Friday, December 31, 2021

THE 2021 sporting year took some time to get into full swing but once it did, memories that will last a lifetime were created. GER MCNALLY looks over some of the standout moments in the A-Z of the Irish sporting year of 2021.

 

AIDAN WALSH

The Summer Olympics will always be tinged with a slight sense of ‘what might have been’ for Belfast born boxer Aidan Walsh. In an incredible stroke of misfortune, he landed awkwardly while celebrating his quarter-final win against Merven Clair. The win was enough to secure a bronze medal but the injury meant he missed out on the chance to fight against Pat McCormack for a place in the gold medal fight. However, while that meant his Olympics finished on a low note, the overriding feeling of Walsh’s Olympics is that he one of the tiny percentage of people who went to a Games and brought a medal back to this island. Still only 24, Walsh could be one of Ireland’s brightest medal hopes in Paris in 2024.

 

BLACKMORE, RACHAEL

Rachael Blackmore comes home on Minella Times after becoming the female jockey to win the English Grand National
Photo: Grossick Racing/Racing Post

A quite incredible year for the Tipperary born, and Carlow based, jockey Rachael Blackmore. With a lot of sport still in lockdown in the early part of the year, Ireland needed a sporting star for those few months and Rachael stepped up to become a national icon. In just a matter of weeks, she smashed through barriers that some thought would never happen. Chelteham Festival is the biggest week in National Hunt racing for four days in the Cotswolds, Rachael ruled the sport. Six wins at the Festival meant that she became the first ever female to win the Ruby Walsh Trophy for Champion jockey at the Festival. Within those wins, there were some incredibly memorable wins. She became the first female jockey to win the Champion Hurdle on wonder mare Honeysuckle, a stunning performance on Allaho to win the Ryanair Chase by 12 lengths and perfectly judged rides on Bob Olinger and Sir Gerhard. She was denied a cherry on top of her cake when her horse, A Plus Tard, just couldn’t get past Minello Indo in the Gold Cup, but it’s surely only a matter of when, and not if, she wins a Gold Cup. Less than a month later, Blackmore lined up for the world’s most famous National Hunt race, the 173rd running of the Grand National at Aintree. Once again, a mixture of bravery and skill set Blackmore on the way to becoming the first female winner of the race on Minella Times. In the space of a few weeks, Blackmore changed the sport of horse racing forever and became an inspiration for all aspiring female jockeys. The only disappointment was that empty stands greeted Blackmore as she made her way back to the winner’s enclosure after such historic victories but she will surely have many days like that in her future.

 

CHANGE AT CONGRESS

The month of October in GAA circles was dominated on what was potentially the biggest vote in the Association’s history. If Motion 19, or Proposal B as it became known, had been voted through it would have led to the biggest change in the structures of the competition since a ball was first kicked. In the end the proposal, which would have seen the Championship played in a league format, received a slight majority but not the 60% required to bring about change. However, despite that, the winds of change are blowing strong. Many who voted against the proposal spoke and accepted that major change is needed but they felt there were too many flaws in Proposal B for that to be the answer. Whether it comes in 2022 or in the following years, it feels like only a matter of time before major changes to the structure of the GAA football championship take place.

 

DE BROMHEAD

Henry de Bromhead kisses the Cheltenham Gold Cup after winning with Minella Indo
Photo: ©INPHO/Dan Abraham

Many of Rachael Blackmore’s success mentioned above go hand in hand with the success of Henry De Bromhead’s but from trainer’s point of view, what the Waterford born trainer achieved in 2021 may never be repeated again. A 1-2 in the Gold Cup with Minella Indo and A Plus Tard was quickly followed by a 1-2 in the Grand National with 100/1 shot Balko Des Flos following home Minella Times. He also bagged the Champion Hurdle and Champion Chase among six wins at the Cheltenham Festival. Many of those will return with major chances of similar successes in the upcoming season and De Bromhead’s battle against Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott will be fascinating to watch.

