Football

Brendan Crossan: The highs and lows of 2023

Neil McManus, Katie Taylor, Ciara Mageean and warriors of the game...

Cliftonville’s Stephen Mallon has been to hell and back
Cliftonville’s Stephen Mallon has been to hell and back Cliftonville’s Stephen Mallon has been to hell and back
Brendan Crossan takes a look back at the highs and lows of Irish sport in 2023…
Best speech…

AFTER Cushendall edged out Loughgiel Shamrocks in a brilliant Antrim Senior Hurling Championship final in Corrigan Park, Neil McManus remembered the life of John McKillop. For generations, ‘Wee’ John was the heartbeat of the Ruairi Ogs – until his passing in late July.

“We lost ‘Wee’ John this summer and our village and our club will never be the same again,” McManus told a silent crowd.

“But it was a much richer place when he was here. And, as Shane McNaughton said, ‘No-one has ever played the cards they were dealt so well as were played by ‘Wee’ John McKillop’ – and I think we can all learn from that. This one is for ‘Wee’ John – Ruairi Og ABU!”

Saddest goodbye…

IN May of this year, The Irish News bid farewell to its old offices on Donegall Street for our brand-new digs closer to Belfast’s city centre. So many characters passed through its doors, so many memories were made there too. Clearing out my desk on a sunny Monday evening in May was quite a nostalgic moment.

“It felt strange that this would be the last time I’d walk through these rooms, in a building that I spent so much of the last 24 years of my life in, and which gave me so much.

“In the mind’s eye, I can still see my grandfather – ‘Scotty’ Logan – standing in the doorway of 64 Balholm Drive in Ardoyne bidding my mother and I farewell. With a wide smile, he would call out: ‘So long’.

“As a child, I always thought his farewells were so heartfelt, even though we’d be seeing him again in seven days’ time.

“As I drove out of the carpark at the back of The Irish News building on what was a beautiful Monday evening, I thought of ‘Scotty’ Logan’s heartfelt goodbyes to me every Saturday.

“So long, Donegall Street. I loved everything about you...”

Living in the hearts of others…

THE loss of young Aodhan Gillen was keenly felt in the local football community in April. Just 22, the former Newington and Carrick Rangers was knocked down in a traffic accident while making his way to work and sadly passed away a couple of weeks later. Aodhan was a gifted footballer, always the self-improver and modest with impeccable manners. He scored the winning goal in the 2021 Steel & Sons Cup final for Newington. He will indeed live in the hearts of others.

Best post-match summation…

IN those gut-wrenching moments after losing to Kerry, Derry’s interim boss Ciaran Meenagh spoke with great clarity and passion. It’s not easy to do that after coming out on the wrong side of an All-Ireland semi-final – a game that Derry should never have lost.

‘Reffing’ disgrace?

THE 2023 Down county final in October will probably be remembered more for its pre-match controversy over who would referee the game than who won it. Kilcoo, as it turned out, claimed their 11th title in 12 seasons – but the whole thing kicked off following the appointment of match official Paul Faloon.

Kilcoo went all the way to the DRA to contest Faloon’s appointment, David Gough was drafted in from Meath, who then withdrew his services at the last minute, before Brian Higgins eventually took charge. County officials were glad to see the back of the 2023 championship.

Hurling euthanasia at play…

IT was hard to fathom how you grow hurling in places such as Cavan, Louth, Leitrim, Longford and Fermanagh if you remove these counties from the National Hurling Leagues. In what seemed like a crude, cost-cutting attempt, the CCCC’s proposal was met with indignation and anger by the hurling community. It was a proposal that amounted to hurling euthanasia – but was dressed up as something entirely different.

A hurling legend retires…

WHEN Neil McManus and Darren Gleeson embraced in the closing minutes of their NHL Division 1B match in Mullingar, knowing that Antrim had preserved their top-flight status, everyone probably knew it was McManus’s last game wearing the saffron jersey. A few weeks later, McManus confirmed he was ending his inter-county career that lasted close to two decades.

Cliftonville’s Stephen Mallon has been to hell and back
Cliftonville’s Stephen Mallon has been to hell and back Cliftonville’s Stephen Mallon has been to hell and back
When resilience carries a new meaning…

IN the depths of his stuttering rehab from a complicated leg injury, Cliftonville footballer Stephen Mallon probably didn’t feel at all resilient and admitted hitting rock bottom after so many setbacks.

An initial six-week lay-off morphed into 403 days away from his beloved sport during which time he mourned the death of his brother, Ciaran.

‘403 days since my last competitive game,” the former Sheffield United player posted on ‘X’ on September 30. ‘Setback after setback, mental struggles, losing my brother. It’s been the hardest year of my life, but I never gave up.’

The west Belfast man is back doing what he does best.

Worst pitch…

HARD to believe that the surface of Croke Park for the All-Ireland Club finals in January wins this dubious award.

