There wasn’t quite the same level of drama on the country’s GAA pitches as Harrington served up during that never-to-be-forgotten July afternoon on the famous Scottish links of Carnoustie, but there was a parallel between Ireland’s greatest ever golfer and the current Kilkenny hurling panel.
Just as Harrington has brought dedication and mental strength to his particular art, Brian Cody and his charges proved themselves yet again to be market leaders in their own field. Admittedly, Kilkenny strolled through the empty spaces of the Leinster championship to secure a 30th All Ireland title, and there was the valid point that they never had to encounter either Waterford or Cork en route to glory, but who’s to say they wouldn’t have triumphed anyway.
With their ruthless conviction, and their brilliance in the shape of Henry Shefflin and Tommy Walsh, Kilkenny simply got on with the job of beating whoever was put in front of them. Ger Loughnane, that shy and retiring commentator on things hurling, implied that the champions were resorting to suspect tactics, but no one took him too seriously.
After breezing through to the decider, Kilkenny came up against Limerick who had reached Croke Park by an astonishingly circuitous journey. Earlier, it had taken three memorable games against Tipperary to book their place in the Munster where they met Waterford who had seen off Cork by scoring five goals in a classic semi-final encounter.
Inspired by the down-to-earth wisdom of their coach, Richie Bennis, Limerick appeared to be on the verge of something special after years of underachievement, but Justin McCarthy and Waterford captured the crown as Dan Shanahan, Ken McGrath and Stephen Molumphy emerged as the main men of early summer.
But Limerick would have their revenge by knocking Waterford off their perch in the All Ireland semi-final as Ollie Moran and Andrew O’Shaughnessy made names for themselves, however, a nervous start in the final left them with far too much to do. While Bennis and his players exited the stage with no silverware to show for their efforts, they and their supporters added much sparkle to the championship season.
Kilkenny’s supremacy in one code wasn’t unlike Kerry’s in the other. Okay, it mightn’t have been a vintage Gaelic football year, but there was Monaghan flexing their muscles at last in Ulster, and Dublin embarking on yet another tilt at the Sam Maguire Cup which has been frustratingly out of reach since 1995.
Simmering beneath the search for new angles was Kerry – ready to defend their title with a new coach in Pat O’Shea, but with much the same winning mentality. If they did just about enough to reach the All Ireland semi-final, they knew they would have to be at the best with old rivals Dublin waiting for them at Croke Park.
As ever, the Dubs arrived trailing hype in their wake, but with genuine ambitions on dethroning the champions. In the end, they failed probably by more than the two points which separated the teams. Dublin’s defense was yet again suspect, and Kerry managed to score 1-13 from play.
The decider was novel with two Munster teams going head-to-head for the first time in history. If Cork and their veteran coach, Billy Morgan, believed in themselves, all the neutrals gave the verdict to Kerry and the favorites eventually registered an emphatic victory, and their fourth of the decade.
The winners had class in almost every department, however, Colm Cooper produced a magnificent individual vignette of forward play. With much the same players going into 2008, Kerry are now on course for a three-in-a-row.
Croke Park was at last opened up to rugby and soccer, and the gleaming facilities of the GAA’s headquarters were made available to a wider audience. Ireland met France in the first rugby international with the French captain, Raphael Ibanez, scoring the first ever try on the hallowed turf.
A day that had promised much ended in bitter disappointment as Ireland lost to a dramatic late try, but there was an even more historic Six Nations occasion to come when England crossed the water to provide the opposition. There had been much talk and much speculation about whether the English national anthem would be booed, but nearly everyone in the capacity crowd appeared to be more interested in filling their lungs in readiness for Amhrann na bhFiann than jeering God Save the Queen.
It was appropriate that a bastion of anti-Englishness, now turned tolerant, should stage such a comprehensive thrashing for the GAA’s old enemy. Ireland were rampant, England supine, and the result was a record 43-13 victory.
Off the pitch, the long, drawn-out appeal from the Gaelic Players Association for a grants scheme for inter-county hurlers and footballers came to an end amid much rancor. The players heralded the agreement to pay them from Government coffers as overdue recognition for their efforts, however, critics of the scheme which could see a player who wins an All Ireland receiving up to 3,000 euro, were lamenting the end of amateurism.
In truth, the elite players have been asked to prepare in a professional manner for years now, and they deserve their reward, but for the GAA to insist that the amateur ethos will be preserved for ever and a day is comical. From now on, the best hurlers and footballers will be part-time professionals, and to call them anything else is to bury one’s head in the sand.
Boosted by their impressive win over England, Ireland’s rugby squad headed to the World Cup finals in France with genuine hopes of finishing in the top four. But to general astonishment and confusion, they failed even to reach the knockout stages after losing to both France and Argentina, and after performing abysmally against Namibia and Georgia.
It was hard to fathom how so many key players such as Ronan O’Gara, Gordon D’Arcy, Peter Stringer, Donncha O’Callaghan and Denis Leamy were so far off the pace. Amid rumors of bickering among the players, it was revealed that prior to the tournament, coach Eddie O’Sullivan had had his contract extended by a further four years.
The Ireland soccer team didn’t fare much better, but the price of failure was very different for its beleaguered coach, Steve Staunton. While it appeared bizarrely that O’Sullivan’s job was safe win, lose or draw, Staunton was sacked after a run of depressing performances during a botched attempt at qualification for next year’s European Championship finals.
Stephen Ireland had scored the first ever goal at Croke Park as Ireland defeated Wales 1-0, but later in the year, Ireland decided that he didn’t even want to play for Ireland. That just about summed up the last days of Staunton’s tenure. Currently, the search is on for a new coach with Terry Venables emerging as the most likely contender.
Elsewhere, David Gillick retained his European Indoor 400 meters title with a dramatic late surge in Birmingham, England, and Katie Taylor from Arklow in county Wicklow won her third boxing European title. The multi-talented Taylor also found the time to play for the Ireland women’s soccer team when she wasn’t throwing hooks and jabs.
There was redemption for the county Clare born jockey, Kieren Fallon, when the case against him and five others of race-fixing collapsed, however, it was subsequently revealed that the six-time British champion jockey had tested positive for cocaine following a race in France. After being suspended in the UK for more than a year due to the race-fixing charges, Fallon now faces another ban.
But amid the tales of joy and woe, there was always Harrington who in May became the first Irish player to win the Irish Open in 25 years, and then he followed that success up by becoming the first Irish player to win the British Open since Fred Daly back in 1947.
As ever, he didn’t make it easy for himself. Trailing an in-form Sergio Garcia by as many as six shots going into the last day, he managed to close the gap on the Spaniard with a magnificent final round effort, and even had a one stroke lead standing on the 18th tee.
But in something of a reprise of Jean Van de Velde’s infamous collapse when the Open was last staged at Carnoustie in 1999, Harrington hit both his drive and his third shot into the burn on the way to running up a double-bogey six. All Garcia need was a par to win, however, his putt for victory slipped by and against the odds, Harrington found himself in a play-off.
After birdieing the first hole to Garcia’s bogey, he made no mistake the second time by playing the difficult final hole conservatively for a richly-deserved win. Others had their moments, but the 2007 sporting year in Ireland conclusively belongs to Padraig Harrington.