Some days you just want to punch the wall. It was a Thursday morning in July and we were ploughing through one of those manic, fit-a-quart-into-a-pint-pot weeks in sport. Ireland had just won the series in New Zealand, Limerick had just wrapped up the three-in-a-row, Rory McIlroy had somehow not won the British Open. The women’s Euros were on the go, the World Athletics Championship and the Tour De France were coming to the boil. Sam Maguire was about to be decided.
If you work in sports media in a week like that, there’s generally nothing for it only to put the head down and keep swinging until you hear the bell. There’s never enough time or space to give each event its due. You keep going, you get it done, you move on to the next thing. That’s what you tell yourself anyway.
Except that on this particular Thursday morning, an article did the rounds that stopped everyone in their tracks. It was on The42 website, by the GAA writer Maurice Brosnan, and it used the by-then famous photo of Sean O’Shea standing over the winning free for Kerry against Dublin in the All-Ireland semi-final. Brosnan not only got photographer James Crombie to explain how the snap came about but also found five people in the sea of faces in the crowd and got them to tell their story.
The best ideas are the ones that inspire pure, seething rage in your peers. This one was annoyingly simple, nauseatingly well-executed and made all right-thinking sports hacks wish endless bad luck on the author. Job done.
When we come to settle the books on 2023, that photo is as good a place as any to begin. Look at it again and see all the threads of the year lying there, waiting to be pulled together. Drama, anticipation, stakes so high you daren’t look down. Team heroics and individual class, triumph and loss. Everything everywhere all at once.
Most of all, crucially, that long-lost collective experience. This was the year when we got out. Forget everything else and hold on to that, for a start.
We got there, though. We got back to sport. Back in amongst it. Of it. We became a crowd again. A grouching, grumbling, shivering, sighing, wing-back-cursing, referee-abusing, never-again-swearing crowd of sport-sick poor craythurs, again.
There are days when it’s easy to think of the pandemic as ancient history now, a bleak, long-ago fable of pestilence, plague and Stephen Donnelly. But you only have to go back to this time last year to recall the farce of Leinster being Covid-taxed with a 28-0 defeat in the Champions Cup against Montpellier.
Mad as it seems from this remove, we began 2022 with sport still shackled. Games called off on the back of a few runny noses, swingeing crowd restrictions still the norm. You were only allowed 50 per cent of capacity at outdoor events, with an upper limit of 5,000 people. Leopardstown Racecourse couldn’t even manage that half a loaf last Christmas, forced at short notice to close its doors to the public after a Covid outbreak among its staff.
This is where we stood, right until the end of January. A week out from the start of the Allianz Leagues, a fortnight out from the start of the Six Nations, it still looked for all the world like we’d be confined to barracks again for the foreseeable. Sport had been poleaxed at the start of the pandemic and here we were, two years of strict rations later, still not back on our feet.
We got there, though. We got back to sport. Back in among it. Of it. We became a crowd again. A grouching, grumbling, shivering, sighing, wing-back-cursing, referee-abusing, never-again-swearing crowd of sport-sick poor craythurs, again. All the good and all the bad was there for us, custom-made and bespoke, laid out like new clothes. And it was glorious.
What did we see? We saw success, unusual in scale and wild in scope. Irish sport ends the year with world champions in boxing, rowing, gymnastics and paracycling, with the number one team in international rugby, with the number one golfer in the world and the World Rugby Player of the year. We saw the best hurling team of the era lose the best player in the land and still prevail, we saw a shoot-out for the ages between two timeless geniuses in the All-Ireland football final.
We saw things that were unprecedented. Not in the breathless, over-used sense, where the word has been ballyragged by enthusiasm and shorn of all meaning. No, we saw things that were literally unprecedented, that had never happened before. An Ireland women’s football team qualifying for the World Cup. The All Blacks beaten in a series in New Zealand. An Irish woman winning on the LPGA Tour. Irish sprinters in European finals. An Irish boxing team topping the medals table at a European championships.
We saw stuff that used to be unthinkable and realised (again) that the only barrier all along was our inability to imagine. We saw Katie Taylor sell out Madison Square Garden, top of the bill on an all-female card. Pro boxing more or less didn’t exist for women when she started out but that night it fell to its knees before her, rapt by the journey, needy and eager to get in on a slice. Every cynic in boxing, every last gruff, cranky sneer, they all watched her fight with Amanda Serrano and came out with their hands up.
We saw the sort of excellence we have come to expect without ever questioning our right to be so presumptuous. What, after all, have we done to deserve Paul O’Donovan? Or Fintan McCarthy? Or the general assault on the rowing world waged from a small boathouse out the road from Skibbereen and a few miles of the River Ilen?
O’Donovan has won gold at the last five world championships – twice on his own, once with his brother Gary and now twice with McCarthy. He is probably further ahead of the chasing pack in his chosen discipline than any Irish sportsperson has ever been in any sport. There’s no good way of measuring that – conveniently enough, says you – so we’ll throw it out there and see if anyone fancies proving it wrong. In your own time, folks.