Due to a number of concerts at the north Dublin venue, the state of the pitch was terrible, particularly for the hurling decider between eventual winners Ballyhale Shamrocks and Cuchullain’s Dunloy. It was the same for both sets of players but given the pace of the Dunloy attackers, the surface slowed their play right down and didn’t help their historic push for a first All-Ireland.

Dunloy’s Gregory O’Kane looks on with his children as Ballyhale lift the cup. Picture Mark Marlow
Best road trip…

TAKING my seven-year-old son Shea to watch the famous Barcelona in their opening Spanish La Liga game at the Olympic Stadium in August while holidaying in Salou. Situated at the very top of the stadium behind the goal, visitors Cadiz threatened to come away with a scoreless draw until Pedri and Ferrin Torres popped up with late goals for the Catalan giants. An awesome night for father and son.

Shea Crossan at Barcelona's opening La Liga game in August
Biggest shock…

EVERYONE had to rub their eyes upon reading that Mickey Harte was on his way to Derry after three fruitful years with Louth.

Left ‘high and dry’…

MICKEY Harte and Gavin Devlin were already preparing the Louth footballers for 2024, until the Derry job became vacant. The Louth players loved the Tyrone pair, but there was still a deep sense of disappointment among some of the players.

In an interview days after the news of their departure, Louth captain Sam Mulroy acknowledged all the good work Harte and Devlin had done – back-to-back promotions and a Leinster final spot - but he also felt “let down” and that the squad was left “high and dry”.

The Greatest…

WATCHING David Clifford in 2023 was one of life’s joys. Despite having the temerity to miss a couple of shots in their All-Ireland final defeat to Dublin, it was only fitting and right that Clifford won Player of the Year for the second season running. Pure genius.

Funniest moment…

EOIN ‘Skinner’ Bradley of Glenullin pretending to accept a call from new Derry manager Mickey Harte about returning to the inter-county fold – and ‘Skinner’ telling him to call back on Wednesday when their intermediate championship celebrations had died down. Fourteen seconds of comedy gold.

Honouring Dawn…

THE Ballycran hurling community was plunged into mourning on the eve of their county final clash with Portaferry following the death of Dawn Egan – mother of Chris Egan and husband of club chairman Mark Egan. Dawn was also a valued member of The Irish News editorial team.

Days after burying his mother, Chris played in the county final.

“Chrissy grabbed arguably the score of this final after just three minutes, soaring into the air to catch Sheehan’s raking pass before spinning and finding his range,” The Irish News report read the following day.

“It was art in motion. Given the emotion of the last few days, it was quite remarkable to see him out on the field at all, competing heroically for every ball, doing himself, his family and club proud.

“Before Egan was called ashore in the 53rd minute, Portaferry full-back Tom Murray, who enjoyed a fantastic duel with him on the edge of the square, ran to shake his hand.

“Applause rang out from the main stand and Chrissy Egan returned the gesture as he made his way to the Ballycran bench. Displaying courage beyond comprehension.”

Ballycran's Chris Egan after this year's Down SHC final. Chris buried his mother a few days before the game
Never get too high with the highs and too low with the lows…

NOBODY lived up to that old adage better than Loughgiel Shamrocks manager Hugh McCann. There was no grandstanding from Hugh after his Shamrocks side scored a fantastic victory over champions Dunloy in the county semi-finals. And when they suffered an agonising one-point defeat in the final to Cushendall, he displayed the same even temperament. Class is permanent.

Allenwood’s age-defying warhorse…

AT the ripe old age of 45, Johnny Doyle is still going strong and kicking points for his club Allenwood at county and provincial level. The former Kildare star will lead his club into January’s All-Ireland Intermediate semi-final with Cullyhanna of Armagh.

Pursuing excellence in the finest margins…

GYMNAST Rhys McClenaghan had an awesome year, winning European and back-to-back world titles. With all eyes on next year’s Olympics in Paris, the Pommel Horse king hopes to exorcise the bitter memory of the Tokyo Games, where a rare mistake cost him a medal.

Worst red card decision…

IT must be Tomas McCann’s shocking dismissal in Cargin’s Ulster SFC quarter-final with Derry champions Glen. What was a strong and robust challenge on Conleith McGuckian towards the end of the first half, everybody in Celtic Park was surprised when Cavan ref Conor Dourneen brandished a red.

And with that decision, Cargin’s designs on challenging for provincial honours ended right there. A day after Glen captured back-to-back Ulster titles, McCann was exonerated.

More to James McClean than running…

UPON his decision to retire from the international stage in November, Derry man James McClean was a bit miffed at how people viewed his talents having won an incredible 103 appearances for Ireland.

“It actually insults me in a way because I see some of the comments, ‘He was never the most gifted…’

“You must have ability,” said McClean. “You just don’t go on to play 12 years in England - I’ve got 150 Premier League games and 103 international caps.

“I see this, ‘Yeah, he’s a great work ethic’ and ‘he’s a good runner’. Well, go grab Mo Farah off the street and stick him in!

“Maybe when I retire, I will probably get more recognition for my football ability than I do now.”

