The highs and lows of Irish football in 2017

The Irish football year was book-ended and overshadowed by the tragic deaths of Derry City skipper Ryan McBride and the young Shelbourne striker Izzy Desu, writes Liam Mackey.

The highs and lows of Irish football in 2017

At this time of year, when people traditionally reflect on the past and contemplate the future, one can only imagine how painful that experience must be for their families, friends and teammates.

To all of them, we can only reiterate our sorrow for their heartbreaking loss and hope that they find the strength to cope in 2018.

Meanwhile, the football world keeps on turning and so, as we leave 2017, herewith a personal selection of Himalayan highs — and one Mariana Trench-style low — with which to sign off on what was a year to remember and (if only we could) forget, in the Irish game.

Goal of the Year

Patrick McEleney had plenty of competition, mainly, as it happens, from Patrick McEleney. The pick of a pretty bunch came away to Drogheda United in June, the third in a 6-0 trashing handed out in most unneighbourly fashion by Dundalk. It was just coming up to half-time when McEleney expertly cushioned a dropping ball on his instep before turning and accelerating away from three opponents. Sheer determination saw him keep the ball from crossing the sideline before he showed muscle to withstand one challenge as he cut back inside.

Then, shaping as if to shoot with his right foot, he left another Drogheda player sliding into thin air as, with a magician’s sleight of foot, he shifted the ball from right to left.

McEleney was now just outside the penalty area and a little to the left of the target when he conjured up the coup de grace: a chip of such immaculate precision that it smoothly negotiated the postage stamp space between the keeper’s full-length dive and the angle of crossbar and post, to find the back of the net. In truth, it should have been a Puskas award contender, a la Stephanie Roche, but you could also argue that it was just business as usual for a player who, in the great tradition of such stellar entertainers as Paddy McCourt and Joseph N’Do, has always had League of Ireland fans anticipating a touch of the sublime whenever the ball lands at his feet. The domestic game will be much the poorer for his departure to Oldham Athletic.

Player of the Year

Considering he was gone from the League of Ireland in July and then had his year ended prematurely by injury in early November, it says something about the extent of the impact Sean Maguire made on the field of play at home and abroad during his truncated 2017, that few could still look past him for the Player of the Year gong. His prodigious goal haul for Cork City grabbed the headlines but such was his evolution into the complete attacking player this season that his departure for Preston effectively robbed the champions elect of a Number 9 and Number 10 at one stroke.

The challenges faced by Daryl Horgan, Kevin O’Connor, Andy Boyle and, before them, Richie Towell, in hitting the ground running in the Championship serve only to underline how well Maguire was doing at Deepdale before that untimely hamstring injury did what few defenders could do and finally put a stop to his gallop. By then, of course, he had capped an already tremendous year by coming off the bench late on against Moldova to make his competitive debut for Ireland. And after hitting such heights in 2017, there are legitimate grounds for believing that we will see much more of the Kilkenny man in the green shirt in 2018 and beyond.

Club of the Year

Doing the double has to mean, by definition, that you’re the team of the year but there was more to Cork City’s memorable 2017 than those league and cup triumphs. On the same day that the men’s team beat Dundalk to lift the FAI Cup, the Aviva also saw the Cork City women mirror that achievement by upsetting the odds to beat UCD Waves through a superbly taken Clare Shine goal.

And throughout a season to remember on Leeside, the Rebel Army more than played its part in making Turner’s Cross an incomparably atmospheric venue in which to watch the domestic game at its most thrilling and dramatic. The loss of Sean Maguire, Kevin O’Connor and, through injury, skipper Johnny Dunleavy meant that John Caulfield’s team were always going to struggle to maintain their seemingly unstoppable momentum heading into the home straight but, despite a minor derailment or two, they got back on track to finish the year on an unforgettable high.

Heroes of the Year

The Irish senior women’s team for, first, talking the talk and then walking the walk. They should never have been put in such a terrible position, of course, but by making the difficult decision to take on the FAI in public they won much-needed improvement in their terms and conditions – conditions which, to widespread shock and disbelief, included having to share tracksuits and change in toilets.

The determination and unity of purpose they showed in Liberty Hall on that extraordinary day in April, they then proceeded to replicate on the pitch, beating Northern Ireland and Slovakia in their opening two World Cup qualifiers before pulling off a result of historic proportions by holding star-studded European champions Holland to a scoreless draw on the road.

New manager Colin Bell deserves much credit for the team’s ability to keep three clean sheets in a row but it’s the inspirational girls in green themselves who deserve the bulk of the praise for the important strides the women’s game has taken in Ireland, on and off the pitch, in 2017.

Quote of the Year

“Wicklow County has unfortunately now attained the accolade of being the North Korea of Ireland for business. But like all suppressed people, they eventually revolt. A revolution of

football is going to start and Bray Wanderers will be the leaders not

just for Wicklow but for Ireland in this revolt.”

— Bray Wanderers interim chairman Gerry Mulvey trumps all.

Moment of the Year

It was hardly a pretty affair in Cardiff but in what was a must-win game for Ireland, James McClean delivered the moment of class that mattered, unerringly smacking home a first time shot to dump Wales out of the World Cup running and send Ireland through to the play-offs.

We all know what happened next so the fact that the public recently voted McClean the Sportsperson of the Year on RTÉ is a reminder such moments do matter when sports fans are asked to reflect on what thrilled them the most in any given year.

It also tells you that the kind of fierce pride and passion which McClean shows in representing his country will always strike a chord. And so, as an unhappy consequence of all that, to our final award...

Disappointment of the Year (to put it mildly)

Oh, just have a wild bloody guess, why don’tcha?

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