Friday 24 November 2017

Eamonn Sweeney's A to Z of a sporting year to celebrate on many fronts

By Tom Halliday
By Tom Halliday

Eamonn Sweeney

From Chicago to Rio, 2016 was a memorable year for Irish sport.

A. . . is for anti-climax, which is the best description of the European Championship final won by a Portuguese team which had been a byword for negativity throughout the tournament as France froze on the big occasion. The defeated finalists had, along with heroic minnows Wales, Iceland and ourselves, been one of the few bright spots in a tournament which saw the lowest goals per game ratio in 20 years and felt even worse than that a lot of the time. The Champions League final between Real and Atletico Madrid was another disappointment which left you with the same 'I watched all that to end up with this?' feeling.

B . . . is for Barclays Centre, New York, the venue of Carl Frampton's epic points victory in July over the previously undefeated Mexican Leo Santa Cruz, which gave him the WBA super-featherweight title to go with his WBA and IBF super-bantamweight crowns. He had taken the latter title in February with a points victory over another previously undefeated world champion, Scott Quigg. B is also for the champion's home town of Belfast. At a time when Northern Ireland continues to be riven by ancient sectarian divisions, Frampton's determination to be a unifying force is salutary.

C . . . is for Connacht. After a century of being the 'plus one' on Irish rugby's ticket, the little province that could finally did. Their Pro12 campaign was a thrilling sidelight to disappointing Six Nations and European Cup campaigns which moved to the main stage when they ended. A thumping of Leinster in the final was the most satisfying denouement possible. Messiah Pat Lam may be on his way out, but Connacht look like breaking more new ground this season after thrilling European wins over Toulouse and Wasps. They're the living proof of that old saying about the size of fight in the dog.

D . . . is for dispiriting, the politest way of describing how the Paralympics were run in Rio. After a magnificent effort to put the games on an equal standing with the perceived main event in terms of media and public attention in London, they were back to being treated like an underfunded afterthought. For all that, our medallists Jason Smyth, Michael McKillop, Eoghan Clifford, Katie-George Dunleavy, Orla Barry, Ellen Keane, Noelle Lenihan, Colin Lynch and Niamh McCarthy were heroic. But Irish Paralympics CEO Liam Harbison's description of this year's games as 'catastrophic' could hardly be disputed.

E . . . is for European football, an arena where Dundalk did things this season which nobody ever suspected a League of Ireland team could. The victories over BATE Borisov and Maccabi Tel Aviv were individual highlights, but the most cheering thing was that there was never a time when Dundalk looked out of place against opponents who, in terms of resources at least, belong to an entirely different football universe. Daryl Horgan caught everyone's eye and his departure will be a blow to Dundalk. The one irreplaceable piece in the Oriel Park jigsaw, however, remains manager Stephen Kenny. Has there been a better football manager from this country?

The success of Stephen Kenny and Graham Byrne at Dundalk has been achieved by outstanding management and local goodwill Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile

F. . . is for 56 inches, the height of Simone Biles, who lived up to the hype by giving the most dominant performance in the history of Olympic women's gymnastics. The tiny Texan's winning margin in the overall competition was the biggest in Games history while she added titles in the vault and floor exercises and led the US to a team title. A small miracle of grace and athleticism, the 19-year-old dominated her event like no one else in Rio. Since competing in, and winning, her first major senior championships at the 2013 worlds, Biles is unbeaten in all-round competition. She may be the greatest gymnast of all-time.

G . . . is for gutter, a location often invoked by the critics of Conor McGregor and his sport. Most of the criticism of the ginger one is OTT, especially when it comes from people who have no problem with boxing. Yet most of the praise is also overdone, McGregor actually lost his unbeaten UFC record to Nate Diaz and wasn't particularly convincing in their return bout. But why quibble? This is as much a showbiz story as it is a sporting story. Like Donald Trump, McGregor is winning.

H . . . is for the hat-trick of Olympic sprint doubles completed by Usain Bolt, who became the first athlete in history to win three track titles in a row when he took the 100m in Rio. Then he added a third 200m. He did it yet again with a flourish and a smile and has been, for a decade, the best possible advertisement for the embattled sport he represents. It's hard to see who will replace him as the figurehead of athletics. Not the least of his achievements was to once more keep the grubby paws of double drug cheat Justin Gatlin off the gold medal.

I. . . is for indelible, the mark left on the world of sport by Muhammad Ali, who died in June at the age of 74. One of the greatest sportsmen who ever lived, he was probably the most charismatic of them all. Much lip service was paid in the obituaries to his principled stance against the Vietnam War. However, when Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers knelt during the playing of the US national anthem in protest against the killing of black people by police officers, he received the same kind of abuse Ali had for his gesture back in the day. Plus ca change.

J. . . is for Jolt, the seismic one felt by us all when we heard of the sudden death of Anthony Foley at the age of just 42. It was one of those moments when you weren't sure you were hearing correctly. An inspirational leader and embodiment of the spirit of Munster rugby, Foley inspired an affection which came flooding out in the weeks following his death and gave rise to scenes of almost unbearable poignancy. There are few sports fans who won't have spared a thought for his wife Olive and their two children this Christmas. Remember them in your prayers.

K. . . is for kick-out strategy, which often backfired this year. Cork under 21 'keeper Anthony Casey was the subject of much obloquy after gifting a winning goal to Mayo in the All-Ireland final. Stephen Cluxton (pictured) showed it can happen to the best when his misadventures with the short kick-out let Kerry back into the All-Ireland senior semi. And Rob Hennelly's miscalculation led to the black card for Lee Keegan which perhaps turned the tide against Mayo in the All-Ireland final replay. Considering the risks, maybe teams might be better to go long.

Stephen Cluxton’s kick-outs will be under more scrutiny than normal in Sunday’s final. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

L. . . is for laser radial, a phrase we found ourselves intoning knowledgeably as everyone briefly became sailing experts after Annalise Murphy's excellent silver medal in that class at the Rio Olympics. Fourth four years ago, Murphy's medal chances had been dismissed this time around, but the Rathfarnham sailor won her first race and was the model of consistency, finishing in the top seven in eight of her 11 races. A journey which began on the lakes in Blessington at the age of five ended in triumph and, given that Murphy is still just 26, is far from over.

M . . . is for Meath, home of Gordon Elliott, who emerged this year to challenge another M, Willie Mullins, at the head of Irish National Hunt racing. Don Cossack's win in the Cheltenham Gold Cup was Elliott's most eye-catching victory, but more significant may have been Michael O'Leary's decision to move many of his Gigginstown Stud horses from Mullins to Elliott. Right now Elliott is making the Irish trainers title competitive for the first time in a decade. Don't discount Mullins all the same, he was leading trainer at Cheltenham where his awesome strength in depth was illustrated when the absence of hot favourite Faugheen merely enabled another Mullins horse, Annie Power, to romp home in the Champion Hurdle.

N. . . is for no-hopers, which Ireland were regarded as going into their match against the All Blacks at Soldier Field, Chicago, in November. The All Blacks had dominated the Rugby Championship, with no one getting within 18 points of them, to such an extent that they were being talked about as the greatest of all time. But they ran into an Irish whirlwind and when they pulled within striking distance were hit with a late Robbie Henshaw try which sealed a glorious 40-29 victory. At Soldier Field, Ireland stood up and fought.

O. . . is for one hundred and eight, the number of years the Chicago Cubs had waited to win the World Series title. The great underachievers of American sport did it the hard way, falling behind 3-1 to the Cleveland Indians before winning the series by the odd game in seven. The decider saw them blow a game-winning lead before prevailing 8-7 in extra innings in as nerve-wracking a finale as you could imagine. The jubilation displayed by their legendarily loyal fans will have struck a chord with long-suffering supporters of also-ran teams everywhere. One day it'll all come right.

P . . . is for perfection, approached if not achieved by Seamus Callanan as Tipperary dethroned Kilkenny in the All-Ireland hurling final. The full-forward scored nine points from play in as fine an attacking performance as Croke Park has witnessed. His full-forward colleagues John O'Dwyer and John McGrath were almost as good, scoring 1-3 each from play as Tipperary prevailed by 2-29 to 2-20 in a classic. Callanan's subsequent defeat by Austin Gleeson (pictured) in the Hurler of the Year voting must surely have been the work of Russian hackers.

Austin Gleeson's performances throughout the year earned him the senior and junior Player of the Year at the All Star Hurling Awards

Q. . . is for queen of women's tennis, a position held by Serena Williams who had become so dominant people despaired of her ever being challenged. But by the end of the year there was a new number one, Angelique Kerber of Germany, who served notice with a thrilling win over Williams in the Australian Open final and, after losing the Wimbledon final to the American, bounced back to win the US Open and take top slot in the world rankings. Novak Djokovic looked just as unassailable as Williams at the start of the year but, by the end, he'd been ousted by Andy Murray. You never can tell.

