weeks the Valentia man was back doing what he does best and played a significant part in Kerry winning the All-Ireland Junior Championship and taking South Kerry to the county SFC final later in the year.

If Cooper's testimonial dinner and O'Sullivan's doping suspension left a bitter taste in the mouth, albeit temporarily, it was left to the Kerry minors to bring the sweet taste of success to the county. Under the astute guidance of Peter Keane, Tommy Griffin and James Foley, Kerry claimed a fourth successive All-Ireland minor football title, and while it was very much a team effort every step of the way, there's no getting away from one name in particular: David Clifford.

In the year that Colm Cooper hung up his Kerry jersey, it seems as if the county won't have very long to wait for his heir. Clifford broke and set all kinds of records this year, and his four goals and four points in the All-Ireland Final win over Derry was as remarkable as anything Cooper has done in Croke Park. The king is dead...

It would be impossible - and foolhardy - to try to recount and account for everything that happened across the world of sport in the last 12 months, locally, nationally and internationally. Like those end of year sports awards that exercise people so much, sport is subjective, divisive and not to be taken too seriously.

In the bigger picture 2017 was the year of the Dublin footballers and Galway hurlers, the Dublin women footballers and the Cork camogie team, of James McClean and Christian Eriksen, of Conor McGregor and Floyd Mayweather, of Usain Bolt and Justin Gatlin, of Sergio Garcia, Chris Froome, Katie Taylor, the Lions, Chelsea, Cork City FC, New England Patriots and whatever you're having yourself.

It was about the big moments, the title winners, the world record beaters, those who won against all the odds, but also those who succeeded by simply competing and being competitive. Because that's sport too. Sometimes it's not all about the winning; it really can be just about the taking part.