Category: Archive

Sonia’s silver Ireland’s sports highlight of 2000

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Mark Jones

The top 10 Irish sporting personalities and events of 2000.

1. Sonia O’Sullivan (track and field)

Yes, that’s right, she didn’t win gold. Silver was all Sonia came back with from Sydney. But after the frustration of Barcelona in 1992 and the disastrous performances in Atlanta four years later, she at last had her hands on an Olympic medal. And despite the fact that she wasn’t a winner on sports’ biggest stage, there was something heroic about her effort in front of 112,000 people on a September night in Stadium Australia.

Because her form coming into the Games hadn’t been special. She flopped at a big meet in London during the summer, and Eamonn Coghlan, himself no stranger to Olympic disappointment, said he didn’t think she had in her legs to win the 5,000 meters final.

In fact, Coghlan wasn’t even convinced that she’d win a medal of any color, and for a few days it seemed that the Irish nation had itself a new hate figure. The stupidity of branding Coghlan anti-patriotic was all the more obvious when after five laps in the final, Sonia looked beaten.

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With 2,000 meters gone, she had slipped nearly 30 meters off the pace, but for some reason Gete Wami of Ethiopia and the eventual gold medallist, Romania’s Gabriela Szabo, decided not to increase the pressure. Instead, the tempo dropped for a couple of laps and O’Sullivan was able to work herself back into contention.

That recovery, when she had been on the verge of disappearing out the back door, spoke volumes for O’Sullivan’s determination. The closing stages were dramatic — one minute it looked as if she might edge out Szabo, the next Szabo was holding on. The battle lasted the length of the finishing straight, O’Sullivan’s face creased in anguish as the Romanian raised her arms in celebration.

A silver medal — O’Sullivan wasn’t a winner. She knew that, we knew that. But as she set off on a lap of honor around the stadium, it wasn’t hard to understand that she’d killed off some of those nightmarish Olympic memories. Ireland’s greatest track and field athlete had realized the significance of what she had done. The color wasn’t the same as Ronnie Delany all those years before, but the achievement was.

2. Seamus Moynihan (Kerry footballer)

Kerry began the year with no fullback and ended it with a player and a captain who redefined the subtlety and the aggression of one of Gaelic football’s key positions. Moynihan was quite simply the GAA’s main man in 2000. Kerry undoubtedly had the best forward line, but if there were questions over whether they were the best team in the land following their All-Ireland triumph, no one doubted for a second that Moynihan hadn’t been the best player.

Kerry had to withstand a Cork comeback in the Munster semifinal, and then it took them two titanic struggles to shake off Armagh in the semifinal. Armagh should have won, so should Galway in the drawn final when Derek Savage missed a great chance to kick what would have been a match-winning point in the dying minutes.

The Kingdom was vulernable, but its gatekeeper was a colossus. Catches, interceptions, blockdowns, tackles and clearances — no one was able to marshal a defense quite like Seamus Moynihan. An All-Ireland-winning captain, an All-Star award, the Player of the Year — that was only half the story.

3. Brian O’Driscoll (rugby player)

Surely some mistake here. An Irish rugby player sneaking his way up to the business end of the sporting year. The national team still struggled, losing heavily to England and Wales, and then being pummeled by the Pumas in Argentina, but one game and one individual performance stood head and shoulders above the rest.

Think of Ireland beating the U.S. at baseball, or of New York winning an All-Ireland, the same flights of fancy went with Ireland’s chances of defeating France in Paris. Since 1972, when the words "professional" and "rugby" would never be uttered in the same breath, Ireland’s biennial journey to the French capital had become a ritual humiliation, but last March, that litany of slaughter at last came to an end.

Ireland’s victory was special enough, but for Brian O’Driscoll to score three tries in the process was remarkable. "We could not stop him," said French coach Bernard Laporte, "a center scoring three tries is not normal." But then O’Driscoll is not a normal player. If his display catapulted him on to rugby’s grander stage, the young Dubliner has gone on to enhance his reputation as one of Europe’s finest players.

4. Johnny Murtagh (jockey)

Consider that not so long ago, a drink problem cost Johnny Murtagh his job, and almost his career. Out of those black days has come a stronger rider who swept all before him this year. An astonishing total of 12 Group One winners is the big picture. However, Murtagh’s partnership with Sinndar, who became the first horse to win the Irish and English derbies and the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, made the headlines.

"Only a good horse wins a derby by nine lengths," was his understated assessment of Sinndar, but only a good jockey could have such unprecedented success. Admittedly, Mick Kinane equaled Murtagh’s 12 Group One successes, but his wins had nothing like the same quality. Apart from his three major triumphs in Europe, Murtagh won a Breeders’ Cup at Churchill Downs and added the Champion Stakes and the Irish Oaks to his list.