 

ELLEN KEANE

If at first you don’t succeed then try, try and try again. Swimmer Ellen Keane took part in her first Paralympics as a 13-year-old back in 2008 in Beijing. In her fourth games, in 2016, she won bronze in the SB8 100m breaststroke. Five years later, in the 2020 delayed Games, she won the gold medal she so craved. On the biggest stage, Keane turned in the performance of her life, beating her previous best time by two seconds and going under one minute and 20 seconds for the first time. She was was second at the midway point of the final but timed the second half of her race to perfection to take the lead inside the last ten metres and eventually beating the challenge of New Zealander Sophie Pascoe. After a career of many successes away from the Paralympics, this was the crowning glory that the Dubliner deserved.

 

FULL CAPACITY

Hopefully now, the sight of empty stadiums is a distant memory. Attending matches around the country with no supporters was a spirit crushing feeling. Games were not the same without the atmosphere, colour, and intensity that a packed crowd brings. That’s why it felt good for the soul to see a packed Aviva Stadium through the month of November for the soccer international against Portugal and rugby internationals. It was no surprise that both Irish teams delivered such energetic and exciting performances in front of a full and atmospheric Aviva. Never again will we take for granted the atmosphere that supporters bring, or for ourselves the simple pleasure that attending a match can bring.

 

GOALKEEPERS

Gavin Bazunu established himself as Ireland’s number 1 during 2021 but Caomhin Kelleher and Mark Travers will ensure competition for the jersey for many years to come
Photo: ©INPHO/James Crombie

At a time when Irish soccer is desperate for quality in pretty much every area of the pitch, all of a sudden we are remarkably overstocked in one particular position. It appears that for the moment the youngest of the three youngest goalkeepers at Stephen Kenny’s disposal, Gavin Bazunu, is for now Ireland’s number 1. Already in his young career he has made a number of stunning saves, keeping his best for Ireland’s last game of the year when he brilliant tipped Olivier Thill’s deflected shot around the post. He has the advantage of playing regularly, albeit in League 1 for Portsmouth while on loan from Manchester City, but Caoimhín Kelleher has shown his huge potential when given a chance in the Champions League, the Premier League and in an Ireland jersey. While those two seem to be leading the race to be Ireland’s number one it shouldn’t be forgotten that Mark Travers is also having a very impressive season for Championship table toppers Bournemouth. Unfortunately for Travers, his chance for Ireland against Serbia last March came at a time when he wasn’t playing at club level and it showed in a rusty performance but this season he has established himself as number one for a very good team to show how good he is. Ireland managers will have a nice headache to pick their goalkeeper for the next decade and more.

 

HENRY SHEFFLIN

How Henry Shefflin fares with the Galway hurlers will be intriguing to watch during 2021
Photo: ©INPHO/Ryan Byrne

The announcement of hurling great Henry Shefflin as the new manager of the Galway senior hurlers came out totally out of the blue. In these days of 24 hour media coverage it’s very rare that you get a shock announcement but somehow, everybody involved in the massive appointment managed to keep it quiet. For all the world, it looked like Davy Fitzgerald would get the job but circumstances played out differently and the most decorated hurler of all time instead gets his first inter-county job. It throws up some intriguing questions. How will one of the greatest ever hurlers do in his first job outside his own county? Could the appointment tempt Joe Canning out of retirement? And most intriguingly of all, how would a big Galway v Kilkenny, and Shefflin v Cody on the sideline, play out? Interesting times ahead.

 

IRISH RUGBY

Tadhg Beirne and Peter O’Mahony celebrate Ireland’s win over New Zealand in November
Photo: ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan

From the moment that ‘Fields of Athenry’ blared from the stand while the New Zealand were still going through their traditional pre-match ritual of performing the Haka you sensed that something special was brewing for the November Series clash. Ireland have had an up and down year, their Six Nations campaign was uninspiring to say the least but the year finished on a wonderful high with victory over New Zealand. In the end, it turned out to be the best performance of the Andy Farrell era, and probably going back much further than that. After a first half in which Ireland were camped inside the All-Black half they somehow went in at the break trailing 10-5 but impressively, that didn’t knock they out of their stride.

