As the curtain falls on 2019, we asked our writers to share the moment which encapsulated all that is good about sport this year. (See part 1 here)
The year sport generously gave me the perfect ending I’d dreamed about
So much happened in 2019 that I could pick six or seven different highlights and throw in a few lowlights too, if I was allowed. But we have been asked for one and, after giving it plenty of consideration, I decided to select the one that won’t happen next year.
Come to think of it, this won’t happen again.
Shane Lowry could win another Open, Tiger Woods another Masters, Dublin probably will make it six in a row and South Africa will win another Rugby World Cup at some stage. The champions in racing will most likely stay the same on a human front, bar Donnacha O’Brien, and Tipperary may be replaced by Limerick in hurling next year.
But my pick, for me, was me. It was me because I got to do something very few sports people, amateur or professional, get to do — I got the chance to end my sporting career the way I wanted.
My highlight is not the success of Kemboy at Punchestown, it’s the success of the ending. I thought and knew of all the ways my life as a jockey could end.
But I dreamt of finishing the way I did.
I didn’t dream about what horse or what race, how ever the venue did cross my mind in the last 18 months. If I stayed in one piece would I bow out at Cheltenham on a big one or at Aintree if I managed to topple Tiger Roll and win the Grand National. I dreamt about getting back to very top, one last time.
Winning the big races at the biggest meetings and when no-one was expecting it, pulling the plug and saying thank you, it’s over.
There were plenty of rumours I would retire in early of the part of 2019 but only a few knew as Kemboy strode into the straight at Punchestown what I was about to do.
People watched Kemboy beating Al Boum Photo, a race where the main contenders turned for home in the week’s feature event, side by side with two to jump and the result still in the balance.
They watched Kemboy quicken away from two out when Al Boum Photo landed flat-footed and seal the deal with a good jump at the last, but my family watched and felt what I did. Two good jumps and one last drive to joy, to relief, to fulfilment. They’re the feelings and thoughts I had in those last three furlongs.
When I knew Kemboy was about to win and I felt the end had come I just felt proud. That’s my sporting highlight for 2019. It’s personal but it’s the moment that meant most to me in 2019.
It won’t ever happen to me again.
There’s something magical about communal moments after the battle
Think of Thurles. Cue images of sun-kissed summer afternoons. Colourful hordes colonising the stands and terraces. Waves of action and emotion as two of Munster’s hurling behemoths stitch another line into the great game’s unfolding tapestry.
Now scratch all that.
Imagine instead a cold and grey February afternoon. Semple was nine-tenths empty as Dr Crokes and Mullinalaghta debated their AIB All-Ireland Club football semi-final and only a few hundred lingered on after the Kerry champions brought one of the year’s great sporting fairytales to an end.
Every man, woman and child that lingered appeared to be of Mullinalaghta.
The evening was still as the darkness moved in. The web of conversations were conducted in a low hum before the hi-vis jackets of the match day stewards began to appear around them and ask ever-so-gently if they wouldn’t mind making for the exits.
“You kind of want to go into the dressing-room and you don’t want to go into the dressing-room because then that’s the end of the journey,” said the captain Shane Mulligan in the midst of all this humanity and community and its strange cocktail of pride and disappointment.
There is something magical about these communal moments after the battle when players and coaches and supporters mingle to share the joys and the heartbreak.
Pitch invasions are increasingly rare on the very big days and understandably so.
There is no longer the sight of triumphant captains being jostled and cajoled towards the Hogan Stand by an enveloping mass but post-match gatherings like that one in Thurles remain something to be cherished in a changing and more professional world.
Others were witnessed on our travels through the spring in Wexford Park, Tuam, and again in Thurles before the stakes were raised.
Summer took us to Netwatch Cullen Park in Carlow for the visit of Kilkenny and to Walsh Park where the locals greeted Limerick’s All-Ireland champions.
And then there was Portlaoise at the start of July.
It was creeping towards six in the evening when Laois had disposed of Dublin in their All-Ireland preliminary quarter-final and wherever you looked on the O’Moore Park pitch there was a small knot of beaming spectators drawn to a player or two like moths to a flame.
Here was the former-player you went to school with, luxuriating in the moment after years of sometimes penal service. There was the buddy, who had stood on the same terrace eight years before when Cork found the Laois net 10 times, laughing and joking and drinking it all in.
As with the Mullinalaghta gathering, their presence on the pitch was testament to the fact this was their moment too. This was a journey that was endured and enjoyed by more than just the few wearing boots and bruises. Shared memories that will never fade.
