Sport

2020 vision - some of the sporting moments that grabbed us in a tumultuous 12 months

2020 has been a year to forget for so many but, on its final day, Neil Loughran takes a look back - in no particular order - at 20 sporting stories that grabbed the attention over the past 12 months…

After 18 years at the helm, Mickey Harte's time as manager of Tyrone came to an end last month. Picture by Seamus Loughran

1 IT’S hard to believe it was this year that Down champions Kilcoo faced their date with destiny in the All-Ireland final, way back on January 19.

On a freezing cold Sunday evening, you were left questioning the wisdom of the GAA’s decision to move the clubs’ showpiece away from its traditional St Patrick’s Day. Little did we know then this would not be the last winter football Croke Park would see in 2020.

On the field the Magpies set about disrupting the flow of all-conquering Corofin, and it proved effective as Paul Devlin’s free deep into added time brought the game to extra-time. The Galway men came good in the end though, scoring 1-4 in the first period to seal a third All-Ireland triumph in-a-row.

ANOTHER one for the ‘was that really this year?’ category – Tyson Fury’s dramatic stoppage win over Deontay Wilder back on February 22.

Having traded trainer Ben Davison for Javan ‘Sugar’ Hill and Andy Lee, both disciples of the late Kronk stalwart Emmanuel Steward, there were question marks over Fury.

When he said he planned to go out and “stick it on” Wilder, Kronk-style, few believed him – but that is exactly what he did, the American’s corner throwing in the towel in the seventh round.

ATHLETES across the world took a stand in the fight for racial equality in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests after images of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis went viral in May.

As well as demonstrations on the streets, his death sparked further much-needed debate on race - not just regarding instances of police brutality but also the systems and structures that allow racial inequality in society, and sport.

On the way to her third major title, tennis star Naomi Osaka used her profile to keep the issue at the forefront of minds - wearing a face mask to and after each match with the name of an African-American who has been killed.

In the final at Flushing Meadows, Osaka beat Victoria Azarenka to claim the US Open for a second time.

MANCHESTER United supporters may always have felt there was something special about Marcus Rashford, but this year he has emerged as a hero for all after his high profile campaign against child food poverty.

During the summer, the 23-year-old forced British Prime Minister Boris Johnson into a spectacular U-turn after he initially rejected Rashford’s plea for the government to keep paying for £15-a-week food vouchers for some of England’s poorest families.

Five months later, Johnson would cede to calls to extend free school meals to children from low-income families during school holidays – phoning Rashford to inform him of his change of heart.

IT was all change for the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland as new managers heralded a break from the tried and trusted. In came Stephen Kenny as successor to Mick McCarthy, while Ian Baraclough stepped into the sizeable shoes left behind by Michael O’Neill.

The new men were in charge for the rescheduled Euro 2020 play-offs in October, the Republic losing out to Slovakia after extra-time, the North beating Bosnia-Herzegovina on penalties to advance to a winner-takes-all decider against the Slovaks at Windsor Park.

However, although some supporters were allowed in, home advantage couldn’t see Baraclough’s men through as they fell to a 2-1 defeat. It has been a tough start for Kenny, meanwhile, with no wins after eight games.

CIARA Mageean admitted she found the going tough at times during lockdown but, if her performances during the summer were anything to go by, the Portaferry middle distance runner put that time to good use.

In July she became the first Irishwoman to run a sub-two minute 800m when she clocked 1:59.69 in Bern, and the following month Mageean smashed Sonia O'Sullivan's Irish record in the 1000m with a superb third-placed finish at the Diamond League meeting in Monaco - her time of 2:31.06 seeing her take 3.6 seconds off O'Sullivan's 1993 mark.

Portaferry middle distance runner Ciara Mageean emerged from the first lockdown in impressive style

JUST to put the tin cap on 2020, Liverpool won the Premier League at long last for the first time since 1990. By far the best team in England still, they will almost certainly win it in 2021 too.

