The sporting year: thrills, spills and joy unbridled

The hurling season led the way in a year’s sport with plenty of heroes, some villains and more than a few talking points

Clare’s Shane O’Donnell goes past Cork’s Shane O’Neill in the  All-Ireland Hurling Final replay. Photograph: Inpho/james Crombie

Clare’s Shane O’Donnell goes past Cork’s Shane O’Neill in the All-Ireland Hurling Final replay. Photograph: Inpho/james Crombie

Mon, Dec 30, 2013, 11:55

“Going up to the Hill after scoring a goal, there’s always a delay between when it hits the net and when they roar. It’s absolutely amazing.”

– Shane O’Donnell, Clare hurler

We had him pinned against a wall beside the Clare team bus when Shane O’Donnell offered up that quote in September. It was a good hour after the final whistle but he was still in his kit and the hurley that had just magicked 3-3 was still in his hand. There was a serenity about him as he stood there, as if he knew there couldn’t be a day like this again in his life so it was as well just to go with it.

Yet there was a healthy dose of awe in there too. A boy’s awe. Not at himself, not at what he’d done. More at what his doings had done, at the breadth and magnitude of what had rippled out from them. With one simple line, he managed to catch the delicate wonder of sport in a butterfly net.

That delay. That delay is a beautiful thing. As though pause has been pressed on everything except for a ball flying through air. The one O’Donnell was talking about was for his hat-trick goal in the All-Ireland final replay, the bat-down finish past Anthony Nash in the Cork net. For the smallest slip-slide of a second, they were the only two people who knew the outcome.

That delay. Between bas to ball and ball to goal and goal to roar. An eon in an eyeblink. A tiny moment. Barely even a moment. Yet standing outside later on, trying to dress what had happened in suitable clothes, O’Donnell reached for that delay and revelled in it.

All of sport was in that delay. Sport is about actions and sport is about outcomes. The delay in between them can last a nanosecond, it can last 70 minutes, it can last a career, it can last a lifetime. The length of time doesn’t matter. What matters is what we fill it with.

Hope and dread. Expectation and fear. Confidence and suspicion. Anticipation and doubt. Love and hate. Everything that grabs us, keeps us and sustains us. Everything that hurts, depresses, makes us swear we’re never coming back. It was all there in that split second that O’Donnell had both fists wrapped around the grip of his stick.

So when it comes to taking a headlong dive into sport’s lagoon for 2013, no cliff stands higher or prouder than hurling’s and none provides a more appropriate launching point. It was the sport that did most to rattle cages and shiver timbers, the one that had us out of our seats with the greatest regularity.


Saw it coming
But how? Let nobody say they saw it coming. A flick back at all the pre-championship supplements saw only three teams worth the look. After a league final of uncommon ferocity in Nowlan Park, Kilkenny and Tipperary went into the championship odds-on favourites in their provinces. Kilkenny were 8/11 for the All-Ireland. Tipp and Galway were the only other sides with a single-digit quote. Yet none of the three lasted beyond July.

The four eventual semi-finalists were an ocean back in the bookmakers’ eyes – Limerick at 25/1, Dublin at 40/1, Cork at 16/1, Clare at 22/1. Yet the two teams who played the Division 1B final ended the year as provincial champions, closing off gaps of a combined 69 years along the way. And the two teams who played off for relegation from Division 1A delivered an All-Ireland that fizzed and soared like a comet’s tail.

Even now, explanation for it all is far from simple. When fire investigators go into a smouldering house, they use flame-damage only as a clue to help them work backwards. Eventually they find the origin of the fire, the point at which things went from being calm and normal and everyday to being anything but.

Limerick’s undressing of Tipp on the same afternoon that Offaly put four goals past Kilkenny is the obvious place to look. The general view at the time was to shrug and dismiss both games as no more than early-season volatility. The general view was wrong.

Across the hurling land, teams were shuttling through their sessions with the growing sense that the time of oppression could be coming to an end. That the years of being beaten before leaving the dressing room didn’t have to continue. In hindsight, it was probably no shock that teams led by people like Anthony Daly, Davy Fitzgerald, Jimmy Barry-Murphy and John Allen took offence at the idea of being anyone’s stepping stone.

