Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Sporting Year: Review and Preview

It is a bittersweet thing indeed that the sporting year of 2012 ends on the death of Páidí Ó Sé. “Legend” is the most overused word in sports, but Páidí Ó Sé transcended the narrow bounds of that cliché long ago.

Where other men are legends, Páidí was an icon; others on that great Kerry of the 1970s were more admired and it’s possible Eoin “The Bomber” Liston was more loved, but nobody represented parish and people, the DNA of the GAA itself, better or more proudly than Páidí Ó Sé.

His bar in Ventry is a GAA grotto. The greatest cynic of that particularly Kerry cuteness that Tom Humphries identified as “the Republic of Yerra” could not help but be swept away by the aura of the place, the rich sense of the history tucked up against the Atlantic, where so much of the world’s history and culture was once stored, many hundreds of years ago.

Páidí Ó Sé’s life was short but few lives have been so full. Suaimhneas síoraí ar a anam Gaelach uasal.

In this year’s iteration of the football championship that Páidí Ó Sé graced for so long, Mayo lost; they always lose.

In hurling, the crown tottered on Kilkenny’s head as the All-Ireland final turned into its third and final act, but Henry Shefflin did nothing less than impose the majesty of his talent on the game. Shefflin moved to centre-half forward to dominate the game and rescue Kilkenny in their hour of greatest need of this decade they have dominated. Galway had no answer in the replay and Kilkenny continue at the very top of the tree.

Donegal were the best team in the football Championship of course. If you wish to see a team as being a symbiosis of coaching, talent and tactics, seldom can the three strands have combined as well as they did for Donegal this year. Donegal swept through the Championship as a burning flame, and nobody ever really made them sweat. It was a year of sheer dominance by Donegal from start to finish, like a racehorse winning the Derby from wire to wire.

Keith Duggan wrote a stirring call to arms for Donegal in the Irish Times in the week after the final, suggesting that they had it in them to dominate football for years to come. And it’s possible, but my goodness it’s a big ask. Only two teams have retained the title in the past twenty-two years, and the intensity of Donegal this year will surely be hard to replicate in 2013 – not least after a winter of celebration.

The current All-Ireland odds have Donegal as joint favourites with Kerry. This is a little surprising as Kerry are meant to be rebuilding, but then anytime the Championship seems wide open it’s the Usual Suspect that generally collects it.

Jim Gavin’s new model Dublin could be worth a bet at a best price 5/1 while it’s hard to know quite what to make of Cork in Championship terms. The Rebels are undoubted League specialists with their three League titles in a row and that can never be taken away from them. The League is the second most important inter-county competition after all.

Mayo are the last of the top five contenders at best price 12/1, shorter than they generally start seasons. After a semi-final in James Horan’s first year and a final in his second, there are only two places for Horan to go in his third year, and all Mayo prays it’ll be the good place rather than the alternative.

Mayo’s series of All-Ireland failures mean that the Championship for them is now a seventy-minute one, that doesn’t start until half-three on the third Sunday in September. Everything else is just a super-long League. It’s neither fair nor just, but that’s how it is.

Rugby has the excitement of a Lions tour next summer, which always adds a frisson for the home nations in the Championship. It’s hard to know how Ireland will do; the golden generation is now dead and gone and there is evidence for a reasonable campaign in the Six Nations and for an abject disaster. As ever, the first game sets the tone and Ireland’s campaign begins in Cardiff, where the Welsh are reeling from the effects of a disappointing summer and a particularly wretched autumn. We’ll wait and see.

2012 was an Olympic year of course, with Katie Taylor’s victory (and Seán Bán Breathnach’s marvellous commentary) the highlight for Ireland. Good for Katie but it’s fair to say, now that the dust has died down, that people got carried away hailing her as the greatest Irish sportswoman ever. This blog coughs discreetly, and suggests that honour remains with Sonia O’Sullivan.

In soccer, 2012 will be remembered as the year when the plucky Irish lost their major Championship innocence. After the drama of Saipan, the glory of America, the incredible, nation-building summers of 1990 and 1988, Ireland’s dream lasted just three minutes, until Mario Mandžukić headed home the goal that exposed Ireland as a busted flush.

The dream lasted as long as it takes to boil an egg. Ireland were humiliated and Giovanni Trapattoni’s reputation left in tatters in a series of nightmare matches. The best reaction was Liam Brady’s during the Spanish game, when the great man remarked that the majority of the Irish team had never played against the likes of the Spanish. They were as baffled by them as a Sunday league pub side would be.

And in the meantime, the supporters sang on. There was some vicious reaction back home to the singing, but in truth, what else could they do? There were people in Mayo jersies out drinking pints after the All-Ireland. Life goes on, and there’s always next year to dream anew.