Second half tries from Ronan Kelleher and Caolan Doris, added to James Lowe’s opener in the first half, pushed Ireland to the brink of victory but they still needed Joey Carbery to seal things with three brilliant kicks after replacing Johnny Sexton for the last 15 minutes, including one from the halfway line. Of course it in no way goes to making up for losing to the All-Blacks in the last World Cup but the style and manner of the win gives renewed hope going into the new year that Farrell is steering the team in the right direction.

 

JASON SMYTH

Jason Smyth celebrates after winning his sixth Paralympic gold medal
Photo: ©INPHO/Tommy Dickson

Jason Smyth’s place as Ireland’s greatest para-athlete, and as one of the country’s all time greatest athletes, was assured long before this summer’s Paralympics and yet his gold won in Tokyo might just have been the best in his illustrious career. With five Paralympic golds to his name, and a host of World and European golds, Smyth has won the lot, multiple times over, but Father Time catches up on even the very best. At 34 and injuries starting to catch up and severely disrupt his preparations nobody would have blamed Smyth had he skipped the Games and protected an unbeaten run in Paralympic events stretching back to 2005. But competitors want to compete and Smyth has that burning desire to keep coming back time after time that only the very best possess. In the end he beat Algerian Djamil Skander Athmani by just 0.01 to claim his sixth visually-impaired Paralympic gold and cement his status as Ireland’s greatest ever sprinter. His 20th final, his 20th gold medal, stunning consistency. He aims to be Paris in 2024 to continue his incredible career, and as he proved many time before, nothing is impossible for Jason Smyth.

 

KELLIE HARRINGTON

Ireland’s 2020 Olympic boxing medalists, Kellie Harrington with her gold and Aidan Walsh with his bronze
Photo: ©INPHO/Laszlo Geczo

Now comfortably among the Irish sporting greats who need to be only known by one name, Kellie. Putting together these A-Zs for the last few years, the letter ‘K’ has been almost exclusively reserved for Katie Taylor but Ireland has a new boxing queen. Taylor continued her own legacy with two successful defences of the collection of belts she owns during 2021 but Kellie Harrington’s Olympic Gold medal was one of the standout Irish sporting moments of the year. It helps that Harrington, like Taylor, is such a likeable and down to earth person. When you see Harrington step into the ring, she feels like the girl next door that you are cheering on, apart from her elite level talent and dedication. Here is a salt of the earth Dub going toe to toe with the world’s best and coming out on top. Harrington already had a string of successes behind her going into the Olympics, including a 2018 World Championship gold, but the Olympics are no respecter of previous success and Harrington still had to go and do her stuff, and she did so in some style. Harrington sailed through her first two fights but was only a split verdict winner over Sudaporn Seesondee, who she had beaten in the 2018 world final, in the semi-final. Once over that hurdle she joined Michael Carruth and Taylor as Ireland’s boxing Olympic gold medallists. In Paris in 2024, shell look to go one better and win a second, Hakuna Matata indeed.

 

LIMERICK HURLERS

Limerick’s hurlers are verging on entering into Dublin style dominance. It wasn’t just that their All-Ireland title this summer was their third All-Ireland title in four years, it was the manner in which it was achieved. Has there ever been as one sided a first half in an All-Ireland as in August when Limerick led 3-18 to 1-11? That first 35 minutes was as near to perfection as hurling can get. Gearoid Hegarty scored two goals in that half, with Aaron Gillane also hitting the Cork net, and they ended up winning 3-32 to 1-22 while pulling up. It’s a win that cemented Limerick’s place among the very best teams of all time and while they could be seen as a team at their peak encouragingly for them, and worryingly for the rest of the country, there is no reason to think that this peak could not go on for a few more more years yet.

