Friday 23 March 2018

Roadmap through our sporting year

Cartoonist: Tom Halliday
Cartoonist: Tom Halliday

Eamonn Sweeney

A is for Apotheosis, enjoyed by Irish rugby on October 11, 2015 in the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff.

With a record audience watching on television and a rambunctious Irish following filling the stands, Ireland, inspired by Sean O’Brien, Conor Murray and super sub Iain Henderson, overcame a cruel series of injuries to beat France 24-9 and reach the World Cup quarter-finals. After two Six Nations titles on the trot it was easy to believe that evening that there were no limits to what Joe Schmidt’s team could achieve. Sadly A also stands for Argentina.

B is for Brevity, the defining characteristic of Conor McGregor’s long-awaited world title bout with Jose Aldo. After what seemed an eternity waiting for the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s top-ranked pound for pound fighter to meet his challenger, it was all over in 13 seconds. You could call it a case of premature execution. Now world featherweight champion, McGregor has the UFC at his feet and his next target may be the world lightweight crown held by Rafael Dos Anjos, Aldo’s fellow Brazilian who took just 66 seconds to put away challenger Donald Cerrone the week after McGregor’s quickfire show. Should be fun.

C is for Collapse, spectacularly indulged in by Galway hurlers in the second half of the All-Ireland final against Kilkenny. In the first half the Tribesmen had continued the exhilarating form they’d showed in their classic semi-final victory over Tipperary to lead 0-14 to 1-8 at the break. Yet in the next 35 minutes, they managed just 1-4, the goal a garbage time free from Joe Canning. C is also for Cunningham, the manager Galway players felt should carry the can for their failure. And for Cody whose Kilkenny team made light of the loss of Tommy Walsh, Brian Hogan, Henry Shefflin and JJ Delaney to retirement and looked head and shoulders above everyone else all championship.

D is for Dominant, which Willie Mullins certainly was at Cheltenham this year. The Carlow man had been leading trainer in 2011, 2013 and 2014 but this year he took it to another level. His eight winners was an all-time festival record, while he also saddled four runners-up and five third placed horses. The octet took Mullins to 41 wins at Cheltenham, second place on the all-time list behind his great rival Nicky Henderson who has 53. That’s one target to shoot for, another is the Gold Cup itself, which has so far eluded the wizard of Bagenalstown. Right now he has three of the top four in the ante-post betting in last season’s runner-up Djakadam, Don Poli and Vautour.

E is for Engine, possessed to a prodigious degree by the two key men in Dublin’s All-Ireland football final triumph, Jack McCaffrey and Philly McMahon. McCaffrey ended up winning the Footballer of the Year award but this may have simply been because McMahon, a colossus in Dublin’s last three matches of the championship, was the more controversial figure. Yet in blotting out Aidan O’Shea and Colm Cooper and venturing forward for some key scores from corner-back, the Ballymun man wrote his name indelibly on the championship. It was Philly’s year.

F is for Fifth, the seeding position held by Northern Ireland when the draw for the European Championship qualifiers was made. It also stands for First which is where they finished in their group, the lowest seeded team ever to do so. Michael O’Neill’s men are up against it in the finals in a group which contains Germany, Poland and the Ukraine but writing them off is a mug’s game.

G is for Grand Slam, almost achieved by Serena Williams. After winning the Australian, French and Wimbledon titles Williams seemed set fair to emulate Maureen Connolly, Margaret Court and Steffi Graf going into September’s US Open. Yet she lost a three-set semi-final to unheralded Italian Roberta Vinci in one of the greatest upsets in tennis history. It was still a spectacular season for Williams, who has now won more Grand Slam titles (21) than all but two players, Graf (22) and Court (24). Chances are she’ll make the record her own in the next couple of years.

H is for Hurrah, a last one of which was enjoyed by Tony McCoy on April 25 at Sandown. The perfect finale would have seen him win his last race on Box Office. Instead he finished third. But perhaps that was also a fitting way for him to go, reminding us how hard it is to win a horse race, something McCoy did 4,357 times. There are no certainties in the sport of kings but it seems safe to predict that we’ll never see the likes of the 20-time champion jockey again.

