By Mark Jones
The was never going to be easy. Choosing the top five Irish sporting personalities of the century, in order, was fraught with difficulty. So read on and prepare to be irritated, compliant and infuriated, in no particular
If drawing up a short list was relatively simple, the selection criteria posed untold problems. Would achievement conquer all? Was impact more important?
On the world stage, the comparison between Carl Lewis and Jesse Owens has been made time and again. There is little doubt that Lewis was a superior athlete. However, Owens’s impact at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, the way he blazed a trial for America’s black track and field athletes, arguably surpassed anything that Lewis achieved.
Likewise with Ronnie Delany. He created few ripples in the athletics’ pond after his historic 1,500-meter gold medal at the Melbourne Olympics in 1956, yet his one great single triumph captured the imagination of the Irish
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public like no other.
Even though John Flanagan, Pat O’Callaghan and Bob Tisdall had burned their names into Olympic lore with track and field gold medals for Ireland, Delany’s success came close to the beginning of the media age. His stunning
victory in track and field’s blue ribbon event had perhaps more resonance because it occurred on the other side of the world. There was an added romance about it.
It could still be argued that one, or both, of Eamonn Coghlan and Sonia O’Sullivan has a stronger athletic pedigree than Delany. Coghlan might have suffered Olympic heartache, but he was a world champion outdoors and dominated the middle-distance indoor scene for years. O’Sullivan has already banked world and European titles, and while Olympic gold still eludes her, that could all change next year.
But neither Coghlan nor O’Sullivan make the top five. Neither does a Gaelic footballer. No Jack O’Shea with his clutch of All-Ireland medals for Kerry and his four Footballer of the Year awards. No Mick O’Connell, one of the game’s supreme stylists, and no Sean Purcell, Galway’s Mr. Versatile in the 1950s.
Paul McGrath — Ireland’s most complete soccer player — is also out of the top five, and despite being ranked as the world’s top professional cyclist in the 1980s, the great Sean Kelly fails to make the list as well.
There are knowledgeable people who will tell you that Kelly was in a different league to Stephen Roche. A more fearsome competitor, a stronger sprinter and a more consistent rider. However, Roche’s extraordinary treble
of Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and World championship wins in 1987 catapult him above most Irish athletes on two legs and all on two wheels.
One of the world’s greatest rugby players, Mike Gibson, also fails to make the cut, as do golfers Christy O’Connor senior and British Open winner Fred Daly. But Vincent O’Brien has to be included. The greatest horse trainer of
all time, he won Grand Nationals over jumps and then forged an unstoppable alliance with Lester Piggott to dominate flat racing for a couple of decades.
If the inclusion of a trainer raises a few eyebrows, then so too might George Best’s addition to the list. A Belfast Protestant who played soccer for Northern Ireland, he ain’t Irish, says you. Well, what about a gesture at the end of the millennium? If the great Best weaved his magic under another flag, every sports lover on this island luxuriated in his genius.
So, with apologies to no one, not to Mick Mackey, to Michael Carruth or to Johnny Giles, here goes. And at least, there are no arguments about the greatest of them all.
1. Christy Ring
Born Oct. 12, 1920 — Died March 2, 1979
Despite all the conflicting talk that has surrounded hurling’s legends for years, Ring is the undisputed No. 1. He was a colossus, his reputation forged by God given eye-hand coordination, physical strength and obsessive
It’s hard to know where to start with the Corkman. His eight All-Ireland winner’s medals, his durability — he played senior intercounty from 1939-63 — his 18 Railway Cup medals.
If there was no vanity about Ring, he was keenly aware of his own sense of worth. On one occasion when he’d forgotten his player’s pass, he jumped over the turnstile at Pairc Ui Caoimh in Cork only to be stopped in his track’s by a County Board official, who was, by coincidence, a former teammate of Ring’s.
Where was Christy’s pass? He didn’t have it.
"But, Christy, you should have it, you’ve won eight All-Ireland medals."
