Monday 24 June 2019

Eamonn Sweeney's A to Z in a remarkable year of sport

Hold The Back Page: A to Z of 2018

The Ireland team celebrate with their medals after the women's hockey World Cup final. Photo: Sportsfile
The Ireland team celebrate with their medals after the women's hockey World Cup final. Photo: Sportsfile
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

A is for all-conquering Leinster who swept aside all opposition in the Champions Cup. The abiding memories of the campaign may be of sparkling attacking rugby but victory was founded on a mean defence which conceded just over 15 points a game. The quarter-final win over Saracens was perhaps Leinster's most significant, the semi-final destruction of Scarlets saw them at their most spectacular and in the final against Racing they proved they could grind out results when things weren't going for them. No-one was better than James Ryan, who this time last year wasn't even starting for Leinster. Imagine.

B is for brothers, of the O'Donovan variety. It wasn't the ideal preparation for Skibbereen's finest to have to borrow boats and pay their own way to World Cup events because of a shortage of funding for their sport. But they cracked on regardless and gave their finest performance yet when winning gold in the double sculls at the World Championships in Plovdiv. With a year and a half to go the boys seem on track for the Olympic gold which narrowly eluded them in Rio. The man who's plotted their course, Dominic Casey, was rewarded with World Coach of the Year honours.

Dublin's Carla Rowe (left) and Sinead Aherne. Photo: Sportsfile
Dublin's Carla Rowe (left) and Sinead Aherne. Photo: Sportsfile

C is for Croatia, who gave hope to little nations everywhere by making it all the way to the World Cup final. Their run secured a surprise Ballon d'Or victory for Luka Modric, who was ably assisted by the likes of Mario Mandzukic, Dejan Lovren and the Ivans, Rakitic and Perisic. Dodgy refereeing decisions put paid to their chances of a fairytale win over France, who somehow seemed slightly uninspiring winners, the magic of Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappe notwithstanding. Belgium left it behind them but their wins over Japan and Brazil were probably the two best games of the finals.

D is for daring, exhibited by outsiders Philadelphia Eagles in the Super Bowl. Facing a fourth down on the New England Patriots one-yard line as half-time loomed, a field goal seemed the wise option. Instead the Eagles opted for a trick play which saw tight end Trey Burton throw to Nick Foles who became the first quarterback ever to catch a touchdown pass in American football's biggest game. That gave the Eagles a 22-12 half-time lead and they went on to grab a 41-33 victory in what was the second highest scoring Super Bowl of all-time and perhaps the most exciting.

E is for Enable, which became just the third horse in the last 60 years to win successive Prix de l'Arc de Triomphes when edging out Sea Of Glass. Enable's trainer John Gosden also saddled European Horse of the Year Roaring Lion to win the Eclipse, Juddmonte International, Irish Champion and Queen Elizabeth II Stakes, partnered by young Kerry jockey Oisín Murphy who became horse racing's breakout star of 2018. Gosden also beat Aidan O'Brien to the UK Trainers' Championship. It will be interesting to see how the great Irishman responds.

F is for forty-one, the number of phases involved to set up Johnny Sexton for his last-gasp winning drop goal against France in Paris. Ireland had looked in an impossible position but their ability to engineer the opening, and Sexton's sang-froid in executing just a few minutes after being down with cramp, indicated a team unwilling to countenance defeat. The Grand Slam was secured with a thumping win over England at Twickenham where Ireland's first-half performance was close to perfection. Ireland's total of 20 tries has only been surpassed by one title-winning team in Six Nations history, England in 2001. That side went on to win the World Cup. Just saying.

G is for greatest darts match of all-time, which the World Championship semi-final between Rob Cross and Michael van Gerwen may well have been. Van Gerwen was a red-hot favourite to win the crown and had dominated the sport all year. Number 20 seed Cross was playing in his first ever World Championship having only turned pro the previous year. But the Englishman hung in there and came through in an excruciatingly tense finale where Van Gerwen missed six match darts before pulverising Phil Taylor in the final. The Alexandra Palace always produces the goods.

H is for half-parish, an entity much mentioned after tiny Mullinalaghta won the Leinster senior football club title by defeating Kilmacud Crokes in Tullamore. Most clubs the size of Mullinalaghta aren't expected to make it to senior level never mind win major honours. But the Longford side gave hope to minnows everywhere with a Gary Rogers penalty a minute from time giving them a 1-8 to 1-6 victory. Even in a year full of special moments there was something especially heartwarming about the Miracle Of Mullinalaghta.

