A reflection of pride and success
From Sonia O'Sullivan's remarkable double in the World Cross Country and European Championships to Michael Donnellan's sublime performances in Galway's march to their first All-Ireland football success since 1966, the annual Texaco Awards, which are announced today, reflect national and international success by Irish sportsmen and women in 1998.
The 10 winners are: Athletics - Sonia O'Sullivan; Cycling - Mark Scanlan; Gaelic Football - Michael Donnellan; Golf - Darren Clarke; Horse Racing - Tony McCoy; Hurling - Brian Whelahan; Motor Sport - Eddie Jordan; Racquet Sports - Derek Ryan; Rugby - Michael Galwey; Soccer - Brian Kerr.
After the disappointments of the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 and the World Championships in 1997, Sonia O'Sullivan started off 1998 with more hope than confidence. Illness and a loss of confidence had marked her previous two seasons, but a new coach, Alan Storey, mapped out a training regime which had the Cork athlete in perfect physical and mental shape for her assault on the World Cross Country Championships in Marrakesh in March. In the opening four-kilometre race she emerged a comfortable winner by 14 seconds over Morocco's Zahra Quaziz, and then came out the following day and created history by beating Paula Radcliffe for a double gold in the eight-kilometre race.
O'Sullivan took that form to the European Championships in Budapest in August when she completed her remarkable rehabilitation by winning both the 5,000 and 10,000 metres titles in the space of four days. She went on to win two other significant races before the end of the season - the Great North Run in Newcastle and the World Cup in Johannesburg - to firmly re-establish herself as one of the world's top athletes.
Having finished joint second in the British Open and made his Ryder Cup debut in Europe's victory over the US at Valderrama last year, Darren Clarke maintained that progress in 1998 when he won two of the most prestigious events on the European Tour - the Benson and Hedges International at the Oxfordshire and the end-of-season Volvo Masters at Montecastillo. That victory in Spain lifted the Dungannon player to second place in the European Order of Merit behind Colin Montgomerie with earnings in excess of £900,000.
Although Clarke's European Tour victories were the highlights of his season, arguably his best performance was in the US Masters when he closed with rounds of 67 and 69 to finish joint eighth with Tiger Woods and Colin Montgomerie behind Augusta winner Mark O'Meara. His ability to cope with the pressures of the final 18 holes was also reflected in his superb, nine-under-par 63 in capturing the Volvo title at Montecastillo.
After seven years on the grand prix circuit, Eddie Jordan finally made the long-awaited breakthrough in 1998 when Damon Hill drove the Jordan car to victory in a spectacular race in Belgium in August. The team, which had come close in 1997 by finishing second in Argentina and leading in Germany until a puncture snatched away a likely victory, had a dismal start to the 1998 season. Despite a new car and the addition of Damon Hill, Jordan had to wait until the British grand prix at Silverstone in July to pick up their first points of the season.
From that point on, Eddie Jordan guided the team to a string of top class performances, picking up points in the Austrian, German and Hungarian grand- prix. However, on a miserable day at Spa Francorchamps in a race dominated by a remarkable starting grid crash, Damon Hill and Ralf Schumacher came home first and second to realise Eddie Jordan's life ambition. More points followed at Monza and Suzuka, and the team finished in fourth place in the Constructors' Championship.
Brian Kerr's remarkable talent in nurturing Ireland's underage soccer players continued in 1998 when the Irish under-16 and under-18 sides became the first teams from the Republic to win UEFA championships. Having steered the Republic's under-20 team to third place in the World Championships in Kuala Lumpur in 1997, few would have bet on Kerr surpassing that achievement this year. But the astute management team of Kerr and Noel O'Reilly gathered together the best of the Republic's under-16 players and travelled to Scotland in April for the UEFA finals. After an opening draw against the hosts, the Republic went on to beat Spain and Denmark in their group games, before disposing of Portugal in the semi-final and then defeating Italy in the final.
The under-16 victory was still being celebrated when Kerr took the under-18s to the UEFA finals in Cyprus, where they qualified from their group of England, Croatia and Cyprus and went through to the final against Germany. Played in sweltering conditions, Kerr's mainly England-based squad went one up against the Germans, only to lose the advantage in the last minute of the match. Extra time yielded no more goals and nerves were on edge when Liam George put away the championship-winning penalty in the shoot-out to give Kerr his second major title of the year.
