Saturday 16 December 2017

Eamonn Sweeney: Highs, lows and a special K

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Eamonn Sweeney

A is for Agonising. Sailor Annalise Murphy seemed a cert to become Ireland's first medallist of the London Olympics when she won the first four races in the Laser Radial class. And even though she was unable to maintain this blistering pace, the 21-year-old Dubliner was still in bronze-medal position rounding the final turn in the final race. That she slipped back to fourth in the closing stages was truly heartbreaking for a heroine who made us all sailing aficionados for a brief spell.

B is for Balance Beam, and Bars of the uneven variety, both expertly negotiated by Gabby 'The Flying Squirrel' Douglas on her way to becoming the Olympic women's gymnastics champion. The shock elimination of her US team-mate, and world champion, Jordyn Weiber in qualifying left the way open for the 4' 11" 16-year-old to become one of the stars of the Games. The first ever African-American Olympic gymnastics champ went on to campaign for another big winner, Barack Obama.

C is for Comeback. When the United States led 10-4 late on the second day of the Ryder Cup, the biggest European humiliation in competition history looked on the cards. And even two foursomes wins which saw the margin pulled back to 10-6 going into the singles appeared largely academic. Cue the most remarkable Lazarus act of the year with Europe winning by 14-and-a-half to 13-and-a-half. One-hole wins by Justin Rose, Sergio Garcia and Martin Kaymer proved vital, but the hero of the hour was never-say-die Ian Poulter, who won four points out of four and pulled his team-mates along in his wake. US who?

D is for Dominant. Leinster's 42-14 win over Ulster in the Heineken Cup final was the biggest ever winning margin in the decider. It made Leinster the first team to win the competition three times in four years and only the second to retain the trophy. Indisputably the greatest team to play in the Heineken Cup, their real final came when toughing out a 19-15 last-four win over a Clermont-Auvergne team who'll probably succeed them as champions in 2013.

E is for Embarrassment, reliably provided by our international soccer team. Whether scoring one goal and conceding nine in a pointless European Championship finals campaign, producing a surrender to the Germans which would have made Enda Kenny proud or persistently taking the field with bizarre selections which ignored form and logic, Trap's men never failed to make our hearts sink.

F is for Forgotten man. Cian O'Connor had slipped entirely off the radar since the disqualification which followed his 2004 Olympic showjumping gold. He only made the 2012 Games because Denis Lynch was excluded from the team at the last minute and only made the competition final because of an injury to a rival's horse. Yet he again proved to be the man for the big occasion with a bronze medal which contributed to Ireland's joint best Olympic medal haul, with 1956, of all-time.

G is for Goal Machine. He didn't actually win anything but Lionel Messi had perhaps his most astounding year ever. Which is pretty astounding. His 50 goals in 37 games last season was a La Liga record and his 91 goals in a year smashed the long-standing record of Gerd Muller. So far this season he's scored 26 goals in 17 league matches. The best of all-time? Probably.

H is for Hand Cycling, a sport I'd wager few of us had heard of at the start of the year. But it rocketed into public prominence thanks to the Paralympic heroics of former Westmeath footballer Mark Rohan who won gold in both the time trial and the road race. Rohan, swimming gold medallists Darragh McDonald and Bethany Firth, sprint double champion Jason Smyth and middle-distance king Michael McKillop provided some of the great sporting moments of the summer. The Paralympians were our real team of the year.

I is for Injury time. Two-one down against QPR as normal time ended and needing a win to take a first league title since 1968, Manchester City appeared to have handed the Premier League title to their cross-town rivals and confirmed their status as eternal underachievers. Then an Edin Dzeko header gave them the faintest of hopes before Sergio Aguero skipped free in the box and produced the coolest finish of the year to break the hearts of Manchester United, who'd already finished their game and thought the crown was heading to Old Trafford.

J is for Jamaica, home of Usain Bolt but also of Yohan Blake who sent shockwaves around the athletics world by defeating the great man on the double in the country's Olympic trials. In London, Bolt won the 100m without too much trouble but the 200m was the real showdown between the two men. For a few strides in the home straight it looked as though Blake might once more upset the champion. The moment passed and Bolt went on to become the first man to do the sprint double at two Olympics in a row. Bolt abides.

K is for Katie. For perhaps the first time in history, an Irish competitor went into the Olympics as a cast-iron certainty to win a gold. So said the script and that burden of national expectation may have been as tough for the Bray woman to cope with as anyone she was going to face in the ring. Her four world titles would mean nothing to people who would be encountering women's boxing for the first time. That she overcame this pressure and her opponents and did so with her integrity and modesty intact summed up just what a special performer Katie Taylor is. You know why we all love her so much? Because she's so lovable.

L is for Loughgiel. It's tended to get somewhat overlooked in the round-ups but the achievement of the Shamrocks from Antrim in winning the All-Ireland club hurling title for Ulster was a magnificent one. They did it in some style too, the 4-13 they put up against Coolderry has been bettered only three times in final history.

M is for Miracle. At 1-0 down against a rampant Barcelona in the Nou Camp and reduced to ten men after the dismissal of John Terry, Chelsea looked set for not just defeat but the mother and father of all hammerings in the Champions League semi-final second leg. That they battled back for a 2-1 win still beggars belief. Their final victory against Bayern Munich, where they were totally outplayed before winning on penalties, was almost as unlikely. Fair play to them.

