Young guns going for it across sport's frontlines
Star-gazing is a scabrous assignment, the difficulty accentuated by the fact that those who engage in sporting pursuits are especially prone to sustaining injuries which can, at best, curtail careers or, at worst, end them.
Liam George would understand. He was part of a two-pronged Irish attack that lifted the European Youths' soccer championship for the Republic last summer. The other half was Robbie Keane, a player who had signalled his intent and potential a year previously and has gone on to fulfil much of that early hype. George's cheeky flamboyance hinted that he too could succeed on a bigger stage, but almost as soon as he got his opportunity, the Luton Town striker broke his leg while playing for the club's first team and a year was immediately cut out of his professional life. Two years ago, George was the top scorer in Luton's march to the English SouthEast Counties Youths' League title, the first hint of his attacking verve. Last year, he won a European Championship with Ireland. He broke his leg a couple of months later. Fickle business, life as a professional footballer. He celebrates his 20th birthday on February 2nd and, at this stage, is well on the road to recovery. George could well turn out to be one to watch in the latter part of 1999.
Invariably, forwards grab most attention: Michael Owen became the BBC's Sports Personality in Britain for 1998 without winning anything. In fairness, though, he did score what was arguably the goal of the World Cup. Still, defenders tend to be a more pragmatic breed and Ireland has produced its fair share down the years. Another making his mark in the English Premiership - and, one suspects, destined for a full senior cap at some stage this year - is Stephen Carr, who over the last this season and last has made the right full back berth at Tottenham Hotspur his own.
Carr's route to the big-time is the textbook one. Discovered as a youngster in the Dublin schoolboys league (he went on to win 13 schoolboy caps for Ireland and 10 more at youth level), Carr signed trainee forms with Spurs as a 15-year-old and has progressed through the ranks at the north London club to become an established first-team player. Under George Graham's tutelage, he looks like developing into one of the top defenders in the Premiership.
On the home front, meanwhile, the exodus to the English game inevitably robs many players of the opportunity to develop in the National League. However, the likes of Colin Hawkins and Trevor Molloy have bucked the trend a little by opting to play in Ireland after their exploits 18 months ago in the World Under-20 finals. Cork City's Derek Coughlan has earned an Irish under-21 cap from a home base. Yet, St Patrick's Athletic captain Eddie Gormley, who has tasted life as a professional player in England, picks out Richie Baker of Shelbourne as a likely lad to become a household name. "He looks a very good player. He has lots of pace too," says Gormley, "and it would be very good for the league if he stays here." But will he stay? Faraway fields tend to be greener, and the feeling is that Baker will eventually be tempted to play his football across the water.
Another sport which entices many of Ireland's finest exponents to ply their skills in Britain is horse racing and the belief is that jockey Richie Forristal could become the latest export to make it big over there.
Forristal is 17-years-old and currently attached to trainer Kim Bailey in England. Originally from Clonakilty in west Cork and without any background in racing (his family own the local pharmacy), Forristal used to spend much of his holidays in the stables of Aidan O'Brien and since moving to Britain, has confirmed initial impressions. He is currently second in the amateur racing standings and when that particular contest finishes in June, many expect him to be heading the table and on the way to the top as a jockey.
Meanwhile, Irish rugby's search for some quality backs may reap dividends this year if two members of the winning team in last year's Under-19 World Cup come on line. The bane of injury has already hit Brian O'Driscoll, who is in UCD's rugby academy, and Lansdowne full back Gordon D'Arcy, who has been nursing a hamstring strain. Both are class players.
O'Driscoll has already represented Leinster A (indeed, the knee injury which has kept him out for three months came in a match with Connacht A), but he is expected to progress to Ireland A level this year and could also feature on Ireland's tour to Australia. O'Driscoll can play at out-half or centre.
D'Arcy is a hugely exciting prospect. He captained Clongowes Wood College to the Leinster Schools' Senior Cup last year and was invited on the Irish senior squad's tour to South Africa last term but turned down the invitation. He made a try-scoring debut for Leinster against Llanelli and had the distinction, in fact, of scoring two tries against two internationals - Tony Stanger and Wayne Proctor - in his first two matches for the province. D'Arcy is certain to be in the Irish squad for Australia and most probably for the World Cup later in the year, assuming he avoids injury. He could be the rugby name for 1999. Gaelic football has a greater tendency than almost any other sport to throw up a new, big name, most often aided and abetted by a team's progress in a campaign. Take last year, with Michael Donnellan and Ja Fallon coming of age in tandem with Galway's rise and rise.
However, if his under-age exploits are anything to go by, then Laois's Brian `Beano' McDonald should make an impact on the senior scene this year.
McDonald's pedigree is exemplary. He had the rare distinction of winning five county medals at under-12 level (between the ages of seven and 11) and brought that through to his teenage years when inspiring Laois to back-to-back All-Ireland minor titles in 1996 and 1997. He was also on the Laois team that lost to Tyrone in last year's final when failing to make it a hat-trick of minor medals.
McDonald is a rather special talent, but his ability to stamp his class on the year will depend a good deal on whether or not Laois, as a team, can play with the sort of self-belief that was instilled into them in their under-age years.
Another footballer who could make a major impact on the year is Dublin's Ray Cosgrove, who has emerged as a classy forward with pace, skill and strength, the three vital ingredients in making a name at inter-county level.
In hurling, Waterford - who were beaten in the National League final and the Munster final last year - will be seeking to claim some silverware this time round and one imagines that an major part in their armoury will be Ken McGrath. Son of former inter-county player Pat, the Mount Sion player has immense ability, and the physique and demeanour to go with it. He could be the next hurling great.
There are no new Irishmen with cards for the European golf Tour, though. However, Barbara Hackett, a former Irish close champion, has succeeded in winning her card for the European Women's Tour and has the asset of being a long-hitter off the tee which should be of benefit in the professional ranks. In the absence of any Irish newcomers on the European Tour, a name to watch out for is England's Warren Bennett, who ran away with the Challenge Tour in 1998. At 25, he should now be sufficiently mature to mix it with the big names.
On the amateur front, David Jones - who won the Irish, Leinster and Connacht boys titles last season - is an exciting prospect who should develop even further by competing on the senior circuit.
And, finally, the international tip for 1999 is tennis player Venus Williams. The American has been playing tennis since she was four and a half years old. Next June, she celebrates her 19th birthday and some time around then she'll also be among the favourites for the women's singles in the French Open at Roland Garros and the following month at Wimbledon.
Williams possesses the fastest serve in the women's game (127 miles per hour) and has been groomed for stardom by her father and coach, Richard Williams. She is destined at some stage to be world number one. That might not happen this year, but expect the older of the Williams sisters to win a major in 1999 as the precursor to fulfilling her destiny.