In the year that the Tour de France came to Ireland and ended in ignominy after almost daily drug revelations, cyclist Mark Scanlan restored some innocence and pride to the sport when he captured the world junior title in Holland at the end of September. The 18-year-old from Sligo took to two wheels at 11 years of age, and his subsequent progression has been testimony to a rare natural talent. He captured the Irish under-16 title and finished second in the Junior Tour in 1997.
If 1997 marked Scanlan out as an exceptional racer, 1998 proved to be his best year to date. Before going to Holland for the World Championships, he had notched up 35 wins - many against senior riders. He won the Junior Tour and also made a big impression in Europe with a win in the prestigious Volk Classic in Belgium. His World Championship victory underlined the precocious talent when he went away from the pack in the closing stages after 120 kilometres of racing on rain-splattered roads.
Galway's journey to their first All-Ireland football success in 30 years may not have been for the faint-hearted, but Michael Donnellan belied his youth by looking one of their most composed players throughout their most difficult championship moments. Donnellan's pace, poise and scoring ability were critical factors in Galway winning their first football title since 1966 and, in the process, maintaining a remarkable family tradition by following in the footsteps of both his father and grandfather in winning an All-Ireland medal.
Although the 21-year-old's performance against Kildare in the All-Ireland final will be remembered for his two points and his pass to Padraig Joyce for the critical Galway goal, his most important contribution probably came in extra time of the Connacht final replay when he capitalised on a mistake by the Roscommon goalkeeper to put his side on the road to Croke Park. Donnellan followed up his outstanding championship campaign with impressive performances for Ireland in the International Rules series win over Australia.
The Birr player earns his second Texaco award for his versatility as much as his acknowledged hurling ability. Majestic at centre back for the Offaly club side in capturing the All-Ireland club title against Sarsfields on St Patrick's Day, Whelahan had one or two indifferent displays for his county as they went through to the Leinster final against Kilkenny, where they lost both the match and their manager.
Under new manager Michael Bond, Offaly looked revitalised in their extraordinary three-match All-Ireland semi-final saga against Clare. Whelahan was back to his superb best in the half-back line in the decisive third game, suffocating the Clare attack and scoring two points in their 0-16 to 0-13 win. Although suffering from flu, he took his place in defence in the final against Kilkenny. An inspirational decision by Bond to move the Birr player into the forwards after 20 minutes proved to be Offaly's match winner. Whelahan scored 1-6 in a remarkable performance which also earned him an All Star award.
When the first world squash rankings of the year were issued at the start of the year, Derek Ryan had fallen to 21st, the first time he had been outside the top 20 in three years. Since then he has produced the best form of his professional career and he finishes 1998 having fulfilled a lifetime's ambition by reaching the world top 10. He began the year by winning the Hartford Cup in Connecticut and a fortnight later he won the European Champion of Champions tournament in Oslo.
Ryan maintained that level of consistency throughout the summer which saw him move steadily up the world rankings. It was in October, however, that he had his finest hour, beating the reigning world champion, Rodney Eyles, in the first round of the Kuwait Open before losing to world number one Pete Nicholl in the final. The following month he won his third tournament of the year, the Lahore international in Pakistan, and when the end of year rankings were released he had risen to number 10.
Tony McCoy gains his award for another vintage year that reinforced his claims to be among the best ever jump jockeys. Riding principally for the Martin Pipe stable, the Co Antrim-born jockey set a record for the number of winners ridden in a season and was also the leading rider at the Cheltenham Festival. It was not all a bed of roses, however, as McCoy persistently fell foul of the strict whip rules in Britain. What many considered to be his most outstanding ride of the year, when Pridwell beat Istabraq at Aintree, resulted in him picking up a ban.
Although McCoy briefly threatened to quit the sport over whip bans, he ended the year with a number of outstanding wins, including the Murphy's Gold Cup on Cyfor Malta and the Tripleprint Gold Cup on Northern Starlight, and is once again this season leading the jockeys' championship.
Michael Galwey has enjoyed one of the best years of a long career. The Kerry-born player was a key member of the Shannon team that captured the All-Ireland League in May for a record fourth successive year, and he also led Munster to the inter-provincial crown. Galwey made his debut for Munster 10 years ago and won the first of his 23 Irish caps against France in 1991. He has played for Ireland in the second row, at flanker and number eight, and was also in the British and Irish Lions squad in 1993.
A former Gaelic footballer, Galwey is acknowledged as one of the most committed and honest players in the domestic game.
After playing vital roles for Shannon and Munster this season, he captained both the Irish A side and the Combined Provinces in their representative games against South Africa.
The awards will be presented by the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, at a banquet in Dublin on January 12th.