N is for Number One. It's looked inevitable since he entered pro ranks but the impressive nature of Rory McIlroy's ascent to top spot in world golf suggests he'll stay at the summit longer than the pretenders who've been passing the crown between them since Tiger Woods went into decline. His eight-shot victory in the USPGA Championship was an awesome display, breaking the previous record winning margin set by Jack Nicklaus in 1980. It might not be the last Jack Nicklaus record he breaks in his career.

O is for One-Man Show. Nothing in the Olympics was more awesome than the world record-breaking 800m victory by Kenya's David Rudisha. You're simply not supposed to win major middle-distance titles like this. Rudisha blazed into the lead from the start and it was clear that the clock was going to be his only real opponent in the Olympic Stadium. His 1.40.91. winning time beat his own world record and Rudisha now owns six of the best eight 800m times ever. After the Olympics, he acknowledged the contribution made to his career by legendary Kenyan-based Cork coach Brother Colm O'Connell when visiting Ireland and taking in a spot of Munster rugby.

P is for Precipice, the edge of which Kilkenny were teetering on in the second half of the All-Ireland hurling final. Five points down to a Galway team who really looked to have their number, after earlier trouncing the Cats in the Leinster decider, Kilkenny were dragged to safety by Henry Shefflin whose performance at centre half-forward ranks among his best ever displays. I'm too young to remember Christy Ring but if he was better than Henry Shefflin he must have been out of this world. Having earned them the draw, he was quieter in the replay which Kilkenny won in a canter. But his was the key contribution.

Q is for Quiet Man. The softly spoken Ian Baraclough seemed an unlikely messiah for the soccer-mad town of Sligo after the flamboyant Paul Cook had brought the local Rovers to two cup final victories in a row. But the unassuming Englishman, who took over just days before the start of the season, produced one of the great managerial achievements in League of Ireland history by steering the Bit O'Red to a first title in 35 years.

R is for Routine. At least it looks like routine when Paul Brady wins those world handball titles and perhaps that's why his achievement sometimes gets overlooked. But the extraordinary Cavan man had to dig deep to make it four titles in a row against American wonderkid Luis Moreno, coming back from a 13-2 first-set deficit to win 21-19 before closing the deal in the second set. At the summit of his sport for over a decade, Brady is an underappreciated marvel. As is the game of handball itself, which drew big attendances and an international field to Dublin in October for the World Championships.

S is for Sustained Excellence. For four years Irish amateur boxing had built on the success of the Beijing Olympics, consistently medalling at major championships and making us a world power. So there was a fear that somehow the London Olympics might turn out to be an anti-climax. Not a bit of it – silver for John Joe Nevin and bronzes for Michael Conlan and Paddy Barnes equalled the performance of 2008. More impressively, it put us fifth on the medals table. European under 23 titles later on for Kildare flyweight Hugh Myres and Donegal light-heavyweight Jason Quigley underlined the sport's healthy state here. It'll be some battle for those Rio places.

T is for Triple Crown, the rugby one won by Wales in a year when the Irish international team took a big step backwards in the Six Nations and suffered a 60-0 humiliation against the All Blacks. And the horse racing one which odds-on favourite Camelot failed to secure when losing the St Leger by three quarters of a length to 25/1 outsider Encke. It'll be a long time before Nijinsky's hat-trick is emulated.

U is for Unmasked. Irish journalists David Walsh and Paul Kimmage had pursued Lance Armstrong with the fervour of Javert pursuing Valjean in Les Miserables, the difference being that in this case the quarry deserved to be pursued. USADA's damning report on Armstrong and doping revealed the seven times Tour de France winner to be the greatest fraud in the history of sport. The questions of how he managed to get away with it for so long and who helped him to do so remain to be answered.

V is for Volte-Face. At the start of the year Jim McGuinness was being portrayed as a barbarian whose defensive tactics threatened the destruction of the game of Gaelic football as we know it. By the end of the year, he was a managerial genius who had totally remade the game as we know it. Results, dear boy, results.

W is for Wonder Woman. In a dire year for Irish athletics, Fionnuala Britton provided a timely moment of cheer when becoming the first woman to win two European cross-country titles in a row. Her typically bold front-running performance also led Ireland to an unexpected team gold. There may be a major marathon title in the Wicklow flyer's future.

X is for Xavi, as influential as ever when Spain passed everyone else to death and won their third major tournament in a row at the European Championships. I don't know what I'd do for the letter X without him.

Y is for Youth, a characteristic shared by many of the stars of the thrilling swimming competition at the London Olympics. China's Ye Shiwen, who produced the swim of the Games with her world record-breaking 400m individual medley performance was 16. Ruita Meilulyte of Lithuania, who came from nowhere to win the 100m breaststroke, was 15. And Missy Franklin, whose two individual and two relay golds, made her the most successful female swimmer of the Games was 17. At 25, American triple gold medallists Rebecca Soni and Dana Vollmer must have felt positively antique.

Z is for Zero, the number of Grand Slam titles won this time last year by Andy Murray who seemed doomed to be an also-ran in the era of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic. His eclipse by Federer in the Wimbledon final seemed to confirm this prognosis before that remarkable US Open decider victory over Djokovic showed that the Scotsman has now converted the Big Three into a Big Four. It also meant that we had four different Grand Slam winners for the first time since 2003. The addition of democracy to exceptional quality means no sport will be as intriguing in 2013 as men's tennis. Women's tennis awaits a genuine challenger for Serena Williams though Victoria Azarenka's epic, if losing, battles against the American at Wimbledon and in the US Open may bode well for the future.

Happy New Year.

Sunday Indo Sport

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