Deeds of the past can provide inspiration to those of the present, as Galway hurling captain David Burke so poignantly acknowledged in his acceptance speech as he lifted the Liam MacCarthy Cup at Croke Park in September.
Burke’s words struck a chord not just with his own team’s supporters but with anyone with any interest in any sport.
"Twenty nine years ago, this man was man-of-the-match in the All-Ireland final of 1988. It would be remiss of me not to mention his name, the great Tony Keady. To Tony's wife Margaret, children Shannon, Anthony, Jake and Harry, we're hoping that lifting the cup today will give you some solace from your grief, if only for a few seconds," said Burke.
Only a month previously, Keady had attended Galway’s semi-final win over Tipperary. And his sudden death, from a heart attack two days after that match, shocked the Galway squad who then used it as a motivating force. One of the more poignant moments from the final came in the sixth minute of the game when supporters from both Galway and Waterford uniformly applauded in memory of the man who donned the No6 jersey with such aplomb in his playing days.
Sadly, the bell tolled for too many sporting greats through 2017 with the GAA biding adieu to many notable players who, like Keady, who had graced the hallowed turf of Croke Park: Michael Maher and Liam Devaney, both five-time All-Ireland hurling winners with Tipperary; Willie John Daly, who won three hurling All-Irelands with Cork; Leo Murphy, a two-time All-Ireland football winner with Down; former Dublin football captain Denis Mahony, and Mayo's "Jinkin'" Joe Corcoran were among those who passed away.
Rugby too lost a couple of giants of men: Willie Duggan, who famously planted a lit cigarette into the hands of the match referee as he ran onto the pitch at Twickenham prior to an Ireland-England international, and winger Neville Furlong, only 49, who famously quipped to the legendary All-Black winger John Kirwan after outflanking him to a score a try: "You're supposed to be the best winger in the world, but you couldn't even tackle a cripple". Furlong had played with a heavily strapped broken ankle in scoring the try.
The horse racing world mourned the death of the legendary Tommy Carberry – champion jockey four times between 1973-76 and winner of the Cheltenham Gold Cup on three occasions – who died in July. Carberry rode L'Escargot to victory in 1970 and 1971 and also won with Ten Up (1975) and former champion trainer Noel Meade described him as "a genius in the saddle, he just had that natural ability that is so hard to come by".
Martin Molony, a seven-time champion jockey from 1945-'51, Johnny Roe, a nine-time champion jockey, and Buster Parnell, winner of three Irish classics, were other great jockeys to pass away in 2017.
The death of Derry City captain Ryan McBride, only 27, caused shockwaves through the soccer community which, later in the year, were repeated by the untimely passing of 16-year-old Shelbourne academy striker Izzy Dezu who was described as a “fantastic, selfless” person by Davie Collins, his former coach at Cherry Orchard.
Prior to Ireland's World Cup qualifier against Wales at the Aviva Stadium, visiting captain Ashley Williams presented President Michael D Higgins with a Welsh jersey bearing the name "McBride". That gesture of support from Williams encapsulated how sport very much remembers its own.
“Captain Fantastic” – Ryan McBride
December 1989-March 2017
The tragic death of Derry City captain Ryan McBride, at the age of 27, robbed soccer – and especially his beloved Derry City – of an inspirational figure.
As Michael O’Neill, the Northern Ireland manager and former Shamrock Rovers manager, described the defender’s prowess: “when I first saw him play, I remember thinking, ‘what a fantastic young defender’. He was strong, physical and hugely committed. His leadership qualities were evident, even at such a young age”.
Born in 1989, the year of Derry City's historic treble victory, McBride was reared in the shadows of the Brandywell and was discovered by Stephen Kenny in his time as manager of the club. McBride made his debut for the Candystripes in a 1-0 victory over Shamrock Rovers in 2011 when he created an instant impression, winning the man-of-the-match award. It would be one of many such accolades in a playing career cut so tragically short.
In March, McBride – despite suffering from ’flu and experiencing chest pains at half-time – had played a captain’s part in Derry’s 3-1 win over Dundalk in Buncrana, where he scored the decisive insurance goal, and his swansong appearance came in a 4-0 win over Drogheda. Sadly, 24 hours later, he died suddenly in his home.
In a number of moving tributes to McBride – who played more than 170 games for Derry City, 50 of them as captain – his No 5 jersey symbolised his influence. James McClean wore the number five jersey in Ireland’s World Cup qualifier against Wales, and his Derry City team-mates wore black armbands with the number in his memory.
"He was the perfect example to any young player coming through," said Derry City manager Kenny Shiels of his captain.
“The Braveheart” – Willie Duggan
March 1950-August 2017
A larger than life character, on and off the pitch, Willie Duggan – who died at the age of 67 – played 41 times for Ireland and was considered the best number eight in Europe at the height of his powers, which included playing for the Lions in 1977.
In this day and age rugby players are products of a regime where nutrition and rigid physical programmes are part and parcel of professionalism. Duggan was cut from a different cloth entirely; the intensity with which he approached matches offered a stark and at times amusing contrast to his pathological dislike of the training regimen.
Once, after driving up from his home in Kilkenny for an Irish training session, when coach Willie John McBride suggested a “warm up”, Duggan’s reaction was to strike up a cigarette in the dressing room and tell him that he’d had the “heater on in the car” on his journey up.