I is for Inexorable, the word which came to mind watching Novak Djokovic this year. Like Serena Williams, Djokovic won three Grand Slam titles but he went one better by reaching the final of the one he didn’t win, losing the French Open decider in four sets to Stan Wawrinka. The Serb’s victim in both the Wimbledon and US Open finals was Roger Federer, whose 17 Grand Slam wins looked pretty unassailable before Djokovic came on the scene. But with ten titles won at the age of 28, Djokovic should have a decent shot at both the record and Federer’s standing as Greatest of All Time.

J is for Justice, dispensed by Usain Bolt to Justin Gatlin in the finals of both the 100m and 200m at Beijing. Twice banned for doping offences, Gatlin had dominated the Grand Prix circuit all season in the absence of Bolt. And the early rounds of the 100m saw the American look far more impressive than the Jamaican and enter the final as favourite. Instead, Bolt won it by a whisker before handing his adversary a more comprehensive trouncing in the longer sprint. Cynics may cavil but if a great athlete who has never doped beating one who owes his survival in the sport to the IAAF’s lenient attitude towards cheating isn’t a case of the good guy beating the bad guy, what is?

K is for Knob, which Jerome Boateng looked like after Lionel Messi’s slalom through the heart of the Bayern Munich defence left the German defender sprawled on the ground. Messi’s goal, his second of Barcelona’s 3-0 first leg Champions League semi-final win, was the outstanding moment of another stellar season by the man who remains the benchmark by which all other footballers must be judged. He inspired his club to a European triumph they are hot favourites to repeat next year.

L is for Lovable, perhaps an odd way to describe an Offaly man but one which fits Shane Lowry. Does anyone in Irish sport inspire as much affection? And was any Irish victory this year so warmly appreciated as the big man’s triumph in the Bridgestone Invitational at the Firestone Country Club at Akron? After taking the lead at the eighth hole on the final day, Lowry was there to be shot at by the best in the game. He kept his nerve brilliantly to win by two from Bubba Watson and confirm his ascent into world class. Right now he’s the number six European in the world golf rankings. Roll on the Ryder Cup.

M is for Miscalculation, and also for Marshawn Lynch, the outstanding Seattle Seahawks running back who everyone expected to be handed the ball when the reigning Superbowl champions found themselves with a second down at the one-yard line of the New England Patriots 26 seconds from the end of this year’s decider. Instead coach Pete Carroll opted for a pass play which ended with an interception by rookie cornerback Malcolm Butler that sealed a 28-24 win for the underdog Patriots. Harp doesn’t do play calls but if it did . . .

N is for Nightmare, both the start of the Ireland-Argentina World Cup quarter-final and what came afterwards for Irish rugby. Thirteen minutes into the match Ireland found themselves 17-0 behind and eventually lost 43-20, a gallant comeback fizzling out in the last quarter. It almost feels like Irish rugby has never really recovered from that Argentinian blitzkrieg, inflicted on a team bearing an unprecedented level of public expectation and affection. Leinster and Munster are both out — or as good as out — of the European Champions Cup and it seems likely that the build-up to next year’s Six Nations will be the most muted for some time.

O is for Optimistic, a kind way of describing Martin O’Neill’s conviction after the Republic of Ireland were held to a 1-1 draw at home to Scotland in June that the team could still qualify for the European Championships. It was a minority view but when Scotland slipped up in Georgia, Ireland made the most of their reprieve with a stunning home victory over Germany, our most significant home win since Holland were turned over at Lansdowne Road in 2001. A superb pair of performances in the play-off against Bosnia later and the national team is enjoying a level of popularity hardly seen since the Charlton days. It really is a funny old game.

P is for Penalty Corner, and other technical terms which will have to be mastered by Irish sporting fans following the fortunes of the men’s national hockey team at next year’s Olympics. Having just missed out on making the 2008 and 2012 Olympics, Ireland came through this time thanks to terrific wins over the higher ranked Pakistan and Malaysia teams in the World Hockey League semi-final tournament in Belgium. The women’s team would have made it a double if they hadn’t lost an agonising penalty shoot-out against China in Valencia.

Q is for Questionable views held on the subject of homosexuality by new world heavyweight champion Tyson Fury, which for some people overshadowed his monumental achievement in dethroning Wladimir Klitschko. The Ukrainian had beaten almost all his challengers with embarrassing ease and Fury was given very little chance. But he deservedly prevailed on points and efforts to make him a pariah because of a few off the cuff comments were classic social media lynch mob nonsense. Fury makes an easier target outside the ring than he is inside it.

