By Sean Creedon
Another year has just about gone by and it’s time to reflect on the sporting exploits of a small nation that continues to provide sports heroes both national and international.
At home it was the year when the GAA’s so-called back door policy proved fruitful for Offaly and Sam Maguire crossed the Shannon to Galway for the first time since 1966. Abroad, runners Sonia O’Sullivan and Catherina McKiernan, and Brian Kerr’s young soccer players won the plaudits. Kerr certainly put The Republic firmly on the soccer map by leading the under 16s and under 18s to European Championship glory, the first time any nation won both tournaments in the same year. Not surprisingly, Kerr was last week named manager of the year from all sports in Ireland.
O’Sullivan became the first Irishwoman to strike gold at the World Cross Country championships in Marrakesh and also won both the 5,000 and 10,000 meters at the European Championships in Budapest. Meanwhile, McKiernan’s switch to road racing proved to be a good decision. She won the prestigious London Marathon in April and narrowly failed to set a world record in the Amsterdam race in November.
Sadly, 1998 was also a year in which drug stories found their way on to the sports pages. Michelle Smith de Bruin was banned for four years for tampering with a urine sample and former rugby international Neil Francis claimed that several Irish players have taken banned substances. The Tour de France, which made a historic start in Ireland, turned into a tour de farce because of drug sweeps on the cyclists when the race returned to France.
And it certainly was a good year for one time bank employee Eddie Jordan, who realized a lifetime ambition when Damon Hill won the Belgian Grand Prix in a Jordan car in August.
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At home, the GAA continues to grab the headlines. But it’s not a year that Galway referee Jimmy Cooney will want to remember. His decision to blow up early in the Clare vs. Offaly game sent out calls for a countdown clock, which was eventually introduced for the Ladies Football Final. But at least the receipts from the replay went to the Omagh final.
Offaly sacked manager Babs Keating, brought in the unknown Michael Bond and won the McCarthy Cup through the back door. In his second spell in charge Mick O’Dwyer took Kildare out of Leinster and got by his native Kerry in the semifinal. But they were swept aside by a brilliant Galway performance in the final.
Danoli to skip Christmas fest
Danoli, the horse dubbed the "People’s Champion," will miss the big Christmas festival at Leopardstown. Trainer Tom Foley says that the horse has still not fully recovered from an infected fetlock joint.
"There’s still a small bit of puffing around the off-hind fetlock, but we’ve missed 10 days work with the horse, which is too long of a hold-up," he said. "However, we can now concentrate instead on having him right for Hennessy Cognac Gold Cup at Leopardstown on Feb. 7."
Aussie sked irks Irish
Ireland have been paired with the United States, Australia and Romania in the final of next year’s Rugby World Cup. All of Ireland’s games will be played at Lansdowne Road, commencing with the United States on Oct. 2, Australia on Oct. 10, and Romania on Oct. 15.
Ireland are also due to tour Australia in May and June and coach Warren Gatland is not happy with the Aussies’ proposed itinerary. They want Ireland to play ACT, New South Wales and Queensland all in the space of the week June 1-8, followed by two Tests on June 12 and 17.
"We are meeting Australia in October in the World Cup and I’m not prepared to have an Irish side be sucked into an itinerary which could destroy confidence," Gatland said. "We’re prepared for two hard test games, but I want to allow this squad develop and I would expect to have at least three easier build-up games."
Irish manager Donal Lenihan is talking to the Aussies about a new schedule.
North vs. Wales
While the Republic have lined up some exciting friendlies next year, Northern Ireland have to be content with more mundane stuff. Lawrie McMenemy’s team were offered a friendly against Bermuda in Hamilton on Feb. 9, but it was turned down because the manager knew that the English club managers would be reluctant to release their players for the long haul to Bermuda for a friendly. So it’s going to be a "B" international against Wales in Wrexham instead. No comparison between a cold Wednesday night in Wrexham and the Bermuda sun, but the English managers will be happier.
The "B" game will be an ideal opportunity to bring in players who have not yet made it into our main squad. I will be leaving out our established players like Lomas, Lennon, Dowie, Morrow and others and taking an opportunity to look at some of the younger lads," McMenemy said.
Railway Cup for Apple?
Next year’s Railway Cup interprovincial football and hurling finals may be played in New York. Attendances at the competitions in Ireland have failed drastically in recent years. But as the players still like the honor of representing their province the GAA will not abandon the Railway Cup and are thinking about a trip to the Big Apple in April to try to revive the competition.
Quinn signs with Sunderland
Republic of Ireland striker Niall Quinn has signed a three-year contract with Sunderland. The Rokerites are currently 10 points clear at the top of Div. 1 in England and seem certain to return to the Premiership next summer.
And Northern Ireland international Keith Gillespie has moved from Newcastle United to Blackburn Rovers. By doing so Gillespie links up again with former Manchester United assistant manager Brian Kidd, who is now the boss at Ewood Park.