By Sean Creedon
Looking back over the past year in Irish sports it’s difficult to pinpoint one defining moment. If you were a Meath fan, then the All-Ireland football final win over Cork showed once again that you write off The Royals at your peril. Cork failed in their bid for the double, having beaten Kilkenny in the hurling final, to win the McCarthy Cup for the first time since 1992.
Now those of you living in the United States may be shocked, but I would say that for a huge proportion of Irish people the victory of Manchester United over Bayern Munich in the European Cup Final last May was the highlight of the year. Yes, I know it’s weird, but there is massive support for English soccer and Manchester United in particular in the Emerald Isle. It was United’s first European Cup win since 1968 and, of course, they had earlier won the League, Cup double in England.
No wonder there is little interest in the domestic scene in Ireland. St. Patrick’s Athletic won the Premier division and relegated Bray Wanderers beat Finn Harps at the third attempt in FAI Cup Final. Mick McCarthy got a new contract from the FAI even though he failed to take us to the Euro 2000 finals. We lost in a playoff with Turkey, but qualification was lost really when we conceeded late late goals in Zagreb and Skopje. The only good news from the FAI was the decision to push ahead with Eircom Park, despite the government’s plans for their own stadium.
But the GAA continues to thrive. I put it down to the intercounty, even interparish rivalry. No other sport can generate such intense rivalry. Indeed, an athletics official once described it to me as "tribalism." Yes, sometimes it can get overheated, as happened after the Munster under 21 hurling final when Clare’s Davy Fitzgerald got involved with Tipperary substitutes. Fitzgerald was banned and ultimately it cost him an All-Star place. Referees come in for their share of abuse and we all had sympathy for Galway official Michael Curley, who was punched by Wexford manager J.J. Barrett after a crucial National League game.
The GAA is still an amateur sport, but the players now want to be rewarded in some way and the Gaelic Players Association was formed in Belfast in September. At present their only reward is an All-Star award or a trip to Australia. The All-Star trips to the United States were revived and Kerry’s Seamus Moynihan was voted player of the tournament as Ireland beat Australia down under. But the All-Star selectors only recognize championship form and amazingly Moynihan didn’t get an award.
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In rugby our well-paid international team were woeful, beating only Wales in the Five Nations championship. We were then dumped out of the World Cup by Argentina. However, Ulster restored some pride by beating Colombiers to win the European Cup.
Amhran na bhFiann was heard for the first time on the Grand Prix circuit when Heinz Harald Frentzen brought home the Jordan car in first place in the French Grand Prix. When Jordan won his first race last year God Save the Queen was played. Now it’s amazing how so many people support English club Manchester United but get very upset when God Save the Queen is played. Eddie Irvine tried hard for Ferrari, but in the end had to settle for second place in the drivers’ championship.
Better news for another Northerner. Jockey Richard Dunwoody broke the all-time record of jump jockey Peter Scudamore. And veteran Northern cyclist Joey Dunlop came south to set a new lap time for the Skerries Road Races.
Meath jockey Paul Carbery rode Bobby Jo to victory in the Aintree Grand National, Ireland’s first victory at Liverpool since Paul’s father, Tommy, rode L’Escargot in 1975. Cash Asmussen made it back to back wins in the Budweiser Irish Derby when he rode Montjeu to victory
at The Curragh. Later Michael Kinnane rode Montjeu to victory in the Prix de L’Arc de Triomphe.
The good news on the athletics front was the amalgamation of BLE and NACAI, but sadly they were not recognized by the Olympic Council of Ireland for their last AGM before the Olympics.
Speaking of Olympics, it was the end of the road for Michelle Smith de Bruin when CAS turned down her appeal to the four-year ban imposed by FINA. However, Michelle and another of our female stars, runner Sonia O’Sullivan, both gave birth to daughters during the year.
The Irish Badminton team had their first-ever win over England and Irish Basketball coach Enda Byrt was sacked for overspending the budget.
World Cup cricket came to Dublin when the West Indies played Bangladesh at a packed Castle Avenue.