 

MAGUIRE, LEONA

Leona Maguire had an incredible year
Photo: ©INPHO/James Crombie

Leona Maguire had a scarcely believable year of incredible achievements. The Cavan golfer started the year outside the top 100 LPGA world rankings, by the end of the year she had gone as high as 43rd, the highest ever of any Irish female golfer. She was a model of consistency to boost her rankings in such a manner, at one stage during the year she had top 15 finishes in seven consecutive LPGA Tour Events. She had a first top ten finish at a Major, The Evian Tournament. To secure that, she shot a final round of 61, the lowest final ever round recorded at 756 male or female Majors. She also finished 23rd in her second Olympics and brought her career earnings to over $1 million. And yet, even all that wasn’t the highlight of her year. In early September she became the first Irish woman to compete in the Solheim Cup and proved to be the star, winning 4.5 points and even holing the winning putt as Europe retained the trophy on American soil. All those achievements and yet the feeling with Maguire is that the 26-year-old is only getting started and there are plenty of amazing achievements ahead of her.

 

NICOLAS ROCHE

In October of this year, Nicolas Roche announced his retirement after a near two decade professional career. Although, he never reached the highs of his father’s career, Nicolas was a very talented and dedicated rider during a career where he served seven different teams.

He spent most of his career as a Domestique, somebody who usually sacrificed himself for the good of his team leader. It’s a selfless type of riding, one that often doesn’t garner many headlines but one that is hugely appreciated by those in the inner circle of his sport. He did have his days in the spotlight, he won three stages in the Vuelta a Espana and spent time in the red jersey in two separate tours. He had two top ten general classification finishes in the Vuelta and two top 20 finishes in the Tour De France. He represented Ireland at four Olympic Games and at seven World Championships. Off the bike, he regular column in the Irish Independent during his Grand Tour appearances gave a brilliant insight into the life of a professional cyclist.

 

OFFALY U20 FOOTBALLERS

Offaly’s All-Ireland U20 Football Championship win was one of the GAA stories of the year. It was the first All-Ireland title of any kind won by one Offaly’s county teams since 1998 and it brought great scenes of joy and celebration. It was certainly done the hard way. Their three point win over Dublin the Leinster Final was their biggest winning margin in their province. Once into the All-Ireland series, they brought their game to a new level. Jack Bryant scored 2-4 in their semi-final win over Cork, and helped himself to 1-2 in the final against Roscommon at Croke Park. There was a tense spell for Offaly as Roscommon scored 1-2 themselves to cut the lead back to three but the Faithful County held on and their future looks bright with so many promising prospects.

 

PADRAIG HARRINGTON

Padraig Harrington achieved one of the ultimate goals for a golfer when he captained Europe in the Ryder Cup but unfortunately the timing of such an honour wasn’t good as our continent ran into one of the greatest ever American teams and suffered a record breaking 19-9 defeat. As always with the affable Dubliner, he spoke brilliantly after the event and gave the reasons behind many of his decisions that were questioned. Despite the result, the honour of captaining Europe, just the third Irish man to do so, will stay with him for the rest of his life.

 

JASON QUIGLEY

2021 was another year that passed by without a significant professional boxing match in southern Ireland. It beyond frustrating to hear Taoiseach Micheál Martin talk about the sport last May and say he can’t see a professional show south of the border happening any time soon as if it shouldn’t be a source of national embarrassment. And yet the sport keeps churning out athletes who should be regarded as national treasures. Eric Donovan is certainly one, and Jason Quigley is another. In what might have been his last shot to build a shot at a world title, Quigley landed the biggest win of his career when beating Shane Mosley Jr in Las Vegas in May to win the vacant WBO-NABO middleweight belt. Within minutes of that win, Quigley called out unbeaten WBO middleweight champion Demetrius ‘Boo’ Andrade and he was rewarded with his world title shot in November. Even though that ended in defeat he has proven once again that even with all the barriers in place that Ireland can still produce professional boxers who can compete at the very highest level.

