Sporting obituaries 2021: From League of Ireland to GAA, Olympics and the World Cup

Remembering the sportspeople who passed away in 2021

The final whistle blew on many a player who had lived for the noise of the crowd, through careers – be it in the League of Ireland, or in England at places like White Hart Lane or on the global stage – that brought passion, emotion and never the sound of silence.

Ben Hannigan, forever associated with Shelbourne but who brought his attacking skills to Shamrock Rovers, Dundalk, Sligo Rovers and briefly to Wrexham and Cologne in a long career, was among those soccer players to pass through 2021, a year that also lost, among others, Jimmy Greaves, Ian St John, Paul Mariner, Frank Worthington and Glenn Roeder.

Jimmy Greaves (February 1940-September 2021)

Greaves was a player who was central to England’s march to the 1966 World Cup final (for the win over West Germany) but missed the showdown due to injury. At the time, only the 11 players who played that day were awarded medals but a wrong was righted in 2009 when Fifa decided against the old policy of not including squad members, which resulted in winning teams from 1934-1974 being awarded medals.

In his post-footballing career, Greaves had established a much-loved television partnership with Scottish international St John, who had spent most of his career with Liverpool. The “Saint and Greavies” show was, in many ways, ahead of its time in incorporating humour with the serious analysis of the game in the 1980s and 1990s.


His friend pre-deceased him by a matter of months, with Greaves remarking of St John’s passing: “He was a lot of fun to be with and a great footballer. He will be sadly missed. I will never forget his laughter for all the years we worked together.”

Alan McLoughlin (April 1967-May 2021)

For Alan McLoughlin, a World Cup medal was never a realistic career goal but the Manchester-born footballer – who passed away in May at age 54 after a decade-long battle with cancer – earned a special place in the hearts of Irish football fans for his spectacular equalising goal against Northern Ireland at Windsor Park on November 17th, 1993 which secured Jack Charlton’s team a place in the World Cup finals at USA ’94.

McLoughlin was born in Manchester to Irish parents – a mother from Limerick, a father from Galway – and, in his book, A Different Shade of Green, he recounted how he came to play for Ireland rather than England with no regrets.

“I got the call-up for both. Aged 22, I got home to my house one day and there, on top of a pile of mail, was a pristine envelope with the Three Lions on it. I had been selected to play for England B. I called Mum, she was delighted with the news. Then I turned to the pile of mail sitting on the doormat. One a slightly dog-eared envelope, from the FAI. I had been selected for Ireland B too. I phoned Mum up again. This time, I heard a little crack of emotion in her voice as she told me how proud she was. Although she was trying to hide it, she was a lot more excited. This was the woman who regularly cycled across Manchester in the rain to watch me play school matches as a kid. That was it for me. Ireland.”

McLoughlin had featured infrequently, primarily used as a substitute during Italia '90, and for that crucial match in Belfast – where the Republic needed a draw at least and Northern Ireland were playing for pride – he was winning his 15th cap when sent on as a replacement for Ray Houghton with 20 minutes left in the game.

The match itself had been played on a November night – which became the focus of an award-winning one-man play, A Night in November, which involved Patrick Kielty performing on stages around the world – and came in the middle of more troubled times in Belfast which led to the exclusion of any Republic fans and the team required to make the journey from Dublin to Belfast by plane rather than by road.

Not long after McLoughlin's introduction, Jimmy Quinn took a shot from 20 yards which evaded the reach of Packie Bonner. Windsor Park erupted. And Ireland's dream of USA '94 looked out of reach.

And, then, it wasn’t.

Five minutes after his introduction and three minutes after Quinn's goal, Denis Irwin hit a free-kick into the box and Northern Ireland defender Gerry Taggart managed to head clear but only as far as McLoughlin, who calmly controlled the ball with his chest and, as it dropped, struck a shot with his left foot that fired by Northern Ireland goalkeeper Tommy Wright.

The goal was met with silence within the stadium, apart from the roars of McLoughlin’s team-mates and those in the dugout. With that strike, the Mancunian son of a Limerick mother and a Galway father endeared himself to the Green Army, forever.

Jerry Kiernan (May 1953-January 2021)

A native of Listowel, the school teacher – based in Dublin for much of his life – was one of Ireland’s finest athletes across track, road and cross-country in a career which saw him successfully turn into a much-regarded coach in recent years.

Kiernan was one of those at the heart and soul of Irish athletics for many years. A two-time winner of the Dublin marathon – in 1982 when he went to the front early on and stayed there in what equated to a solo run in a time of 2:13.45, which stood as a course record for years, and again in 1992 – the Kerryman with the distinctive curly hair competed in the 1984 Olympic marathon where he finished ninth, in a race where John Treacy claimed the silver medal.

Kiernan – a lifelong member of Clonliffe Harriers – represented Ireland 17 times in 1975-1993, including seven times in the world cross-country championships, and won five national titles, from the 1,500m to the marathon while also winning national inter-club and inter-country cross-country titles.

James McCartan (August 1938-August 2021)

Known as the King of Down, James McCartan snr was indeed a man of nobility within Ulster GAA: he was an integral part of the Down All-Ireland football winning teams of 1960 and 1961 and was named Texaco footballer of the year both years.