His victories spanned Ireland, Britain, America, France, Germany and Hong Kong and all of them were for two trainers — John Oxx, with whom Murtagh has has a career-long association — and Michael Stoute. Murtagh’s taking a break during January and February; he’s entitled to it.

5. Roy Keane (soccer player)

The engine keeps purring. Voted the best player in England in 2000 by his peers, Roy Keane has sustained the by now expected level of excellence. Manchester United continue to dominate the English game, and Keane is the club’s talisman, inspiring and driving from the front.

Equally, he has been at the forefront of the Republic’s resurgence at the start of the 2002 World Cup qualifying games. Draws in Holland and Portugal, as well as a home win over Estonia, have given the Irish a promising start to the campaign. Even had the temerity to criticize a section of Manchester United’s supporters with his, "They have a few drinks and probably prawn sandwiches, and they don’t realize what’s going on out on the pitch," quote.

No one gave a damn, and Keane’s popularity with the club’s faithful has been secured.

6. D.J. Carey (Kilkenny hurler)

No one denied his talent, no one denied his legendary status in hurling, but could D.J. Carey do it on All-Ireland final day? History suggested that he had failed to deliver on the big occasion. Kilkenny were attempting to stop a run of three defeats at Croke Park in September and suddenly, everyone wanted to know if Carey would produced the goods.

Angered by the speculation that somehow his pedigree was flawed by his supposed muted displays on Kilkenny’s most important days, Carey came out and assisted in a spectacular demolition of Offaly. With several extravagant goals and some brilliant shooting from play, it turned out to be his summer after all. Whatever doubts there were had been banished. Carey was truly one of hurling’s greats.

7. Ted and Ruby Walsh (trainer and jockey)

The father-and-son combination had a year to remember with victories in the English and Irish Grand Nationals as well as a success in the Punchestown festival feature, the Heineken Gold Cup. The seventh father-and-son partnership to win the English National, 20-year-old Ruby piloted Papillion to a marvelous victory with his first ride over Aintree’s intimidating fences.

Then came another win in the Irish National at Fairyhouse, with Papillion once again leading the way. "Having Ruby there was something special," said Ted, whose yard is just over the Dublin border in county Kildare. "It’s something that you have to experience, an indescribable feeling."

There was also Commanche Court’s success at Punchestown to cap a stellar season when the Walshes kept it in the family.

8. Darren Clarke (golfer)

Beaten to the European Order of Merit title by Lee Westwood, and with no success in the major tournaments, Clarke’s year might have been largely forgotten if it hadn’t been for one exceptional achievement in February. Clarke took on the world No. 1 Tiger Woods in head-to-head in the final of WGC matchplay championship at La Costa and emerged victorious.

It was no fluke either. Despite the fact that his weight had ballooned to 260 pounds prompting one sardonic spectator to say: "I didn’t know a fat man could walk that far," Clarke saw off the then world No. 2, David Duval, in the semifinal, before defeating Woods by 4 and 3 in the 36-hole decider.

Missing just one fairway in the final, and knocking in 12 birdies, Clarke’s challenge was irresistible and for once Woods was on the receiving end. The Irishman makes the top ten for proving that Woods is human after all.

9. Munster rugby team

Another controversial nomination — Mick Galwey and his colleagues didn’t actually win anything, not even a silver medal, and yet their odyssey in the prestigious European Cup last spring added to Irish rugby’s improving reputation. Beating three French clubs — unheard of! — on the way to the final, the crowning moment was an emotional and highly skilled victory over Toulouse in Bordeaux on a searing afternoon in May.

Munster were a joy to behold as they ran in two marvelous second-half tries to shock the competition favorites. On to the final at Twickenham in London, where a fiercely determined Northampton spoiled the party. But what a journey, and what an occasion that final was with an estimated 30,000 Munster supporters in the stadium. "I live around the corner from Twickenham," said Keith Wood, "and every day I’ll have to stare as this monument to despair and defeat — I might have to buy a pair of dark glasses so I don’t see it."

Despair and defeat, yes. However, Munster had done Irish rugby proud.

10. Joey Dunlop (motorcyclist)

His death after a crash in Estonia in July deprived Ireland of a sporting legend. In a sport that carries on its business in the media shadows, Dunlop had achieved everything in a career spanning nearly 25 years. Following a first win at the famous Isle of Man TT races in 1977, he went on to become TT Formula One world champion five times.

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