 

ROWING

Fintan McCarthy and Paul O’Donovan celebrate winning gold in the Olympic Lightweight Men’s Double Sculls
Photo: ©INPHO/Morgan Treacy

It is not very often that an Irish athlete goes to the Olympics with the expectation that they will bring home a gold medal. Perhaps only Katie Taylor in 2012 had the same kind of pressure that Paul O’Donovan and Finbar McCarthy had resting on their shoulders when going to Tokyo in the summer. But no matter how strong a favourite anybody is going into an Olympic competition they are there to be shot at and unless they produce their best when it matters most then what they have done in the four years, or in this case five, leading up to the Games counts for nothing. Thankfully O’Donovan and McCarthy were able to live up the hype and pipped the Germans to add an Olympic gold in the lightweight double sculls to add to the European Championship they won earlier in the year. Rowing has become the new boxing for Ireland in terms of Olympic sports where we can compete with the best in the world, and O’Donovan and McCarthy proved that again. And of course don’t forget Aifric Keogh, Eimear Lambe, Fiona Murtagh and Emily Hegarty who took bronze in the women’s coxless four.

 

SHAMROCK ROVERS

Shamrock Rovers retained their Premier Division title
Photo: ©INPHO/Laszlo Geczo

There was something of an asterix mark beside Shamrock Rovers’ 2020 League of Ireland Premier Division title win, their first since 2011. Yes, Stephen Bradley’s team went through the league season unbeaten but Covid restrictions greatly impacted fixtures and only 18 games were played compared to the 36 of a usual season. There is no such asterix mark beside their 2021 title and Rovers proved beyond doubt that they are the best team in the country. Top of the table was shared by Rovers, Sligo Rovers and St Pats during the opening half of the season but once Bradley’s men hit the top midway through the season they stayed there for the rest of the campaign and in the end won the title at a canter. Danny Mandroiu and Graham Burke were among the stars during the season and they seem well placed to go for the club’s first three-in-a-row next year since their great four-in-a-row team of the ‘80s.

 

TYRONE

Tyrone’s Ronan McNamee with the Sam Maguire trophy after their final win over Mayo
Photo: ©INPHO/Ryan Byrne

2021 was to the be the year of the dream final, Dublin v Kerry. The only question seemed to be whether David Clifford could be the difference as Kerry attempted to stop Dublin from winning a seventh All-Ireland title in a row. Tyrone, and even Mayo, tore up that script. Tyrone began their first season since 2003 without Micky Harte leading them but the chances of joint managers Feargal Lohan and Brian Dooher landing a significant Championship success looked remote when they shipped a 6-15 to 1-14 hammering to Kerry in the Division 1 League Final in June. Remarkably, six weeks’ later they were crowned Ulster champions when they defeated Monaghan by 0-16 to 0-15 in a thrilling final. Still, not many gave them a chance against in the All-Ireland semi-final against Kerry. Mayo’s victory over Dublin the first semi-final opened up possibilities for the two sides taking to the pitch two weeks later but it was Mayo who made sure of their first final appearance since 2018 with a 3-14 to 0-22 extra time win. That win certainly made people sit up and take notice but Mayo were undeniably the people’s favourites going into the final after suffering so many previous heartbreaks. But on the day, Tyrone were superb and were deserved 2-14 to 0-15 winners.

 

UNLUCKY

Football is a game of inches,” said Al Pacino’s character Tony D’Amato in one of the best ever sport films, Any Given Sunday.

That famous quote can be applied to pretty much any sport, just ask Irish gymnast Rhys McClenaghan. He was a very live hope to become Ireland’s first every Olympic gymnast medallist. He showed his true ability in the early rounds but when it came to the final the tiniest misplacement of one finger caused him to fall from the pommel horse and destroy his hopes. However, it was his composure in his RTE interview straight after the event that made him really stand out. “I’m definitely the type of person to turn a negative into a positive and that’s what I’m going to do. I know I’ll come back a way better gymnast, a way better man.” Keep on eye on this man in the build up to Paris 2024. Hopefully his time he’ll have a bit more luck on his side.

 

VELODROME 

It was in the Velodrome where Katie George Dunleavy and Eve McCrystal won the first of their three medals at the Paralympic Games this summer. They set a world record time in the heats of the Women’s B 3,000 metre individual pursuit race in the velodrome but had to settle for silver when they were beaten by the British team in the final. Out on the road events, the duo claimed double gold in the tandem road race and also the time trial. That was on top of a gold and silver won at the 2016 Olympics and a host of World Championship golds since to confirm the pair as some of Ireland’s most successful para-athletes ever. Despite their success, Ireland still doesn’t boast an Olympic standard velodrome in the country, surely something that needs to be rectified in the near future.