The football I could handle. But hurling? Hurling to me was like Cirque Du Soleil
I’m standing in a field surrounded by eight-year-old boys. They are holding hurls. I’m holding one too. They gaze at me through their helmets.
“Teach us the ways of this ancient craft,” their eyes seem to say.
Oh boy. I am not a hurling man. Where I grew up, there were no hurling men. This may be the longest I have actually held a hurl. Is it hurl or hurley? I don’t even know.
Yet here I am, a hurling coach. How did that happen?
Every Saturday morning hundreds of children and their parents converge on St Vincent’s GAA club, as they do in clubs across Ireland at the same time. It’s like Mass, but with underarmour and woolly hats.
2019 was the year my eldest graduated from the tears and snotters of mini-leagues to being part of his own team, so 2019 was the year I became a GAA coach. I did the foundation course and bought a whistle.
The football I could handle. But hurling? Hurling to me was like Cirque Du Soleil, in that I could admire the spectacle without having a clue how it was done, and was quite sure I would injure myself or others were I to ever try it.
Fortunately, amid the bluffers we have parents who know a thing or two. Sean Brady, club legend and dad to Jack and Marcus, presents me with my first hurl. There are pictures taken and everyone laughs.
We are all here for the same reason. Not for the glory of the GAA or so that we can become mini-Codys. It’s to be with our children in this golden time when they still want to be with us.
My boy, James, is a mercurial sort. He has inherited his father’s lack of speed and the physical aggression of a Tibetan monk. He needs to be in the right mood to perform, like a cross between a recalcitrant bull and Emmanuel Adebayor.
Our last game before the summer break is away to Naomh Barróg. It’s ground hurling at this age, so games can resemble mediaeval battle scenes, with lots of violent hacking in mud. But this day is fine, the pitch hard and the ball runs free.
James is like a man possessed. He rattles in five goals in a blistering first half. Two of the backs were chatting earnestly about Pokemon and the goalkeeper was watching aeroplanes, but still.
He’ll never know how proud I was of him in those moments. We’re not supposed to keep score and we praise even the most modest efforts. But my heart is full as I strut the sideline. Nothing in sport this year came close. Richie, our manager, has gotten fizzy pop and crisps for the lads and makes a speech about how Vincent’s is part of who they are. We grab the water bottles and drench him.
James and I climb into the car and head home, he contently munching on Hula Hoops, me the unlikely hurling coach.
Looking back to the moment I became Seamus Callanan
It is Sunday, July 28, 2019, and I’m watching the All-Ireland SHC semi-final in a pub in Kerry. Tipperary versus Wexford, and the stakes are high.
For one set of people, there will be a sense of loss and a bitter awakening and a long road home, their daily worries and failures intact, their belief in themselves a little more frayed. For the other, a burgeoning expectation — staying alive in the dream — daring to still trust in an unlikely faith. All those who live in sport know this loss, this dream, this faith. It’s why we do it.
The pub is heaving, hot and loud. Dark — as Seán Ó Faoláin or Kevin Barry might say — as passion. Wexford infuse the game’s opening moments with an unexpected sense of assurance and precision that make me wonder:Three points in three sparkling minutes and a missed wide-open pass that should have made it 1-3 to 0-1.
The Tipp players have that wide-eyed rabbit caught in the headlights stare. The Tipp supporters around me in the pub have it too; their urgings develop an uncertain plaintive tone.
A disallowed goal seems to hint that the day might turn its back on them. The game settles into a more even thread at 0-4 to 0-2 and then … and then … and then … Niall O’Meara spears through the Wexford defence and gives a long handpass that Seamus Callanan runs on to. He’s in front of the goal and the ball hops once,, the ball hops twice, , the ball hops thrice, .
And — just at the apex of this final bounce, when the opportunity seems to be receding into the mist of all other sporting what-might-have-beens — Seamus hits it.
The strike is utterly transcendent and I feel my breath catch and my heart lose purchase and I have to put a hand on the bar counter to steady myself. I immediately know what’s happening —what sport is doing to me again.
To me and to so many others adrift inside its magical glamour. In this heavenly perfection — not so much the strike as the waiting and trusting for the moment to execute it — I’m not in that pub anymore, I’m not in Kerry anymore, and I’m not me anymore.
I’m in Croke Park and I’m on that pitch and ISéamus Callanan scoring that goal.
Sport is casting off the laws of science and order, transmuting time and matter and space. Transforming me into a demi-god who is shaking the mountains of hurling memory. It isn’t Séamus who steps forward and carries his team mates, his family, his parish and his people over the line — on to the final and beyond.
It isn’t Séamus who bears this load on his shoulders as lightly as though it were a loving hand placed there.