I is for interception, of a Jacob Stockdale chip made by Kieran Read in the All Blacks match against Ireland. Fortunately for Ireland, Read dropped the ball and next time Stockdale got a pass the Ulster wing essayed the same variety of chip. This time it culminated in a magnificent individual try which bore a distinct similarity to the one he scored against England in March. That Twickenham try gave Stockdale the record for tries in a single Six Nations with seven. The big man makes it look so easy that there's a tendency to underestimate the special nature of his talent. But Ireland has never had a player like this before.

J is for Jackies, the Dublin ladies football team who made it two All-Irelands in a row by defeating Cork 3-11 to 1-12 in a thrilling final. The Rebels had been Dublin's bogey team, defeating them in three close deciders between 2014 and 2016, and this victory seemed much more significant than that of 2017. The 50,141 attendance confirmed that ladies football is going from strength to strength. The situation is different in camogie where a disappointing final between Cork and Kilkenny prompted suggestions of much-needed rule changes.

K is for Koepka, the outstanding figure in world golf this year. The 28-year-old won the US Open, becoming only the seventh player in history to retain the title, and added the US PGA title by scoring the joint lowest total in major history, 264. He had to because just two shots behind was Tiger Woods whose remarkable resurgence saw golf return to the affections of the general sporting public. Brooks Koepka finishes the year as world number one. He's the fourth player to hold that ranking in a frantic year, Dustin Johnson, Justin Thomas and Justin Rose being the others.

L is for lightweight, the division in which Kellie Harrington won World Championship gold in New Delhi in September with a points victory over Thailand's Sudaporn Seesondee. In a brilliant year for Irish amateur boxing, the strength of the women stood out with five European golds at underage level. Harrington, from Dublin's beleaguered North Inner City, is just the third Irish amateur boxer to win a world title, after Katie Taylor and Michael Conlan. It seems cruel that the shenanigans at the top of the sport's world governing body might mean there isn't an 2020 Olympic boxing event for her to compete in.

M is for milestone, achieved by the Irish cricket team when they played a first ever Test match against Pakistan at Malahide. Ireland gave a performance which exceeded all expectations, pushing Pakistan to the pin of their collars before losing by five wickets. Fittingly, that great warrior Kevin O'Brien made Ireland's first ever Test century, a stirring 118. Next year sees a Test against old rivals and fellow Test newcomers Afghanistan followed by an historic Test in July against England at the home of cricket, Lord's.

N is for North Carolina, where the Irish three-day eventing team produced a tremendous performance to win silver at the World Equestrian Games. The fact that the event took place in the hectic days of September may have led to it being overshadowed somewhat but this was as fine a performance as any Irish team produced this year. Tipperary's Pádraig McCarthy led the way with a performance which won him individual silver and was ably backed up by Sarah Ennis from Meath, Carlow's Sam Watson and Galwayman Cathal Daniels. That Watson's father John won an individual silver 40 years ago underlines the rich tradition we have in this most gruelling of events.

O is for oligarchy, which dominates the top of National Hunt racing right now. Gordon Elliott (8) and Willie Mullins (7) won more races between them at Cheltenham than all other trainers put together. In Ireland, they won over €11m between them, a few million clear of the total amassed by the rest of the trainers in the top 20. The only blot on their landscape was the fact of an English clean sweep in Cheltenham's biggest races, with Buveur D'Air winning the Champion Hurdle and Altior the Champion Chase for Nicky Henderson and Native River the Gold Cup for Colin Tizzard.

P is for pommel horse, the piece of equipment on which Down gymnast Rhys McClenaghan won both European Championship and Commonwealth gold. The 19-year-old defeated reigning world and Olympic champion Max Whitlock to win the latter title. It was quite the year for McClenaghan who at one stage found himself training in his back garden after his coach was made redundant before they both relocated to Dublin. His season ended with a disappointing performance in the World Championships but McClenaghan remains one of Ireland's most promising young stars.

Q is for question mark, not over Katie Taylor's talent or over the quality of the four utterly dominant performances which she produced in defence of her world lightweight title this year. The question is whether there is anyone out there in professional ranks who can compete with the Bray woman. There's talk of a big box-office meeting with Amanda Serrano next year but few think Serrano can fully extend the Irish fighter. It may be that a contest with Cecilia Braekhus of Norway, the outstanding female boxer in the world but a welterweight to Taylor's lightweight, may eventually have to be contrived.

