Friday 24 November 2017

Letters from the front line

Eamonn Sweeney

A is for Adventure, displayed aplenty by the Dublin footballers en route to a second All-Ireland title in three years. Passing no heed on the notion that negativity was the way to success in the country's most popular game, Jim Gavin sent out attack-minded teams which didn't mind shipping a few scores if that was the price which had to be paid for playing without fear. The result was a series of stirring displays, notably an All-Ireland semi-final victory over Kerry in what may have been the greatest game ever played.

B is for Bundesliga, which provided both Champions League finalists to emulate the feat of LA Liga in 2000, Serie A in 2003 and the Premier League in 2008. Two excellent finalists they were too with Bayern Munich's thrilling 2-1 victory over Borussia Dortmund probably the best decider since Liverpool's miracle victory over AC Milan in 2005. With a declining Premier League failing to even get one team into the last eight, there were some envious looks at the German model, notable not just for its financial restraint but for the 42,609 average attendance which makes it by far the best-supported football league in the world and the second best-supported in all sports, after America's NFL.

C is for Cake, nickname of St Brigid's goalkeeper Shane Curran, one of the most outgoing, beloved and downright fun characters in Irish sport. The Roscommon side looked dead and buried when conceding two early goals against favourites Ballymun Kickhams in the All-Ireland club football final but battled back to win a classic 2-11 to 2-10. And no-one contributed more to their success than the 41-year-old 'keeper who's been producing spectacular saves and madcap dashes from goal for a quarter of a century now.

D is for Dominant, the status enjoyed by the Coolmore/Ballydoyle operation in the Epsom Derby. Ruler Of The World's victory made the Sue Magnier/Michael Tabor/Derrick Smith team the first owners in Derby history to win three races on the trot. Trainer Aidan O'Brien was making it two in a row. No trainer has ever won three in a row but with O'Brien in possession of the ante-post favourite for 2014, Australia, which he describes as the best horse he's ever trained, it would take a very brave man to bet against that record being broken. Especially given that O'Brien also has the fancied Geoffrey Chaucer and Indian Maharaja should anything happen to next year's wonderhorse.

E is for Emigrants. After many years as whipping boys, London were the heartwarmers of the summer as victories over Sligo and Leitrim brought them to the Connacht final for the first time ever. A heavy defeat by Mayo awaited them but they recovered their pride with a battling display against Cavan in the qualifiers. And with austerity being the name of the government game for the foreseeable future, chances are even more exciting young players are going to end up in Ruislip over the next few years.

F is for Fantasy, which came true at this year's Cheltenham Festival as 14 Irish-trained winners surpassed the previous record of 13 from 2011. There were many memorable moments, Hurricane Fly becoming only the second horse in history to regain the Champion Hurdle, Mares Hurdle champion Quevega becoming the first horse since Golden Miller in 1936 to win the same race five times in a row at the Festival and outstanding prospect Our Conor becoming the first Irish winner of the Triumph Hurdle in 11 years. But what set the seal on it all, and summed up just what an extraordinary few days it had been, was the final race of the Festival with the Tony Mullins-trained and Tony McCoy-piloted Alderwood's victory giving Ireland more victories than England for the first time ever.

G is for Grim, the only possible description of the final months of Giovanni Trapattoni's reign as Ireland manager. The fervour which had surrounded qualification for Euro 2012 seemed aeons away as one miserable performance after another saw us plummet out of contention for a place at World Cup 2014 and Trap departed even before the qualifying campaign had ended. The hopes invested in the Martin O'Neill/Roy Keane dream team seem ludicrously overblown but after the annus horribilis of 2013 a bit of hope is no harm at all.