However, one of the undoubted highlights of the first lockdown as spring turned to summer – and there weren’t too many – was preying on the insecurities of long-suffering Liverpool supporters amid the enduring uncertainty over whether the season would be finished out at all. Petty I know, but it a case of anything to get you through at the time.

We were all glad to see the games return and, with the inevitable eventually confirmed, Jurgen Klopp’s men got the job done to end 30 years of hurt.

THE Reds weren’t the only ones to end a barren spell in 2020, with Cavan and Tipperary – on an emotional Bloody Sunday centenary weekend - both ending long waits for provincial glory.

Tipp may have waited longer, their last Munster Championship success having come in 1935, but for a football-mad county like Cavan the 23 years since they last lifted the Anglo-Celt felt like an eternity.

Rank outsiders on Ulster final day, the Breffnimen took the fight to Donegal and didn’t let up. After battling beyond Monaghan, Antrim and Down to make it there, Mickey Graham’s men grabbed their chance with both hands.

MICKEY Harte’s Tyrone reign was always going to end sometime, but it was still a shock when it came on November 13.

Word filtered through early in the week that his request for another year hadn’t received the support required, signalling the beginning of the end for a man who delivered three All-Ireland titles during the Noughties and changed the footballing fortunes of a county forever.

Harte’s exit interviews suggested he wasn’t done yet, but it still caught most unawares when he pitched up in Louth – fresh from their relegation to Division Four - for an entirely different kind of challenge.

Argentine genius Diego Maradona passed away at the age of 60 on November 25. Picture by AP

10 IT sort of started out like all the other rumours that have circulated about Diego Maradona’s impending demise over the course of recent decades – except this time, November 25, it was true.

Ignoring Covid-19 restrictions, crowds gathered outside La Bombonera stadium in Buenos Aires, home of Maradona’s beloved Boca Juniors. The same too at Stadio Sao Paolo, where he turned water into wine during seven glorious years in Naples.

For those lucky enough to have lived through the Maradona era, even part of it, the memories that remain are treasured. No matter how great his indiscretions off the field, and they were plenty, nothing could ever taint what he did on it.

11 FOR those of a certain vintage, Formula One has never quite been the same since the days of Ayrton Senna et al, but Lewis Hamilton sits at the top table alongside all the greats after further adding to his legacy this year.

Back in November he wrapped up an historic seventh world title with three races to spare at the rain-hit Turkish Grand Prix in Istanbul. The 35-year-old drew level with Michael Schumacher’s all-time championship haul - 16 years after the great German set a record many thought would stand the test of time - and also has more wins, more poles and more podiums than any driver who has gone before him.

12 SO many of the major sporting moments were played out on a global stage, but among the most remarkable witnessed with my own eyes was Domhnall Nugent defying a dislocated elbow to score a hat-trick of goals as his St John’s side bravely bowed out of the Antrim Senior Hurling Championship to Loughgiel.

Nugent let out a roar and was immediately brought to the sideline after falling awkwardly trying to retrieve the sliothar 15 minutes in. His game was over, the only concern surrounded the extent of the injury suffered.

However, after returning after the first water break, the west Belfast man gritted his teeth and raised hell - finished up with 3-3 after playing the remainder of the game, plus extra-time, using just his right arm.

Playing with a dislocated left elbow, Domhnall Nugent went on to score three goals as St John's battled with Loughgiel at the semi-final stage of the Antrim SHC. Picture by Hugh Russell.

13 THERE’S nothing worse than a soccer saga that winds up with the conclusion you always knew it would. When noises started to come out of Catalonia that Lionel Messi wanted to leave Barcelona, you wondered just how many more zeros they could put on a new contract.

But he was serious, dammit. There was seldom any dissent when Messi was the focal point of a brilliant Barca side for the past 15 years but, after getting chinned by Bayern Munich and generally slipping down the European order, the little Argentine wasn’t so keen.