 

WALL, VIKKI

Vikki Wall (left) and Shelly Melia get ready to start the celebrations after Meath’s All-Ireland final win over Dublin
Photo: ©INPHO/Ryan Byrne

Vikki Wall was named as the TG4 Senior Players’ Player of the Year but the whole Meath team deserve a section on their own. The All-Ireland Ladies Senior Football Championship had been shared between Dublin and Cork since 2005 and nobody thought 2021 would be much different, and certainly if there was to be a shake up it wouldn’t involve a team who only won the Intermediate title in December of 2020 but the Meath ladies pulled off one of the greatest GAA shocks of all time. They did it the hard way too, by beating Cork in the semi-final and then Dublin the final. Any thoughts of such a victory seemed a million miles away when they trailed a Cork side who seemed to be on their way to a routine semi-final win when they led by seven points with five minutes to play. Meath had lost by 40 points to Cork in the Championship in 2015 so even that margin would have been a huge improvement but Meath had much bigger ideas. Last minute goals by Stacey Grimes and Emma Duggan forced the game into extra time and from there the Royal County saw off a shell-shocked Cork team. Even allowing for that dramatic conclusion, Meath went into the final as massive underdogs against five-in-a-row chasing Dublin. Duggan’s early goal put them on their way but they still had to endure some nerve-shredding final moments before captain Shauna Ennis became the first Meath woman to lift the All-Ireland Senior title. Dublin and Cork will again start next season’s Championship as favourites but Meath have reinvigorated life into women’s football and plenty of other counties will take heart from their achievements.

 

XENA

The word xena is defined as: a strong, confident woman. In Irish sport, this was the year of the xena. Look back over this list, so many of Ireland’s best sporting moments during 2021 were by women. Women’s sport in Ireland has never had such exposure within the media but these have been far from token measures as the highlights on this list prove. Rachael Blackmore, Kellie Harrington, Leona Maguire, the Meath GAA football team, Ellen Keane and many, many others not mentioned, such as the increased exposure for womens soccer in the country, means that young girls around the country have never such a selection of role models to take inspiration from. Each of those sportswomen have delivered unforgettable moments during 2021 but their biggest legacy will perhaps be what they have created for the future.

 

YOUTH

At various times through 2021, Stephen Kenny seemed to be hanging on to his job as Ireland manager by the barest fingernails. Certainly, the chances of earning a contract extension took a major hit with a 1-0 home defeat to Luxembourg last March. However, following on from that, Ireland lost only one of their next eight games. Yes, there was a disappointing home draw against Azerbaijan in that run but even the only defeat during that spell, away to Portugal, for 89 minutes was one of the best away performances from an Ireland team in recent memory. But it was Kenny’s faith in youth that really helped Ireland turn the tide. The strength in the goalkeeping position is mentioned elsewhere in this article but there have been a number of others too. Andrew Omobomidele looks an exciting prospect in defence, Josh Cullen has established himself as the first choice midfielder, up front even though Adam Idah is yet to score he has been a real handful on occasion. Knight, Molumby, Ogbene and Connolly have all contributed to varying degrees as well, while the faith paid in St Mirren’s Jamie McGrath has paid off too. It’s not all about the young players, the return to form of Shane Duffy and Callum Robinson were key reasons to the comfortable wins away to Azerbaijan and home to Qatar. The second half of this year should be enough to ensure Kenny is handed the keys for the upcoming European Championship qualifiers and our prospects certainly look a lot brighter than 12 months ago.

 

ZEBO

In great news for those of us charged with putting together these end of year A-Zs, Simon Zebo is back with the Ireland squad to take his place on this list. After a four-year absence due to his time with Racing 92, once Zebo had returned to Munster for the start of the new season it was surprise to see him back in the Ireland squad. He turns 32 in March so it remains to be seen how much of a role he can play for Andy Farrell’s team going for forward but it’s great for Munster and Ireland fans to see him turn out on Irish soil once again.

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