H is for hat-trick, scored in the first 20 minutes of the All-Ireland hurling final replay by a 19-year-old Shane O'Donnell who hadn't even played in the drawn game. The sheer unlikeliness of it all meant that O'Donnell caught the public imagination to such an extent that he seemed to symbolise Clare's thrilling victory even more than the likes of Tony Kelly, Colin Ryan and Podge Collins. Spare a thought for relatively unsung corner-back Dómhnall O'Donovan. Without his remarkable last-gasp point the first day most of the country still wouldn't have heard of Shane O'Donnell.

I is for Invisible, the status of Tommy Bowe, Jonathan Sexton, Seán O'Brien and Conor Murray in the days leading up to the Lions' decisive Test against Australia once it became known that Brian O'Driscoll had been dropped from the team. Not just the Lions tour itself but the other Irish players on the team seemed to be utterly forgotten as our sporting public launched into one of those unlovable bouts of self-righteous frenzy previously seen after Saipan and the Thierry Henry handball. Even a thumping victory, with Sexton and O'Brien outstanding and Murray terrific when coming on as a sub, couldn't dispel the odour of Irish sour grapes and the lingering impression that there are many fans whose loyalty is to O'Driscoll rather than the game as a whole.

J is for Jim and John, the Harbaugh brothers who went up against each other in the Super Bowl as managers of the Baltimore Ravens and the San Francisco 49ers. The Ohio brothers with the Irish roots presided over a classic in New Orleans as the Niners battled back from a 28-6 deficit early in the third quarter, cutting it to 31-29, before the Ravens regrouped for a 34-31 victory. Only one other team in history, the 1979 Dallas Cowboys, had scored more than 30 points and failed to win the Super Bowl.

K is for Killybegs, home of Seamus Coleman who emerged in 2013 as the most substantial Irish player to grace the Premier League in a number of years. The former Sligo Rovers player has been outstanding as Everton challenge for a Champions League slot with his goal against Swansea City one of the highlights of the season so far. Everton manager Roberto Martinez is not far wrong in suggesting that the Donegal man may be the complete footballer. He's also yet another example of the League of Ireland's excellent work in unearthing talent for our national team.

L is for Last gasp, which favourites Miami Heat seemed to be down to in game six of their NBA finals meeting with the San Antonio Spurs. Trailing 3-2 in the best-of-seven series, the Heat were 84-79 down at home with 28 seconds left and fans streamed away from the stadium as league officials started preparing to present the trophy to the Spurs. Then the Spurs blinked and Heat superstar LeBron James had a chance to earn a draw with a three-point shot. He missed but the ball came to veteran Ray Allen who sank the last-chance shot which brought the game to overtime. The heat squeezed through and won the final game 95-88. James was tremendous, the whole series provided more visceral excitement than anything else in sport this past year.

M is for Monaghan, whose chance of a first Ulster title since 1988 seemed to have slipped away when their excellent team of the Seamus McEneaney era flopped against Tyrone in the 2010 decider. Managed by Malachy O'Rourke this year, they went into the Ulster final against Donegal completely under the radar and came out of it having completely outclassed the All-Ireland champions. All Star awards for Colin Walshe and Conor McManus were thoroughly deserved and this team has the ability to push on to greater things.

N is for Notorious, the nickname of Dublin Mixed Martial Arts featherweight Conor McGregor who became a cult hero in February when knocking out Marcus Brimage inside a minute in his Ultimate Fighting Championship debut. McGregor found things a bit tougher in his second UFC bout against Max Holloway, winning easily on points but suffering a torn ACL which could keep him out for close to a year. All the same he's a welcome and colourful addition to the national sporting landscape, not least because he appears to possess the unusual knack of seeming simultaneously terrifying and lovable.

O is for Out of this World, because that's what the 2014 senior hurling championship felt like. The two epic finals between Clare and Cork alone would have enlivened any season but add in the provincial breakthroughs by Dublin and Limerick and a host of thrilling matches and unexpected results and it added up to the finest GAA championship in either code ever.

P is for Persistence, which paid off for Robert Heffernan when he won the 50km walk at the World Championships in Moscow. Three times a fourth-placer in major championships, Heffernan left no room for doubt this time around, taking the gold by over a minute. That he wasn't RTE's Sports Personality of the Year is a disgrace.