No, it’s me.
Isn’t sport a wonderful thing?
Ross reveals how sport is truly regarded by decision-makers
Chances are you watched a lot of television over the holidays, and bad television at that.
If you did you may have distracted yourself with the A, B and C plots in those TV shows. The A plot is the immediate story in each episode.
You may also know what the B plot is — the ongoing issues through the series, such as the personal life of the protagonists, which cover events in one episode which may have ramifications in other episodes.
But there is often a C plot: These are the events which resonate down the length of the series, the machinations and twists which can only be seen the odd time. They’re glimpsed at a remove and are only revealed very occasionally.
The C plot is the important one. The wider picture which is served by the A plot and B plot, and which may only be revealed in all its complexity at the very end.
Hence my sports highlight of the year: The photograph of Shane Ross, the Minister of State for Sport, on social media holding a goose and asking the question: “Guess who cooked my goose? The FAI? The Judges? The Vintners ?” My reason for picking this is simple. It shows the C plot at work.
It’s not the fact that the person charged with government oversight of sport within the country could make such a tone-deaf joke out of the biggest sporting financial scandal in the history of the country. That’s embarrassing for the person concerned. No more than what we expect.
Guess who cooked my goose? The FAI? The Judges? The Vintners ? pic.twitter.com/yXptsFUJdw— Shane Ross (@Ross_Shane1) December 26, 2019
The true significance of the photograph is that it tells you everything about the true position of sport within the country.
In your obsession with your sport of choice you may believe that all share your passion, or have similar passions of their own. It’s serious.
A commitment that is unremarkable to you because everyone you know experiences something similar.
Shane Ross, however, has done us all a favour because his photograph reveals how sport is truly regarded by decision-makers. As a minor consideration in government, as a momentary distraction for the masses, as the butt of a joke — one which takes no cognisance of the hundreds of jobs at stake in the FAI and associated enterprises, for instance.
That may be hard to accept, but it’s the truth. There’s the C plot at work for you, the overarching narrative beyond the goals and the games and the minor squabbles.
Because of that I see the photograph as the most striking development in Irish sport over the past year.
If it strikes you as a strange highlight, ask yourself a question. Wouldn’t you rather know the truth?
A year when women’s sport edgedcloser to becoming simply sport
In an interview ahead of last year’s All-Ireland camogie final, Cork star Julia White, a teacher in a girls secondary school, admitted to Marie Crowe that few of her students would have any idea that she lived a second life that brought her to the pinnacle of her sport.
It was a downbeat moment in an insightful interview that touched on dropout rates, body image, and the various obstacles that see teenage girls slip away from sport.
The year gone by will surely have kept many girls of all ages going a little longer.
The decade ends with Fallon Sherrock as the new poster girl for sportswomen. Yet, in a way her remarkable progress at the Ally Pally jarred with the year’s tone.
Sherrock dominated the headlines because she was a woman making inroads in a man’s world. But this was a year when female athletes largely bestrode a world of their own. When women’s sport edged ever closer to becoming simply sport.
The tone was set by the German national team in a promotional video ahead of the Women’s World Cup.
Before it began, the World Cup probably generated too many patronising headlines, with perhaps gaining too much credit for simply showing the matches. But it evolved into the kind of exotic tournament everyone pines for from their youth, when there used to be surprises around every corner, when the Peruvian striker wasn’t a lad you’d seen flop at Watford.
Don’t worry, you don’t need to know who we are. You just need to know what we want. We want to play our own game to our own tune.
The elegance of Rose Lavelle and Caroline Graham Hansen introduced itself to new audiences.
Marta provided the emotional call to arms. Megan Rapinoe struck poses and signalled a readiness to fight whatever establishment fancied going toe to toe.
After the tournament, the FA casually began broadcasting live every single match from the Women’s Super League, which, with Irish players making an impact at the top of the table, is another welcome relic of our youth.
There were many other joys this year. Katie Taylor’s endless class. Ciara Mageean’s ebullient interview following the World Athletic Championships 1500m final. Katie McCabe and her partner Ruesha Littlejohn speaking up for football’s inclusivity in a year when the various shades of bigotry soiled the men’s game.
And on a Tuesday night in October, Rianna Jarrett scored her first international goal as Ireland beat Ukraine 3-2. It was a poignant landmark for the Wexford women who has recovered from three cruciate injuries suffered before she was 22.
Two days later, Jarrett posted a jarring image on Twitter. She was back at her office desk, an indication the women’s game has still some distance to travel.
But at least her workmates had welcomed her back, with a cake, and turned that desk into a shrine to her second life. To her place in the sporting world.