So the underdogs barked. And bit, too. The favourites went down in both Munster semi-finals, one Leinster semi-final, the Leinster final, both All-Ireland quarter-finals and both All-Ireland semi-finals. Every time you thought you had your hands around the hurling year, you felt your palms slapping together as it squirted off in a different direction.

And to round it all off, some stone-cold classics come the business end. Cork-Dublin. Clare-Cork. Clare-Cork again. Podge Collins’s point. Anthony Nash’s frees. Conor Lehane’s goal. Domhnall O’Donovan’s last supper. Davy’s 13 men on the line. O’Donnell’s hat-trick. Conor McGrath’s kill-shot. Liam MacCarthy hoisted under a floodlit Saturday night.

None of it expected. None of it inevitable. None of it a fluke, either. The delay between actions and outcomes filled in by one high-drama hoe-down after another. You can’t ask for more from sport.


Gripping summer
Football had its days as well. If Dublin’s All-Ireland came freighted with a less of the thrill of the unexpected than Clare’s, the summer was no less gripping for it. Nothing in any sport surpassed their All-Ireland semi-final win over Kerry, a game that glorified the losers as it ennobled the winners.

Bottle one day of sport to carry around for life – that day would be it. The blaze of a back-to-school sun. Croker simmering. Kerry not so much raging at the dying of the light as giving it the finger. The immortal Cooper. The superhuman MacAuley. Kevin McManamon bearing down on goal. The shot. The delay. The Hill.

It was notable afterwards that very little was ever made out of whether McManamon meant it or not. In a lesser game, that would have been the first and last talking point. Instead, there was a little light chuckling and no more, purely because people wanted to talk about the game, just the game. If ever there was a mark of a truly great day, that was it. In the end, nobody really cares whether Hendrix wanted to kiss the sky or kiss this guy.

Dublin started the year as the team to beat and duly ensured that nobody could do so when it mattered. Supremely guided on their way by Jim Gavin, they found different solutions to different problems each day they went out. They trailed at half-time in three of their four games from the Leinster final on yet only against Kerry did they ever look in real trouble. And still they prevailed in that one by seven points.

The year ended with them as league champions, Leinster champions, All-Ireland champions. It ended too with St Vincent’s top of the tree in Dublin and Leinster. It probably wasn’t strictly necessary to mark Kevin Heffernan’s passing so emphatically but then again it’s easy to imagine him delighting in the excess.

A Dublin All-Ireland will never be a romantic tale so we had to look elsewhere for that. We got it in the form of London’s impossible trek to the Connacht final and a last-12 appearance in Croke Park. We got it in the form of Monaghan’s tidal wave in the Ulster final that washed Donegal clean away. We got stirrings in Cavan and in Meath, maybe in Galway and Armagh too. We don’t know yet. We’ll have to see what happens.

But isn’t that the point? The not knowing. The seeing what happens. In a Drumcondra pub the night of the All-Ireland, a Mayo friend swore blind to me that he wouldn’t be back from Melbourne next September. I don’t believe him. I believe he believes it. But I don’t believe him.

Because each new year of sport is unwritten. Each new regime untarnished. Both national teams that take up most of our attention end the year without a significant change to the playing staff but because there are new names above the door we’re all a bit more upbeat than we were 12 months ago.


O’Gara’s farewell
That said, rugby’s world view is just a little unsettled at the moment. Nothing has legged up the game here like the Heineken Cup and the prospect of it dying on the vine has to be scaring the life out of everyone involved. If and when it goes, it will be fascinating to see where the level of public interest in the sport settles. As it is, the uncertainty is helping nobody. It all fed into what was a collapsed scrum of a rugby year. Ireland put in their worst Six Nations performance in a decade, including losing to Italy for the first time in the competition and throwing away a lead in Murrayfield like it was the bad old days again. Declan Kidney melted back into society afterwards, his duty all ended.

A vintage Munster away win in the quarter-final against Harlequins was the bright point of the latter stages of the Heineken but even they heard the clank of the bucket at the bottom of the well against Clermont. It was the last we saw of Ronan O’Gara in a red shirt, a final reminder of what a thrill ride it was to see him in one at all.

We’ll do that same with Brian O’Driscoll in 2014, when the ache to send him off across the horizon as a champion will be only chronic. If this year has taught us anything, however, it’s that we can’t will him a fairytale goodbye. He didn’t get it with the Lions, he didn’t get it against New Zealand. Ireland’s final Six Nations game will be in the Stade de France. Ah stop, it’s surely too much to ask.


Martin and Roy show
The soccer team changed manager too, Giovanni Trapattoni not even making it to the end of the World Cup qualifying campaign. It was enjoyable having him around the place for much of the five years, even when his football was anything but. And however sour it turned by the end, nobody should forget the crumbled ruins he walked into when he took over in early 2008. It’s inarguable that he left the side in better shape than he found it.

Still, there is much work for Martin O’Neill to do. Bringing Roy Keane back into our lives immediately washed out the bad taste of the end of the Trap era. An Ireland team playing to a half-interested public has no real reason to exist. That was becoming the case under Trap, just as it had become the case towards the end of Steve Staunton’s time. In a finger-snap, the buzz has returned.

When it comes down to it, that’s what people truly want. We talk big talk about competing with the best but there isn’t an Irish soccer follower alive who has a problem with the fact that no team from this country will never win the World Cup. Same goes for the rugby, even if it’s not quite as silly a notion. Watch enough players, watch enough games and in time you become realistic enough about what’s possible. So the idea that managers are hounded out because of unrealistic expectations isn’t quite right.

No, what you want from sport is to be moved. To have something beyond you take you beyond. If that sounds airy-fairy in the abstract, the specifics of it are nothing less than the oil that greases the wheels of the whole sporting world. It is why people play, it is why people watch. It’s what sustains all forms of media all the year round.


Walk on highlight
In Ireland, the kaleidoscope of sports that we find to move us never stops turning. The individual achievement of the year was Rob Heffernan’s, his gold medal in the 50k walk at the World Athletics Championships one of the great joys of the summer.

It was one of those singular pieces of magnificence that every once in a while bubbles up from an Irish sportsperson. It was the only piece of race-walking you watched since the Olympics, the only piece you’ll watch before the Europeans in Zurich next August. Yet you couldn’t but punch the air that Wednesday lunchtime as he came home a minute clear of the field.

We did that plenty of times over the past 12 months. We roared at the TV as Dan Martin slogged his way to the front of what will stand in lore as one of the greatest stages in the history of the Tour de France. We hammered F5 on the computer back in February to keep tabs on Martyn Irvine as he loop-de-looped a first ever Irish track cycling gold medal. We heard that Annalise Murphy had overcome her Olympic disappointment to win a European gold and we were delighted for her. Same with Jason Smyth and Michael McKillop, both of whose reigns over their Paralympic disciplines remained complete with double golds at the World Paralympic Games.

We roared home Willie Mullins winner after Willie Mullins winner at Cheltenham. We leaned against a pillar in a betting shop and smiled as a handful of old lags broke into applause for Tony McCoy’s 4,000th winner. We continued to admire the all-encompassing dominance of Aidan and Joseph O’Brien.

We saw John Joe Nevin turn pro and Jason Quigley take his place as the most exciting thing to come out of Billy Walsh’s gym on the South Circular Road. We marvelled at the eternal flame carried by the Cork women footballers as they ground out their eighth All-Ireland in nine years. We saw them rivalled for team of the year by the Irish women’s rugby team, Grand Slam winners for the first time in their history.

We were moved too by people off the pitch. By GAA players Alan O’Mara and Conor Cusack, who lifted the lid on their own hidden world so others could maybe find a way lifting theirs. Same with Niall McNamee and Cathal McCarron, battlers against what the GPA are certain is the next big issue to look out for – that of young men gambling. Heroism doesn’t always require pulling on a pair of boots.

In the end, we come back. We come back to Shane O’Donnell’s delay. The reason the line resonates is simple – we who watch are forever at a distance from those who play. We do our best to get close and we get our kicks from it as best we can. But there’s always that gap.

Somewhere today a runner is pulling on trainers, a hurler is banging a sliotar off a wall, a rugby player is lifting weights. A county team is swearing oaths to one another, a trainer is telling a work-rider to give a Cheltenham hope a squeeze. A golfer is pinning down his schedule and vowing that next year will be better than last.

All of this is going on and we on the outside know nothing about it. We are all of us the people on the Hill, waiting for Shane O’Donnell’s shot to hit the net or be saved. As we will be next year and all the years to come thereafter.

He’s right. It is absolutely amazing.

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