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

Sun, Apr 13, 2014, 16:23

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.

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