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A Snapshot of Irish Sports: 2001, a memorable year

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Dave Hannigan

Funny how time brings forth a little bit of perspective. There were people in Ireland not quite 12 months ago who thought the proposal to cancel the Cheltenham Festival and postpone a large swathe of the Six Nations’ rugby because of the threat of foot-and-mouth disease represented some great tragedy of sorts. Who could blame them then when hyperbole was still the first language of sport? As late as the first day of September, we watched the incredible subjugation of Holland in a World Cup qualifier at Lansdowne Road in Dublin and believed the year could surely yield no more memorable date than that. How was anyone to know better?

Soccer

If nothing else, the graceful and dignified manner in which American sport reacted to the events of Sept. 11 taught us that in their proper place, the games that thrill us can still be wonderful things. On the other side of the world, those few Irish fans who traveled to Tehran in November to support Mick McCarthy’s team on the final leg of the most arduous qualifying campaign of them all encountered young Iranian soccer fans who were using international matches to rally against their government and wondering why Roy Keane hadn’t turned up? It was a little cameo that kind of summed up how small a planet we live on and how big a star our finest footballer has become.

The manner in which the Irish captain sat out the trip to Iran in favor of resting and receiving treatment at Old Trafford was grudgingly accepted by the country’s fans because nobody had contributed more to getting the side that far. Mick McCarthy learned from mistakes made in his first two campaigns in charge and coped especially well with injury problems, Shay Given made several crucial saves and Jason McAteer remembered that wealth of promise he once engendered. However, it is no exaggeration to say that without Keane there would have been little Irish interest next summer.

Befitting the most important player on the English club side of the last decade, the Manchester United captain’s performance in leading the team to a crucial 1-1 draw against Portugal last June was extraordinary. Despite not having started a competitive game for close on six weeks, he weighed in with a display already rated by most discerning experts as the finest ever by anybody wearing a green shirt. A dodgy-knee permitting, we can look forward to more of the same from him in Japan next June. If, for some reason, Keane were not to travel, Ireland would be going along just for the ride. With him at the helm, anything could happen.

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Gaelic games

The oft-maligned mandarins of Croke Park were rewarded for some progressive thinking as the new back-door system gave birth to one of the best Gaelic football championships in history. Complicated and imperfect as the new method first appeared, it certainly gave a more democratic flavor to proceedings. Westmeath had a brilliant run and twice in their three unforgettable meetings, they seemed to have their boot on Meath’s neck but could not put them away. Sligo rose up against Kildare in Croke Park, and while the reunion of Dublin and Kerry offered Thurles a couple of entertaining occasions, neither of those games were classics.

It was kind of appropriate, then, that the All-Ireland champions should emerge from the repechage side of the draw. Coming so soon after the political drama involving the temporary strike of the Donnellan brothers, Michael and John, Galway’s Connacht semifinal loss to Roscommon appeared to signify not only the end of their summer but perhaps the John O’Mahony era as well. His subsequent achievement in revitalizing his team for a journey that took in clashes with Wicklow, Armagh, Cork, Roscommon (again) and Derry before they squared up to Meath in the final will be remembered as one of the great managerial feats.

“In life you can blame the world for your problems,” O’Mahony told reporters after losing to Roscommon. “But the key question you have to ask yourself is what do I want to do about it?”

During one 10-minute period in the second half of the All-Ireland final, Nigel Nestor was sent off, Ollie Murphy broke a finger and Trevor Giles missed a penalty that Meath hardly deserved. Taking this run of misfortunes befalling the opposition as his cue, Padraig Joyce kicked into top gear for Galway, finishing up with a personal tally of 10 points, half of them from play to help demolish Meath by 0-17 to 0-8. The Killererin club player finished the championship as top scorer, averaging nearly seven points a game and in November, he was honored with his third All-Star award. As for his county, no team ever had to do more to win the Sam Maguire Cup.

Inevitably, hurling suffered a little by comparison and boasted very few outstanding matches. In Munster, the fare was satisfying enough, with a series of cliff-hangers. Every game was decided by a goal or less. By contrast, Leinster was a disaster, the only redeeming feature being Wexford’s unlikely revival. Recovering from a terrible drubbing in the provincial final, Wexford took advantage of their second chance. They mugged Limerick in the quarterfinal and nearly caught Tipp in the semifinal before being blown away in the replay. Galway did for Kilkenny on a day when the champions were incredibly flat.