R is for records, for goals scored and points won in a League of Ireland season which were both broken by Dundalk this year. Losing both the title and the FA Cup final to Cork City last term seemed to spur Dundalk on to new heights with striker Pat Hoban's total of 29 goals the highest since Brendan Bradley scored the same tally for Finn Harps 42 years ago. However, the departure of Stephen Kenny is a blow to the Lilywhites who still haven't named a successor to the Ireland manager presumptive.

S is for shoot-outs, two of which were won by the Irish women's hockey team on their way to the first ever senior world cup final reached by a team from this country. Their shoot-out success owed a great deal to Ayeisha McFerran, the remarkable 22-year-old who was both the World Cup's best goalkeeper and Ireland's outstanding player. The Larne woman saved three penalties against India and four against Spain and had conceded just three goals in five matches before Holland administered a 6-0 final beating to an Irish team which seemed drained after their epic progress to the decider of a tournament which they'd begun ranked 15th of the 16 teams.

T is for third place, which is where Thomas Barr finished in the European Championship 400m hurdles final. Barr's event was probably the one truly world-class race in the championships as he had world gold and silver medallists from 2017 - Karsten Warholm and Yasmani Copello - ahead of him. It was a terrific year for Irish athletics with European Youth gold for Sarah Healy in both 1500m and 3000m and Rhasidat Adeleke in the 200m and world junior silvers for the women's 4x100m relay team and Donegal high jumper Sommer Lecky.

U is for upset to end all upsets, perpetrated by Ester Ledecka of the Czech Republic at the Winter Olympics. Ledecka was best known as a snowboarder and ranked just 49th going into the Super G skiing event. But she won by one hundredth of a second over reigning champion Anna Veith of Germany. When she added gold in the parallel giant slalom snowboarding event, Ledecka became the first woman ever to win gold in two different sports at the same Winter Olympics. The games were an utter joy with the record-breaking performances of Russian figure skater Alina Zagitova and Chinese short track speed skater Wu Dajing particular highlights.

V is for Vegas, where Conor McGregor was choked into submission by Khabib Nurmagomedov and which afterwards witnessed a brawl between members of the respective entourages and street fights between the fans of both fighters. Whatever the merits of mixed martial arts as a sport, the UFC is a horrible spectacle founded on the celebration of ugliness. Like the Ocean's Eleven boys, McGregor has now committed multiple heists in Vegas. All that remains now is to hang on to the money.

W is for walkover, enjoyed by Manchester City while winning the Premier League by a record margin and setting records for number of goals scored and both points and games won. This season it looks a bit different with Liverpool emerging as serious rivals. City's big target this year is the Champions League, a competition where Guardiola fell short with Bayern Munich. Barring the way are Barcelona, Juventus, Paris Saint-Germain and a Real Madrid team bidding to become just the second side in history to win European football's premier club competition four times on the trot.

X is for X, the unknown quantity in the equation. Limerick's promising young team began the season as outsiders and ended it as one of the most popular hurling champions of all-time. John Kiely's daring never-say-die team seemed the perfect side to win what was undoubtedly the greatest championship ever. Their sense of adventure and ability to do the unlikely seemed perfectly in tune with a competition which every week seemed to reach new heights. A loss against Clare sent Limerick on to the hard road where they pipped Kilkenny at the death, came back against Cork when apparently beaten and rounded it off by resisting a remarkable late Galway revival. What wonders they performed.

Y is for yawn, which most of us did whenever the football championship came into view. The campaign was a big let-down for two reasons. Number one, because we knew the winners beforehand. Dublin are a marvellous team but they need a serious rival. Number two, because so many of the games were downright terrible as negativity reigned and the complacent attitude that people would watch football no matter how bad it gets was challenged by declining attendances. We don't need another year like this one.

Z is for zero, the amount contributed to Irish sport this year by the national soccer team. They were like the hurling championship in reverse, you kept thinking they couldn't get any worse but they kept managing to surprise you. Martin O'Neill and Roy Keane departed amid evidence of considerable disarray within the camp as Ireland became perhaps the most boring team in Europe. Mick McCarthy takes charge of a team which has some way to go before regaining the public affection. Stephen Kenny stands by to accept the poisoned chalice. Good luck to both of them.

Happy New Year to you.

Sunday Indo Sport

The Throw-In: Why Kerry are not top contenders to challenge Dublin in All-Ireland race

In association with Bord Gáis Energy

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport