And the greatest Irish champion of all time is: Vincent O’Brien

For sustained mastery over decades the esteemed handler comes out well on top

Jacqueline O’Brien with  Vincent O’Brien and the then president Mrs Mary Robinson. Photograph: Alan Betson

Jacqueline O’Brien with Vincent O’Brien and the then president Mrs Mary Robinson. Photograph: Alan Betson


Some things really get on my goat, one of them being arguments about the Goat, or greatest of all time.

These disputes invariably descend into pointless exhibitions of the prejudices of those getting sweaty over whether Frankel was superior to Sea The Stars, which is complete and utter bullshit by the way and an insult to common sense and . . .

Anyway, someone who really should know better inflicted the Goat topic on an unsuspecting audience recently – specifically who the greatest Irish sportsperson of all time might be – and because yours truly continues to feign a veneer of competence when it comes to bullshit pub discussions on sport, eyeballs swivelled immediately my way.

I tell you now what I said then: I haven’t the foggiest who is, but I do know who is not. And it isn’t anyone in the GAA.

Without wishing to go completely Jerry Kiernan about it – although how wonderful it is to see such f**k you disdain towards Gaelic football from a Kerry man – those arguing for Christy Ring, Henry Shefflin, Mick O’Connell or Kevin Heffernan as Ireland’s greatest sporting figure can be dismissed as irredeemably green-eyed, 1981-minor-sub-goalie, club-treasurer, pub-patriots who believe civilisation rises and sets upon Gaeldom alone.

Of course Ring was a great hurler. But no matter what fanciful delusions of world dominance Croke Park pedals, in the overall sporting context being a great hurler is like being great at kabaddi, exactly. And apart from the small pick, there’s the whole amateur thing.

Taken for mugs
Sure there’s nothing quite like a great game of hurling in terms of spectacle, little to compare with an All-Ireland final in terms of occasion, and there is something genuinely stunning about the spirit of top players giving so much for so little.

Especially when their suspicions must be growing that they are being taken for mugs by their county-board Gael superiors. But ultimately it’s still a pastime.

Like it or not, sporting seriousness is reflected in the amount of money swimming around it. Little concentrates a mind more than knowing your livelihood is on the line. And like it or not, in the society we’ve built, and which others crave, money doesn’t have to shout; it only has to whisper. So forget GAA.

Then there is the global scale of a particular sport. Cricket for instance, in terms of fan base, and consequently potential players, is by many criteria the second-most popular sport on the planet. Hockey is top 10, volleyball also and table tennis, a pointer to the far east. Baseball and basketball dominate in North America.

But there’s a regional bias to them all, a bit like rugby which let’s face it, apart from France and parts of Argentina, is basically confined to old bits of whitey empire. So that’s Kyle, Gibson, McBride and the blessed BOD knocked on the head.

When it comes to the truly global, there’s athletics of course. And Ireland has a list of honourable achievement in a sport which nevertheless has managed to become a byword for dodgy politics and systemic cheating. If athletics’ reputation has reeked, cycling’s has been rancid. Moreover, with the best will in the world no Irish athlete or cyclist has come close to Goat status in their respective sports.

Boxing is the buzz gig, but who’s the best Irish pro? McGuigan? Dunne? Nah.

Tony McCoy is a paradigm of courage and discipline but he isn’t the best jockey now, never mind ever. And National Hunt racing is basically confined to these islands and France so it’s niche. A valid argument can be made for Pat Eddery being the finest jockey this country has produced, but even his most fervent fans would concede he spent much of his career in Lester Piggott’s shadow.

And what of snooker – Alex Higgins, Denis Taylor, I think not: various brmm! brmm! petrol heads, Christ no.

There’s no getting away from it – deep breath – golfers enter the equation, even operating in an irretrievably naff activity that stretches the definition of sport.

Great golfers
Nevertheless there was a year

when Padraig Harrington was awesome and there could be years to come when Rory McIlroy is the same.

Then there’s football. The sport that despite everything continues to exert its inexorable grip on the imagination.

Separating sentiment from judgment can be tough when it comes to someone like Paul McGrath. But Giles was great. So was Keane. And if Brady wasn’t great, he wasn’t far off it. Best of all though has to be Best. There were times Georgie boy was wild enough to make Keane look like Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the scout movement. Yet for a fleeting period in the 1960s it was reasonable to argue that the Belfast kid might just be the most exciting and accomplished footballer in the world.

But even Best isn’t. Because when it comes to fundamentally redefining the parameters of a major world sport, for near-unanimous acceptance around the globe as an absolute benchmark of excellence and accomplishment, and for sustained mastery over decades, the legacy of which still exists, there is only one figure that this country has produced.

Sure there will be tiresomely predictable sneers about it being an industry and not a sport, and yes the man never raised an athletic sweat himself. But wherever it is that people like to bet – and that’s everywhere. And wherever horses leave an audience in thrall, the world will continue to realise that Vincent O’Brien is Ireland’s greatest of all time.

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