R is for Record, the 92-year-old one set by Shamrock Rovers and broken by Dundalk, whose 78 goals on the way to their second League of Ireland title in a row was an all-time best. Dundalk’s magnificent year, just one defeat in 33 league games and an FAI Cup victory to boot, earned star player Richie Towell a move to Brighton and the club a Team of the Year Award, which drew scorn from those unconvinced of the merits of a league which gave a start to Roy Keane, Paul McGrath, Ronnie Whelan, Seamus Coleman, Wes Hoolahan and Shane Long.

S is for Schadenfreude, a German word meaning ‘to take joy in the misfortune of others.’ S is also for Sepp Blatter, whose long overdue comeuppance arrived in spades this year. The sight of FIFA officials being dragged out of the organisation’s HQ by law enforcement officials drew a chorus of chuckles from football fans the world over. With corruption in the IAAF also hitting the headlines in 2015, perhaps this may be a watershed year for sport. Perhaps, though I bet the 2022 World Cup will still be played in Qatar.

T is for Twenty20 cricket, the women’s world cup of which takes place in India next year. And also for Twins, Isobel and Cecelia Joyce, whose Trojan efforts steered Ireland to victory in the qualifying tournament in Thailand earlier this month. Cecelia finished as the competition’s top run scorer, while Isobel was Ireland’s leading wicket taker. In scoring the winning runs in the final against Bangladesh off the last ball the team showed that they share their male counterparts’ flair for late dramatics. The men’s team also has reason to be grateful to the Joyce family: big brother Ed became the first Irish player to hit a double century on home soil when he made 231 against the United Arab Emirates in June as Ireland got their defence of the Intercontinental Cup title off to a winning start.

U is for Unbelievable, the All Blacks may have won the Rugby World Cup again but for the sentimentalists among us the highpoint of the tournament came very early on, on the second day when Japan faced 200/1 on favourites South Africa in Brighton. Full-time approached with Japan just three points down. Awarded a penalty, they refused to settle for a draw and there followed several unforgettable minutes as Japan laid siege to the Springbok line before Karne Hesketh got over in the left corner to give them a 34-32 victory. Quite possibly the biggest upset in sporting history.

V is for Vicissitudes of fortune, suffered by one Jose Mourinho, lately of London SW6. Chelsea’s first Premier League title in five years seemed to confirm Mourinho’s reputation as the man with the golden touch and any pundit who’d predicted that he would be sacked before Christmas would have been taken away for a little lie-down. Yet the man who began the season as the most secure manager in English football is now a free agent. Old Trafford next? Eastlands? The Brandywell?

W is for World, conquered by Michael Conlan. The Belfast bantamweight became the first Irish boxer to win a gold at the world championships when he triumphed in Doha and confirmed the rich promise he showed when winning bronze at the 2012 Olympics. Next year in Rio he’ll start as favourite for gold, as will his team-mate Paddy Barnes, while Joe Ward will also be fancied to get among the medals. No-one in Rio will fancy drawing an Irish fighter.

X is a bloody nuisance when you’re trying to do an A-Z, that’s what it is. However it is also the Roman numeral for ten, the number of All-Ireland titles won by the Cork women’s football team in the last 11 years. Perhaps the most impressive thing about those final victories is that six of them have been by one or two points. Cork have plenty of competition but their competitive edge is second to none. They also completed the football/camogie double for the second year in a row, the only goal of their final win over Galway in the latter coming from remarkable dual star Briege Corkery, as fine a female athlete as there is in the country.

Y is for Youth, which Jordan Spieth has on his side. Aged just 22 the Texan produced one of the great campaigns in golf, winning the Masters and US Open  and finishing fourth in the British Open and second in the PGA. Spieth ended the season as world number one and he showed that predictions of a Tiger Woods-style spell of dominance for Rory McIlroy were premature. Spieth won’t have things all his own way either, he was briefly supplanted at the top of the heap by PGA winner Jason Day. There were nine changes to the number one ranking in 2015, the three-cornered battle between Spieth, Day and McIlroy should continue to be one of the most exciting things in sport next year.

Z is for Zero, which given current trends may soon be the average viewing figures for GAA on Sky Sports. Occasional ‘this is mental mate’ tweets from couch potatoes in Hertfordshire who’ve momentarily lost their remote control notwithstanding, the fantasy that the Sky deal would result in an English embrace of football and hurling has been revealed to be just that. Time to give it the curly finger.

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