"And if I hadn’t been carrying cripples like you, I’d have won eight more!"
Immortalized by Micheal O Hehir’s radio commentaries, Ring was known and revered the length and breadth of the country. He could score from anywhere, such was his range of skills.
"Ring would be remembered if he never won anything," reflected the former Irish Times correspondent Paddy Downey. "His enormous, incomparable skill must stand as his monument."
2. Ronnie Delany
Born March 6, 1935
"Then you take the tactical decision: I go now. And you go and God is with you and you are thundering by people. It was unbelievable, there was no tiredness. I was just flying around these guys and suddenly I was in the
straight and suddenly I was five yards from the tape and the realization came to me — my God, I’ve won it."
No one can describe the moment in Melbourne in 1956 better than Delany himself. If there is a tone of wonderment in his words, it’s not surprising.
Before the Games, his form had hardly been inspiring. He had been injured in an 800-meter race in Paris and he was well beaten over a mile by Brian Hewson in Dublin.
Because of his scholarship to Villanova, Delany was viewed with some suspicion by Irish sports officials. There was this feeling that he was a paid athlete and, remarkably, his selection for the Games was by just one vote.
For all that, the reaction to his win back in Ireland was unique for the time. People lined the roads when he drove from Limerick to Dublin, and even though Delany achieved little in the sport from ’56 on, he remains Ireland’s most instantly recognizable sporting personality.
3. Vincent O’Brien
Born April 9, 1917
For someone who was never seen on horseback, he reigned supreme in the world of racing. Starting with National Hunt, he won three successive Grand Nationals with three different horses in the 1950s and then took the
Cheltenham Gold Cup four times and the Champion Hurdle three times.
Most trainers would have been content with that honors’ list, but O’Brien wanted to prove his worth on the flat. Six Epsom Derby triumphs and three more in the French Derby sealed his reputation and the Cork born farmer’s son then proceeded to revolutionize the racing and breeding industries from his headquarters at Ballydoyle, Co. Tipperary.
With Lester Piggott invariably his front line jockey, O’Brien trained some of the legendary racehorses such as Nijinsky, Sir Ivor, Sadler’s Wells, Alleged and Roberto.
The famous owner Robert Sangster was once asked to sum O’Brien’s achievement up. "I could talk all night about what Vincent has done," said Sangster, "but I’m only going to give you two words: ‘The Greatest’."
4. Stephen Roche
Born Nov. 28, 1959
There was much more to Roche than his golden year of 1987, but his remarkable three successes of Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and World Championships define him now.
His moment during that Tour came on the crippling climb in the Alps to La Plagne. The Spaniard Pedro Delgado was expected to make his move for victory and Roche, not as strong in the mountains, was expected to be
dropped. But the Dubliner chased Delgado down with a heroic effort to close the gap to just three seconds.
Roche had won the Tour in that moment, but he almost paid with his life. Motionless, with an oxygen mask strapped to his face, he had pushed his body to the absolute limit.
He did it again in Italy, leading the Giro for 10 days in a row to land another superb success. He had agreed to ride for Kelly at the World championships in Austria later that year, but when Kelly fell off the pace in the push for the line, Roche held on to complete an incredible treble.
5. George Best
Born May 22, 1946
Hard living, hard drinking, Best’s off-the-pitch problems were, and still are, front page fodder, but in his prime, no one, maybe not even Pele, was in his league.
For a couple of seasons in the last 1960s, Best was the outstanding player on the planet. He was the lithe genius behind Manchester United’s European Cup triumph in 1968 and later became European Footballer of the Year.
More the pity that Northern Ireland never qualified for a World Cup finals in his time because Best would surely have responded to the challenge of widening his reputation to a world audience.
For a while, no one had his balance, his footwork, his way of leaving defenses flat-footed. If he was in decline from the age of 25, he still surely was one of the greatest soccer players ever.
(Mark Jones is the sports editor of the Sunday Independent in Dublin.)