R. . . is for records, broken by Thomas Barr in both the Olympic semi-final and final as he gave the lie to the oft repeated lament that the days of Irish athletes competing in major championship finals are over. The Ferrybank runner surprised everyone when winning the semi-final in a personal best of 48.39 and ran 47.97 in the final, just five hundredths of a second away from bronze and 0.24 from gold. His time would have won him a medal at any other games and his performance was all the more remarkable because the 24-year-old had been battling with injury all season. Great things await him.

S. . . is for steak and spuds and silver and, perhaps most of all, Skibbereen - home town of Olympic rowing heroes Paul and Gary O'Donovan. Having just scraped into the last qualifying place for the games, the brothers weren't regarded as medal hopefuls at the start of the season. But a European title put them on the radar and they were inspired all week in Rio. Their laid-back, no-nonsense style out of the boat won them just as many fans as what they did when they were in it. Possibly the two most West Cork people in the world.

T. . . is for 23, the number of gold medals won at the Olympics by Michael Phelps, which is the same number as won by Jamaica, one more than Ethiopia and three more than Ireland, Morocco and Portugal combined. It had seemed that 2012 would be the Baltimore Bullet's final games but he returned in Rio to win the 200m butterfly and 200m individual medley and play key roles in three American relay wins. At 31 he is the oldest swimming gold medallist in Olympic history. His French rival Fabien Gilot's description of Phelps as "an extraterrestrial" seems fair enough.

U . . . is for unlikeliest victory of all time, that achieved by Leicester City in the Premier League. The 5,000/1 offered on City by the bookies at the start of the season has been much quoted, but it could have been a million to one for all the chance anyone thought they had. Yet once they got their noses in front the Foxes seemed to grow in confidence and the impossible came true before our eyes. Rather than diminishing their achievement, Leicester's current struggles merely underline how remarkable their 2015/'16 triumph was. We'll never see anything like it again.

V . . . is for veteran, and what a veteran. At 58, Britain's Nick Skelton, a survivor of the days when horses were called things like Sanyo Music Centre and Carrolls Boomerang, scored the biggest win of his life by capturing the Olympic showjumping title in Rio. Skelton had retired 15 years ago after suffering a broken neck before coming back a year later and there was something uniquely heart-warming about this win for a rider whose previous best championship performance had been a world bronze in 1986. It's never too late.

W. . . is for Weld, another long-time campaigner who enjoyed his best day ever in 2016. The king of Galway Races has been training for four decades with his first classic win coming at Epsom in 1981 when Blue Wind won the Oaks. Thirty five years later he landed the biggest one of all as Harzand, given a brilliant ride by Offaly's Pat Smullen, beat the Aidan O'Brien-trained favourite US Army Ranger by a length and a half in the Derby. To add to the fairytale quality of it all, Harzand had been a doubtful starter after losing a shoe and injuring a hoof on the way over.

X. . . is for X-rated language, aimed at the judges and the amateur boxing world in general by Michael Conlan (pictured) after he was the victim of a dubious decision at the Olympics. It pretty much completed an annus horribilis for the IABA who, after jettisoning Billy Walsh, later voted World Coach of the Year for his work in the US, saw their high performance programme unravel entirely. Katie Taylor completely lost form, Michael O'Reilly was booted out of Rio for doping, Paddy Barnes and Joe Ward crashed out of the games at the first hurdle and recriminations flew. Hubris, as the Greek tragedians knew, can destroy anything.

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Michael Conlan let ringside judges know exactly what he thought after his controversial defeat by Russian boxer Vladimir Nikitin at the Rio Olympics. Picture: Sportsfile

Y . . . is for Yuletide, the time of year when we watch the World Darts Championships. And as it's the first big sporting event of the year it tends to be forgotten when round-ups like this are being compiled 12 months later. So let's remember the achievement of Scotland's Gary Anderson, who retained the world title he'd won so surprisingly in 2015. Anderson was imperious on his way to the final, losing just two sets, and won a classic decider 7-5 against Adrian Lewis. The 34 180s in the final were a record.

Z . . . is for Zlatan Ibrahimovic, predicted to be a thorn in the side of Ireland in the European Championships. He wasn't really. When you look back at 2016, for sheer visceral jump-out-of-your-seat-and-yell quality, was there any moment to match the one when Wes Hoolahan played that ball into the heart of the Italian penalty area and Robbie Brady timed his run to perfection and got his head on it? No, probably not. 2016 might have been pretty grim in general terms but there were, as always, many consolations for the sports fan.

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