McCartan was part of a skilful and feared half-forward line – with Seán O'Neill and Paddy Doherty either side of him as he led the attack – and Down's history-breaking All-Ireland of 1960 came with a comfortable win over Kerry and then a successful defence, by just a one-point margin, over Offaly in 1961 when a record crowd of 90,556 crammed Croke Park.

In his eulogy, Down County board chairman Jack Devaney recalled: "From all corners, they followed with the expectation and the excitement of a player, and of a team, that captured the imagination of that time of the ages since... the teams from 1960 and 1961 are iconic figures in this county. They inspired others after them to greater things; and still today, instil and inspire hope from within. Their legacy is a central and enduring part of our heritage."

McCartan also served as Down manager, leading his team to a National League title in 1981, while he also had the distinction of training Gullion Lad to greyhound’s Irish Cesarewitch.

Darlene Hard (January 1936-December 2021)

Although she was primarily part of tennis’s pre-professional era, the legacy of Hard, a Californian who possessed an aggressive game – big serve, strong overhead and punishing volley – is one of tennis’s greatest ever doubles players.

“I didn’t do it for the money, we went for the glory. I was happy. I loved it. I loved tennis,” she would remark of her career, which yielded 21 Grand Slam titles. Three of them came in singles, 18 of them in doubles: 13 in women’s doubles, five in mixed doubles.

Hard's three singles wins came in the French Open (1960) and twice at the US Open (1960 and 1961) but it was mainly in partnering that she etched a reputation as one of the game's greats: her 13 doubles wins came with no fewer than eight different partners, a tribute to her ability to play with varying styles, but the most successful partnership was with the Brazilian Maria Bueno with whom she won five Grand Slams.

She was ranked number one in the United States from 1960 through 1963 and number two in the world in 1960 and 1961. She was inducted into international tennis Hall of Fame in 1973.

Gerd Müller (November 1945-August 2021)

Nicknamed Der Bomber, the blocky striker – who was quick and well balanced – was one of the finest footballers of his time, although he prematurely ended his international career at the age of just 28 after a falling out with the German football authorities.

His career was one that saw him score frequently, many of them in high-octane finals for both West Germany – he scored the winning goal in the 1972 European Championship final over the USSR – and, most notably, he was the star of the team en route to their World Cup final win over the Netherlands in 1974 when Müller scored the winning goal.

In some 62 appearances for his country, Müller managed the quite remarkable strike rate of no fewer than 68 goals.

He was also a hugely impressive and influential player with Bayern Munich, where – during 15 years with the club – he was the Bundesliga’s top scorer on seven occasions and helped them to four league titles, three European Cups and a European Cup Winners’ Cup. When he finished his Bundesliga career, it was as the then all-time top scorer with 365 goals in 427 games.

Seánie O’Leary (February 1952-December 2021)

A rebel with a cause, Seánie O’Leary – a man with an eye for the goal – was very much a cult hero among the Cork hurling faithful.

A native of Youghal, the forward was part of the Cork three-in-a-row team that dominated hurling, winning the All-Ireland from 1976 to 1978. O’Leary also won a fourth Celtic Cross when part of the 1984 winning team as a 32 year old.

In all, O’Leary won All-Ireland titles at three grades, including two minors, two under-21s and four seniors. In total, O’Leary played 96 times for the Cork senior hurling team, scoring a career total of 66-93, with 21 of those goals coming in the Munster Championship alone. He was a three-time All Star.

One of his more impressive career performances came in the 1977 All-Ireland final at Croke Park against Wexford where, in the pre-match warm-up, he was struck in the face by a sliotar. Only 14 players took part in the parade as O’Leary – who had suffered a broken nose – was brought back to the Cork dressingroom for treatment.

Part of the legend of that treatment has it that Christy Ring remarked to O'Leary in the dressingroom as he received treatment from the team doctors, "O'Leary, you won't be using your nose at all for hurling, get out there."

O’Leary went on to score 1-2 in that final, as Cork beat Wexford 1-17 to 3-8.

After his playing days, O'Leary's continued involvement with Cork saw him serve as a selector to Jimmy Barry Murphy in 1999 and under Donal O'Grady in 2004 when the Rebels won the All-Ireland.

Leon Spinks (July 1953-February 2021)

Born in St Louis, Missouri, Spinks was one of eight children brought up by his mother Kay in the city’s infamous Pruitt-Igoe housing project which was known for gang warfare and drug crime.

Yet, Spinks escaped the poverty and the crime to – along with his younger brother Michael – reach the heights of being a world heavyweight boxing champion.

Leon dropped out of school to join the US Marine Corps, where he learned his craft the hard way. His trademark gap-toothed smile was the result of a fight during his army service. As he would note, “I got headbutted while sparring in the marines, one or two got loose and they pulled them out.”

In the army, Spinks was a three-time marine champion and won a bronze medal at the World Amateur Championship in 1974 before claiming light-heavyweight gold in the 1976 Olympics in Montreal.

Spinks was a surprise choice of opponent for Muhammad Ali in their 1978 heavyweight title bout. It was only his eighth fight as a professional and he'd already earned a reputation for partying. Ali, then 36, had selected Spinks for a low-risk title defence but would lose to Spinks by a split decision.

The rags-to-riches story of Spinks was one that was often out of control. “All I cared about was going to the next party. Who I was going to get high with? My life was cocaine, weed, cars and women. And I enjoyed it,” he would observe.

For the rematch in 1978, in front of more than 60,000 people and broadcast to 80 countries, Ali emerged a clear winner on points.