Another time, Duggan – who claimed smoking calmed his nerves – famously handed a lit cigarette to referee Allan Hosie as he emerged from the tunnel at Twickenham for a match against England in 1982. The television cameras caught the unfortunate Hosie frantically trying to put the cigarette out.
Duggan was described as a legend, a leader, a braveheart and a kind, loving and spiritual man at his funeral mass and, in winning 41 caps for Ireland, he was recognised by his peers as one of the toughest men on the pitch.
Such a philosophy was exemplified by his comments after the second Test between the All Blacks and the Lions in 1977. “It was a game we had to win, and when I say it was physical it came to fisticuffs and whatever had to be done was done. It was what I would call a good old-fashioned game of rugby, where the referee didn’t get involved.”
“The Champ” – Jana Novotna
October 1968-November 2017
A classic proponent of the serve and volley game, tennis legend Jana Novotna – who died aged 49, after a battle with cancer – enjoyed a career which saw her claim over 100 professional titles, as well as winning three Olympic medals.
Yet, for a player who enjoyed so much success and who became only the fifth women’s player to break through the $10 million in career prizemoney, the Czech woman only managed to win one singles Grand Slam title.
Novotna won no fewer than 12 Grand Slam titles as a doubles player – four Wimbledon, three US Opens, three French Opens and two Australian Opens – and a further four mixed doubles, but the only singles win came at Wimbledon in 1998 when she defeated Nathalie Tauziat in the final. At 29 years and nine months of age, she became at the time the oldest first-time winner of a women's singles since the Grand Slam events first accepted professionals in 1968.
Her former coach Hana Mandlikova recalled of Novotna's major triumph, "everyone always said she was a choker, or that she got nervous. But on that day at Wimbledon, Jana proved that a champion has to have strength. Hers was that she was a fighter".
“The Hurler” – Tony Keady
December 1963-August 2017
With his distinctive white helmet, which was brought to the altar at his funeral, Tony Keady was an instantly recognisable presence in the half-back line of the great Galway hurling team of the 1980s.
Although a defender who combined strength with skill in being a towering presence, Keady’s propensity to dispatch long-range frees was such that he used to joke that the only distraction when he was addressing the dead ball was the last-second movement of the umpire to pick up his white flag before the shot had been struck.
Keady won two All-Ireland medals with Galway – back-to-back titles in 1987 and 1988 – and was considered the finest hurler of his time but was denied the chance to make it three-in-a-row when suspended for a year for playing in an game in New York, despite assurances he had received in advance from the Laois club there that he was eligible to play.
In what became known as "The Keady Affair", he resented the punishment and, in a Laochra Gael programme dedicated to him, he deadpanned that his epitaph should be, "They should have let him play in '89!"
Keady’s honours as a player included two All-Irelands, two All-Stars, two National Hurling Leagues and a Texaco Hurler of the Year award (in 1988).
“The Raging Bull” – Jake LaMotta
July 1922-September 2017
Brought up in poverty in the Bronx, Giacobbe "Jake" LaMotta lived a life that was like something out of a movie script. And, indeed, his life's story was depicted in the Oscar winning film Raging Bull which starred Robert DeNiro.
In real life, LaMotta – involved in crime through his teenage years – is acknowledged as one of the toughest men to have entered a professional boxing ring. He fought the legendary Sugar Ray Robinson on no fewer than six occasions and was crowned world middleweight champion in 1949 when he defeated France's Marcel Cerdan for the title.
However, it was his series of bouts with Robinson which earned LaMotta most acclaim. Their sixth and final fight was termed the St Valentine’s Day Massacre – taking place on February 14th, 1951 – in which LaMotta took a horrible beating but managed to stay on his feet, losing to a technical knockout in the 13th round when the referee stopped the fight.
After his boxing career finished, LaMotta owned a number of bars and became a stage actor and stand-up comedian. In 1960, he testified to a US Senate sub-committee that he had “thrown” a bout in his early career so that “the mob” would arrange a title fight for him. In his career, he had 106 fights, with 83 wins (30 of them by knockout).
“The Memory Man” – Jimmy Magee
January 1935-September 2017
Known as “The Memory Man” for his encyclopaedic knowledge of sport, Jimmy Magee had the sort of career that sportspeople could only dream about: he covered 12 football World Cups and 11 summer Olympic Games as the voice of RTÉ sport.
Magee – born in New York but who grew up in Co Louth – once recalled that his desire to be a sports commentator started as a seven-year-old. “I fell so much in love with listening to sports programmes I began to do my own imaginary programmes,” he remarked. And a letter of application to RTÉ as an 11-year-old provided an indicator of where his career path would ultimately take him.
As it happened, Magee was 20 when he joined the national broadcaster in 1956 and, as President Michael D Higgins acknowledged in paying tribute on Magee’s death, “he reported on some of the most iconic moments in sport but also had a genuine interest in the human side of everyday sports . . . his love for sports, in particular boxing, Gaelic and soccer, was deeply infectious”.
Magee’s first Olympic Games was in Mexico in 1968 and he covered 11 summer games in all. In 2012 – where he commentated on Katie Taylor’s gold medal-winning performance – Magee was presented with a replica of its torch by the International Olympic Committee in recognition of his contribution to broadcasting.