Monday 17 December 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: 'Tale of two Harringtons reveals remarkable resilience to flourish in the face of adversity'

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Boxer Kellie Harrington. Photo: Sportsfile
Boxer Kellie Harrington. Photo: Sportsfile
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

Here's a Tale of Two Harringtons. First, Kellie from Dublin. Following in the footsteps of Katie Taylor isn't easy but no-one has done more than the St Mary's BC fighter to show there's still life in Irish women's amateur boxing.

Two years ago she won silver at the world championships and earlier this year she picked up a bronze at the Europeans. On Thursday in New Delhi Harrington scored a unanimous decision over Kazakhstan's Karina Ibragimova to reach her second successive world final. Last time out it was as a light-welterweight, now she's fighting at lightweight.

And in that final, she secured the title on a split 3-2 decision, becoming only the third Irish boxer to be crowned world amateur champion.

Kellie Harrington has had to be tough to get this far. She comes from an area, Dublin's north inner city, which has seen multiple killings in the gangland feud raging in the capital for the past few years. In the aftermath of a murder two years ago local councillor Christy Burke said, "These killings are creating a huge amount of fear and insecurity. People are in shock and despair. One man told me his 11-year-old daughter doesn't feel safe leaving his house."

In the midst of all this, Kellie Harrington is a light in the darkness and a proud ambassador for her home streets who says it's an honour to bring back medals "to the inner city, for the inner city people. The amount of support and help I've got off people has been phenomenal. If I can inspire someone to do something with their life or change their life then that makes me happy. If I can change my life, they can do it, anyone can do it."

Sometimes Harrington has worked two jobs, sometimes she's gone on the dole to enable the single-minded dedication to her boxing which makes world medals possible. When she won her first, she wasn't being funded at all by the Irish Sports Council and was told she'd have to wait almost a year before she got any money. Sponsorship from local businesses and funding from Dublin City Council came to the rescue.

The north inner city only seems to hit the headlines when there's a bad news story to report. Yet it's been a great provider of Irish sporting stars. Wes Hoolahan grew up a few doors away from the Harringtons, record cap holder for the Irish women's soccer team Olivia O'Toole is from the area, as is wonder kid Troy Parrott of Tottenham Hotspur.

Further back there was the famous McCormack boxing family where brothers Pat and John junior both won British titles before running the renowned St Saviour's club locally. Their father, the legendary 'Spike', might be surprised to find the local boxing tradition being carried on most successfully by a woman, but he'd surely admire the spirit of a fighter who started training in a shed near her house because the local club wouldn't admit girls.

On the face of it, Jessica Harrington might seem to have had things easier than her young namesake. Yet hers have been the considerable struggles of a woman trying to succeed in a man's world. And when her husband John died of cancer four years ago, Jessica considered retiring as a trainer before her family talked her out of it. Last year, aged 70, Harrington enjoyed probably the greatest year of her career with Sizing John and Our Duke giving her first victories in the Cheltenham Gold Cup and Irish Grand National.

Yet this season has probably been even better for the former three-day eventer. When Alpha Centauri won the Irish 1,000 Guineas to give her a first Classic victory, Harrington said it was as good as winning the Gold Cup. But that was only the beginning. At Royal Ascot, the Coronation Stakes was won by six lengths in a course record time. Next came victory in the Falmouth Stakes at Newmarket before Alpha Centauri, racing against colts and older horses for the first time, capped it all with a fourth successive Group One win in the Jacques Marois Stakes at Deauville.

A fortnight ago Alpha Centauri received the three-year-old filly trophy at the Cartier Horse of the Year awards. Harrington was the only Irish trainer to get an award and no Irish horse was rated higher than Alpha Centauri in the Longines World Rankings for 2018. It's a remarkable achievement for a trainer much better known in national hunt than flat racing. Then again, Jessica Harrington is a remarkable woman. As the award citation said, she is "the outstanding dual-purpose handler of our age".

Jessica and Kellie are sisters under the skin. It's some story, the Tale of Two Harringtons. A fairytale really. A fairytale come true.

The Last Word: Blackmore heads field in Year of the Woman

This has been Irish sport's Year of the Woman. Kellie Harrington's world championship run is Irish amateur boxing's performance of the year as Katie Taylor's string of victories outclass anything else from our pro fighters. Our extraordinary achievements at junior and youth level in athletics were spearheaded by women. The history-making hockey team topped it all.

But there is one holy grail which hasn't yet been attained by Irish sportswomen, and that's winning a major title against male competition.

That's why what Rachael Blackmore is doing in the race for the Irish National Hunt jockeys title seems like something entirely new. Women jockeys have won big races before but none of them have ever been a serious contender for the National Hunt crown.

Yet Blackmore is duking it out at the top with Paul Townend who at the time of writing has 60 wins to her 57. Such top-class jockeys as Davy Russell, Mark Walsh and Jack Kennedy have been left well behind for the moment. Watch out for this story as the season rolls on.

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The Los Angeles Rams' 54-51 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs on Monday night is being hailed as the greatest regular-season game ever played in the NFL. Not only was it the third highest scoring game in league history but it took place between two of the league's very best teams, who'd won 18 out of their 20 games beforehand.

Brilliant Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes threw six touchdown passes but still ended up on the losing side.

The Rams put up their big score despite the fact that running back Todd Gurley, the most dangerous offensive player in the league, played a limited part due to an ankle injury.

It may well have been a dress rehearsal for the Super Bowl as only the New Orleans Saints, who'll bar the Rams' way in the NFC, are currently playing at the same level. The season's surprise packages are the Chicago Bears who after going 8-24 in the last two seasons currently sit atop the NFC North with an 8-3 record, well ahead of supposed Super Bowl contenders the Minnesota Vikings and the Green Bay Packers.

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A story about Fine Gael TDs lobbying for sports grants to golf clubs garnered a bit of notice last week. The way some people talked you'd swear these 'posh' clubs were like Downton Abbey with aristocrats sitting around drinking cocktails made from the tears of the poor and deciding how to spend their next million.

The thing is that one of the clubs mentioned was Skibbereen Golf Club. I know a few lads who play there, all of whom work hard at jobs which involve getting your hands dirty. If I was to join the club tomorrow, I could do it for as little as €219 for the year. So while it may be good populist fun to portray local golf clubs as bastions of privilege, it betrays a poor knowledge of the reality of Irish life.

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