Sadly, during the year we lost some of our greatest sports administrators in Dr. Tony O’Neill and Lord Killanin. Another death saw the passing of colorful bookie Terry Rogers.
Cork-Kilkenny to open
hurling season Feb. 20
The fixtures plan has thrown up a glamour opening tie in next year’s Church & General National Hurling League, which begins on Feb 20. This year’s All-Ireland finalists Cork and Kilkenny will meet at Nowlan Park in a game which should provide a fitting lift-off to the new millenniium’s hurling activities.
Defending League champions Tipperary, have a bye on opening day and will begin the defense of their crown against Derry in Thurles on Feb 27. Galway, who were runners-up to Tipperary in this year’s League, will be at home to Offaly on the opening day.
Rovers draw Cork City
The pairing of Shamrock Rovers and Cork City was the plum tie to emerge from the second-round draw for the first FAI Cup of the new millennium. Amazingly, eight of the 10 non-League teams have been paired, so we are guaranteed to have four of the minnows in the next round. The second-round games will be played on the weekend of Jan. 9.
Lawlor quits Drogheda
Drogheda United are the latest club to part company with their manager. Martin Lawlor quit the county Louth club last week after two and a half years in charge.
Keane a no-show?
Three years ago, Roy Keane fell out of favor with Mick McCarthy when he refused to travel with the Irish team to the U.S. for the U.S. Cup competition. Now Keane is saying that he is unlikely to be available for the U.S. Cup next June as he will need a break after a long season.
Kilbane for Sunderland
Irish international Kevin Kilbane last week moved from West Bromwich Albion to Sunderland for £2.5 million. The 22-year-old winger has signed a four-year deal that will keep him at Sunderland until 2004.
No North manager yet
Irish Football Association President Jim Boyce says that it’s highly unlikely’ that the new Northern Ireland manager will be appointed before Christmas. When IFA chiefs began their search for Lawrie McMenemy’s successor in October, they hoped to have the new man in place before the end of the year.
Apparently, the IFA are waiting for Leicester City manager Martin O’Neill to rule himself out of the running before they put the full list of candidates to the international committee. O’Neill would only be interested in the job in a part-time basis.
Hopefully, the North will have a new manager by Jan. 19, when the IFA and representatives from the Czech Republic, Denmark, Bulgaria, Iceland and Malta meet in Prague to arrange dates for the qualifying games.
It looks like very few Irish supporters will be able to afford to go to Tokyo if we qualify for the World Cup finals in 2002.
IFA President Jim Boyce said that the prices in Tokyo were horrendous.
"A Coca Cola costs £5, a taxi trip from the airport to downtown Tokyo almost £120, and an ordinary meal without drink around £40," he said last week.
So anybody hoping to go there for the World Cup tournament can be prepared to mortgage their house. The ordinary football punter just couldn’t cope.
However, the Japanese are not worried. They say if foreigners don’t take up their ticket allocation, the locals will and all the stadia be full.
McEnroe to play Dublin
John McEnroe, a regular visitor to Dublin for GOAL charity games, will play in the ATP Senior Tour in the Point Theatre next February.
It will be McEnroe’s first competitive game in Dublin since 1983 when he played for the USA in the Davis Cup at the RDS. McEnroe, along with Bjorn Borg, Pat Cash and Henri Leconte have already been signed up to play at the Point in the ATP Senior Tour of Champions. They will be joined by four others to be selected from among Mats Wilander, Guy Forget, Peter Flemming, John Fitzgerald, Peter McNamara and John Lloyd.
The Dublin event is part of a global tour and the ranking points on offer will determine who goes forward to play in the end-of-year Masters in Florida.
McKiernan to run London
Catherina McKiernan has confirmed that she will definitely run in next year’s London Marathon on April 18. Originally, it was thought that the Cavan runner’s next marathon race would be in the Sydney Olympics, but after consultations with her manager and trainer, she has now decided to run in London.
"With a gap of almost six months to the Sydney Olympics, the timing is just about right and all things considered it seemed the right decision for me to make," she said. "It’s a good course, the atmosphere is always great and having enjoyed myself so much when I ran there in 1997, I’m happy to be going back."