At least, the final, one of the highest-scoring in 25 years, was a very good match played on an appalling pitch. Bulwarked by Hurler of the Year Tommy Dunne, Tipperary were the first county to win the National League and the All-Ireland since Galway in 1987. In a telling statistic, Nicky English’s men also remained unbeaten for the whole year in league, championship and tournament games. This was one of those times when the best team definitely won.

Rugby

What should have been read quietly into the record as another year of definite progress for Irish rugby ended on a sour note. For reasons that he claimed had as much to do with his inability “to kiss ass” as anything else, the Warren Gatland era came to an abrupt halt. Despite competitive victories over England (famously), France (almost equally so), Wales and Italy, and a gritty performance in running New Zealand close, Gatland appeared to pay the price for a sloppy defeat by Scotland and the IRFU blazers’ tendency to flex their aging muscles every now and again. His replacement, Eddie O’Sullivan, comes to the job with a good pedigree but anything less than winning the Six Nations’ will look like a bit of a drop in standards.

The quality of the players available to O’Sullivan was underlined by the announcement that Keith Wood was voted World Player of the Year. Brian O’Driscoll’s breathtaking try for the British and Irish Lions in the first test against Australia guarantees the Dublin center’s place in rugby highlights reel for years to come, but Wood’s award points up just how highly regarded he is in both hemispheres. He did all that was asked of him for the Lions, led Harlequins to the European Shield and garnished his inspirational captaincy of Ireland with a superb try in the victory over England. There is perhaps no more charismatic figure on the Irish sporting landscape today than the bald-headed hooker.

Golf

Golf was another arena where the curve was ever upward. At season’s end, three of the first eight places on the European Tour money list belonged to Irishmen. Confirming his status as the most improved player in the sport, Padraig Harrington finished second in earnings to South Africa’s Retief Goosen. By sinking a birdie putt on the final hole to beat out fellow Dubliner Paul McGinley at November’s Volvo Masters in Jerez, Harrington claimed his first win in a year that saw him notch seven runners-up spots and gatecrash the world top 10. A credible eight on the money list, McGinley himself enjoyed a watershed year, winning the truncated Wales Open and gaining automatic selection for a Ryder Cup event that was quite properly postponed in the wake of the terrorist attacks.

If Harrington and McGinley can look back with some satisfaction, it’s difficult to know how to classify Darren Clarke’s 2001. After a wait of 19 years, he became the first Irish golfer to win a Tour event on home soil when he took the Smurfit European Open at the K Club in County Kildare and only Goosen and Harrington won more prize money than him. Still, there is an impression that a player of Clarke’s talent should have a major by now. After impressing for long stages at the Masters’ last April, he appeared the most likely candidate to chase down Duval on Sunday afternoon at the British Open. Poor shot selection thieved him of momentum that afternoon and he eventually finished third. A very good result except for the old maxim: to those to whom more is given, more is expected and all that.

Horse racing

In horse-racing, Aidan O’Brien continued his amazing run of success. Although his hopes of leading Istabraq in after a fourth Champion Hurdle win at Cheltenham in March were dashed by foot-and-mouth disease, the 32-year-old master trainer put that disappointment behind him to go on to his best season yet. When Ballingarry won the Criterium International in France last month, O’Brien was recording his 23rd Group One victory of the season — a world record. With Mick Kinane in the saddle, Galileo won both the Irish and English Derbies, the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes.

Even though Galileo faded as the year wore on, narrowly losing to Fantastic Light in the Champion Stakes before failing to impact in the Breeders’ Cup at Belmont Park, O’Brien and Kinane also stole the show that Saturday afternoon in October at the Long Island track. At 7-1, Johannesburg had the large Irish contingent cheering when storming to victory in the Breeders’ Cup juvenile, a win that immediately started speculation that the horse would be a contender in next year’s Kentucky Derby, a race no European-based trainer has ever won.

Who better than O’Brien to buck that trend?

Rowing

Off Broadway, in one of those sports where the participants scarcely get the recognition their efforts deserve, Gearoid Towey, Tony O’Connor, Sinead Jennings and Sam Lynch brought home gold medals from the World Rowing Championships in Lucerne. In a summer when Sonia O’Sullivan’s absence through pregnancy meant no Irish track athlete figured in the medal shake-up at the World Athletics Championships in Edmondton, the rowers offered hope that at the Athens Olympics in 2004, there could be some success to be had on the water.

As positive a note as any on which to end.

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