While we’re at it, how did we happen upon the good fortune to be around in the time of Rory McIlroy? In 2022, he won three times, finished top of the tree on both tours, didn’t finish lower than eighth in any of the majors, regained his status as world number one, all while leading the charge against the breakaway LIV charlatans. And it still might only rank around fourth or fifth when it comes to the best seasons of his career. That fifth major is coming. The sixth, too.
The casual wonder of someone like McIlroy is why there has never been a better time to be a sports watcher in Ireland. The world stage is dotted virtually every weekend with legitimate challengers for titles and records and races. Even if we just confine it to golf, McIlroy is joined by Shane Lowry and Seamus Power in the top 30 in the world. Lowry faced down McIlroy at Wentworth in September, Power has quietly made an early jump to the front end of the Ryder Cup standings. Leona Maguire finishes the year in 11th spot on the women’s world rankings.
None of this was inevitable. At every turn, the ceiling is being pushed higher. Maguire has always looked likely to be the first ever big Irish noise in the women’s game but she still had to go and win. She came mighty close to taking home the biggest cheque in the history of women’s golf at the Tour Championship too. As it was, she ended the year with the thick end of €2m in on-course earnings. That first major is coming. The second, too.
On a given weekend now you can go from watching at least one of the golfers make a charge to seeing the best of Irish racing mop up the big prizes around the world to revelling in the most exciting time for Irish rugby in an age. Whether it’s the provinces in Europe or Ireland flowering under Andy Farrell, the struggle is always real and all the better for it. The World Cup is looming and there’s no option but to think big thoughts. The draw of being in the fight, of being right there when it matters is endlessly powerful.
There was a bit of that in the air the night of the All-Ireland football final. Kerry had won and the Galway people around the place were low, not just at having lost but at the fact that defeat means you slide all the way back down the snake to start again. And yet, mixed in there too were traces of the adrenaline rush of the 65th minute when Damien Comer caught a midfield mark and sent Cillian McDaid away for the underdogs’ equalising score.
That’s all anyone wants out of sport. We tell ourselves it’s winning that we’re in it for but if that was the case, only a select few would bother with it at all. No, it’s the moment. That’s what we’re after. No Galway supporter set out on the road in 2022 thinking it was going to end with Sam Maguire and yet there they were, rising as one in Croke Park with five minutes left on the clock, everything up for grabs and every cell in their bodies completely, viscerally alive.
That’s the pure drop. It’s jumping off your couch as Ciara Mageean sees the indomitable champion Laura Muir kick with just over a lap to go in the European final and hops right up on to her shoulder, joining the fight and laying herself bare. Win or lose from there, welcome to the minute of Mageean’s life that every other minute has been leading up to. Are you not roaring? Are your fists not balled?
This is living. It’s Gearóid Hegarty yomping through the Kilkenny defence to have his first say in the All-Ireland final and darting one into the top corner. It’s Michael Obafemi making the rigging dance from 25 yards as the country keens for Stephen Kenny’s side to become something. It’s Rob Herring peeling off the back of a maul and going for the line in Wellington with five All Blacks in front of him and every Irish voice telling him he’s a fool (and worse) for even thinking about it and us all being gloriously, deliriously wrong.
Moments. Tony Kelly bringing the house down with a sideline cut to push the Munster final to extra-time. Amy Broadhurst and Lisa O’Rourke winning 40 per cent of the world gold medals in the history of Irish boxing in the space of 15 minutes. Shane Walsh and David Clifford basically levitating in an All-Ireland final. Rhys McClenaghan 2022 avenging Rhys McClenaghan 2021.
When all comes to all, though, two moments stand above the rest. The first was in March in Cheltenham when Rachael Blackmore sat still on A Plus Tard in the Gold Cup until she could wait no longer. In the space of two fences, she went from seventh to first, spearing through the field with a ride of demonic precision. The first ever female jockey to win jump racing’s most prestigious race. A one-woman live history show.
The second came in October in Glasgow when Amber Barrett raced away from the Scottish defence and on to Denise O’Sullivan’s through ball to qualify Ireland for a first ever World Cup. It wasn’t a snapshot or a scramble or a tap-in. There was so much thinking time – for her and for everybody else. That’s what made it.
All the bad times for women’s football, all the indifference, all the players who battled through careers when nobody looked sideways at them – all of it was there, hovering over Hampden Park as Barrett scuttled towards goal. With a single, gorgeous toe-poke, she demolished it all.
Not alone that, she immediately brought everyone watching into the bigger picture. All that history weighing down and Barrett’s first thought was for the victims of the Creeslough disaster the previous weekend. She got down on one knee and grabbed the black armband the Ireland players were wearing in honour of the Donegal village, paying homage to her people.
Her captain Katie McCabe recognised what was happening straight away and slowed down as she approached. Then, with amazing grace, she gave Barrett a quiet, soulful kiss on the top of her head before the celebrations began. It was a small, split-second slice of a thing but nothing from 2022 will stick in the memory like it.
We started the year not knowing when we’d be able to see sport properly again. We couldn’t tell when or how – or even if – we’d be those faces in the crowd again. We couldn’t know what would play out in front of us when we got there. But much like Seánie Shea’s free, it soared and it dipped and it delivered.
Hard to ask any more out of a year of sport.