Q is for Quigley, the brilliant Jason who added European senior gold in Minsk to his previous youth and under 23 titles. The Ballybofey middleweight had been earmarked as one for the future but his ability to deliver in his first major senior championship was extraordinary. And then he went on to win silver at the World Championships in Kazahkstan. John Joe Nevin also won gold in Minsk in the last hurrah to a glorious amateur career. We wish him the best in the pro ranks.

R is for Retirement, entered into by Alex Ferguson after he had steered Manchester United to yet another Premier League title. The outstanding domestic manager of his era, Ferguson leaves big shoes which David Moyes is struggling to fill properly. The sight of Fergie hovering in the stands at Old Trafford makes you wonder if he might yet be asked back.

S is for Sligo Rovers, who followed last year's league title with a tremendous FAI Cup victory in what was (how many times did we say this about things in 2013?) probably the best final ever. Pegged back to 2-2 by an injury-time Drogheda United goal, Rovers swept up the field for a spectacular winner by centre-forward Anthony Elding. That Drogheda leveller was scored by Ryan Brennan, whose brother Killian was St Pat's outstanding player as they dethroned Rovers in the league.

T is for Topsy-Turvy, which is the kind of year Rory McIlroy had. Predictions of a Tiger Woods-style lengthy reign at the top of the world rankings for the golfer of indeterminate nationality proved premature as off-course distractions saw him fall from number one to number six in the world rankings. In reality, his form was even worse than that as the rankings count performances over the previous two years. In 2013, McIlroy actually won fewer points than world number 44 Kevin Streelman of the USA.

U is for Uruguay, home nation of Luis Suarez. The numero uno tabloid villain of English football in the past couple of years outdid himself iniquity-wise when nibbling on Chelsea's Branislav Ivanovic in a league match. And then, after returning from the subsequent suspension this season, he played the best football seen in the Premier League in many years when scoring 19 goals in 12 games. On pace to beat the 34-goal record set by Andy Cole in 1995 and equalled by Alan Shearer a year later at a time when there were 42 games in a top-flight season as opposed to 38 now, Suarez lies in wait for England at the World Cup. So it'll be back to villain status soon enough.

V is for Vettel, who set a record by winning nine consecutive races in the Formula 1 drivers championship. The problem for the brilliant German is that he's become so dominant that the competition has seemed increasingly meaningless. It appears there's such a thing as being too good. And it's not just the car, his Red Bull-Renault team-mate Mark Webber is third behind Fernando Alonso of Ferrari.

W is for World Superbikes title, almost won by Antrim's Eugene Laverty. In just his third season in the competition, the Aprilia rider won five of his last eight races to finish second behind Britain's Tom Sykes. Three retirements due to technical difficulties probably cost Laverty the crown but he's an unsung hero well worth following in 2014.

X is for X Games, the extreme sports tournament which went global for the first time in 2013 with big events in Brazil, Spain and Germany. And with 14 different countries medalling at the flagship event in Los Angeles, this festival of skateboarding, BMX riding, Moto Cross and Rally Cross can no longer be dismissed as solely an American phenomenon. It's not sport as we know it but the kids get the point.

Y is for Yachties, who must have been in high heaven when Annalise Murphy, so agonisingly close to a medal in the London Olympics, won the European title in the Laser Radial class. Actually we should all be delighted about this one. Murphy is such an exciting prospect we might all be in white trousers and deck shoes when Rio 2016 comes round.

Z is for Zebre, the home club of winger Giovanbatista Zendini who scored the game's only try as Italy rang down the curtain on a miserable Six Nations season for Ireland with a shock 22-15 victory. The result spelt doom for manager Declan Kidney. Wales won the Six Nations title proving yet again that they are the opposite to Ireland: terrible in theory but brilliant in reality.

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