After rumbling on for a couple of weeks he reluctantly agreed to stay for another year, but the end appears nigh.

14 “A NEW GAA club for east Belfast, if you’re interested in playing, coaching or admin (More than likely all 3!) All ages, genders and backgrounds welcome” – this was the tweet that sparked one of more unusual sporting stories of the year.

A GAA club in east Belfast? We’ve been here before, haven’t we? Well Dave McGreevy and Richard Maguire weren’t about to let history act as a deterrent, that tweet last May sparking a deluge of interest and activity.

There have been no shortage of challenges and bumps along the road ever since but, heading towards 2021, East Belfast GAA has gone from strength to strength. Long may that continue.

15 FOR the second year in-a-row, Katie Taylor was named Ring magazine’s female fighter of the year.

The pandemic forced the Bray woman to box in the back garden of Eddie Hearn’s Matchroom headquarters in Essex, but Taylor was typically unfazed as she came out the right side of the judges’ scorecards after another action-packed clash with Delfine Persoon at the end of August.

Taylor followed that up with another unanimous decision win against Miriam Gutierrez, the undisputed lightweight champion moving into 2021 in search of even greater challenges.

16 THE official confirmation of the postponement of the Olympic and Paralympic Games felt like a watershed moment amid the madness of Covid.

Organisers had previously remained resolute – the show must go on. On March 24, though, they were forced to concede defeat.

A hammer blow for athletes here and around the world, they have been left with no choice but to realign their training schedules and preparations. For some, their best chance of success will have passed while for others, that extra time could make the world of difference by the time the Games eventually begin.

17 PERSPECTIVE is a wonderful thing, but some decisions appear even more crazy with the passing of time. At a time when everyone was beginning to grasp just how much the walls were closing in around us, the image of thousands of racegoers crammed in to watch the Cheltenham festival was a bizarre look.

Over four days, 251,684 attended, with a crowd of 68,500 watching the Gold Cup on March 13. How mad does that sound eight months on? It sounded pretty mad at the time too.

Throw in, that same week, the scenes at a packed Anfield as Liverpool welcomed Atletico Madrid for a Champions League clash. That game was attended by more than 52,000 people, including 3,000 from Madrid – a city which was already in partial lockdown and which had shut down schools just two days earlier.

18 JIM Gavin may be gone, so too some of the men who helped them to five in-a-row, but the Dublin juggernaut just kept rumbling on in an All-Ireland Championship like no other.

In the absence of crowds, there was something even more clinical about the Dubs’ success this year. Their semi-final defeat of Cavan was a systematic bursting of the Breffni balloon.

In the final, Mayo put up noble first half resistance yet there was an inevitability about what was to come. They are light years ahead of the rest, and closing that gap looks a bigger challenge now than at any other stage of the Dubs’ domination.

19 THE close of the GAA’s club championships may have became the focus of unwanted attention from some quarters, but the joy they brought in that short window should not be overlooked.

None moreso that Dungannon, who finished top of the pile in a Tyrone championship where every game seemed to be going to extra-time and penalties – the Clarke’s enjoying their fair share of drama along the way before bridging a 64-year gap to get their hands on the O’Neill Cup.

20 THERE was an outpouring of grief when former Republic of Ireland manager Jack Charlton died on July 10 at the age of 85.

Charlton was a man who helped lift the mood of a nation when leading Ireland to the 1988 European Championships before an unforgettable run to the last eight of the 1990 World Cup in Italy.

With each passing year, the stories grow in stature as the fondness for those times grow, names like Bonner, McGrath, Cascarino and Timofte forever etched on our subconscious.

Irish fans wore green on the day of Big Jack’s funeral, crowds gathered at Walkinstown roundabout in Dublin while radio stations played Put ’Em Under Pressure to mark the passing of an Englishman who will forever hold a special place in Irish hearts.

Jack Charlton, who led the Republic of Ireland to Euro '88 and Italia '90, passed away in July. Picture by Ray McManus/Sportsfile

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