Monaghan's Conor McManus wins Danny Hughes's approval Picture: Philip Walsh.
Monaghan's Conor McManus Monaghan's Conor McManus is the game's best clutch player
Best clutch player…

CONOR McManus retains this prestigious award for a 23rd year running. Absolutely nerveless when introduced in Monaghan’s All-Ireland quarter-final with Armagh last summer, winning and converting a last-gasp free and burying his two penalty kicks in the shoot-out. He was also outstanding in Monaghan’s narrow semi-final loss to Dublin.

Best duel…

KILKENNY’S Huw Lawlor versus Limerick’s Aaron Gillane. Nothing in Irish sport compares to it.

Kinks in the Allstar system…

THE Antrim hurlers will rarely reach the latter stages of the All-Ireland series and therefore early Championship fallers are usually casualties in the Allstar shake-up – but for Paddy Burke not to receive a nomination was mystifying. The consistency levels throughout the year from the Cushendall man were outrageous.

Most awkward press conference…

WHEN Katie McCabe accompanied former Republic of Ireland women’s manager Vera Pauw in Tallaght Stadium for a pre-World Cup press conference. This was such an awkward and uncomfortable press briefing. When asked, McCabe couldn’t bring herself to back her manager after historic accusations of body-shaming players while at Houston Dash resurfaced in ‘The Athletic’. You could cut the atmosphere with a knife. Things would later bubble over between the pair during the finals themselves.

Republic of Ireland’s Katie McCabe was unable to convert a late chance against Australia
Republic of Ireland’s Katie McCabe
Some things are better left unsaid…

AFTER the Ireland women’s team returned from the World Cup finals in Australia and with Vera Pauw already jettisoned by the FAI, veteran defender Diane Caldwell delivered a damning verdict on the Dutchwoman’s reign.

Her words didn’t do anyone a service. Asked what areas Pauw could have been better, Caldwell took a scalpel to her ex-manager.

“I think there are many areas that could have been better under her tenure,” she said. “I think preparation for games could have been better, physical preparation, opponent analysis, match tactics, in-game match tactics, changes, systems of play.”

Republic of Ireland men’s highlight...

NONE.

The next President of Ireland…

CIARA Mageean had an incredible year, breaking more track records than was ever imaginable. The Portaferry woman obliterated Sonia O’Sullivan’s long-standing mile record and set new 1500m and 800m records for an Irish athlete. The 31-year-old also finished a brilliant fourth in the world championships 1500m final that included some of the best-ever middle-distance runners. An absolutely inspiring individual on and off the track.

Bouncebackability…

KATIE Taylor is arguably the greatest athlete Ireland ever produced. Just when it seemed the Bray native was past her best following her narrow defeat to Chantelle Cameron in May, she challenged the super lightweight world champion to a rematch – and gained revenge. The image of Taylor with her hand raised in the ring is already an iconic image of Irish sport.

The children’s screams…

ON a sweltering hot June day in Crumlin, Co Antrim, my daughter’s U10 football team battled against the odds to win a summer competition on penalties.

“I’ll never forget the hazy sunshine of Crumlin one summer’s day in June. Rosa shooting for the stars, twisting her small frame as she struck for goal, forever 10-years-old, spinning and running as fast as she could back to her team-mates.

“I’ll never forget their piercing screams and how our hearts danced with joy for them. They might never win again or go on to bigger things – but, for as long as I coach these kids, nothing will touch the emotion, innocence, imagery or wonderful sounds of that June day.”

Rosa Crossan in June and the children's screams
Best photograph…

A CLEAR winner here: a photograph taken by a passer-by that captures a group of ex-Antrim footballers beside an O’Neill’s sportswear shop window in Belfast’s city centre, just before Christmas. Inside the window is an image of their friend, the late Anto Finnegan. Up until his passing two years ago, Anto would have met up with his former team-mates for their Christmas night out. The photograph was one of the most poignant images of the year.

Sean McGreevy, Gavin Bell, Kevin Brady, Joe Quinn, Kevin Madden, Gearoid Adams, Dermot Niblock and Peter McCann pose beside an image of their late friend and Antrim team-mate Anto Finnegan
Anto Finnegan Sean McGreevy, Gavin Bell, Kevin Brady, Joe Quinn, Kevin Madden, Gearoid Adams, Dermot Niblock and Peter McCann pose beside an image of their late friend and Antrim team-mate Anto Finnegan
A warrior footballer bows out…

THERE was none better than Tyrone’s Ronan McNamee. In October, the All-Ireland winning defender announced he was retiring from inter-county football. He was both heroic on and off the field. He’s a living, breathing parable for never quitting.

Let’s hear it for Go-Games…

WHAT really engaged Gaels up and down the country in 2023 wasn’t who was going to win the Sam Maguire or Liam MacCarthy Cup – it was whether the GAA was right to reiterate its stance on keeping U12 Gaelic Games non-competitive. It was one of those topics where everybody had a view – and one was as emotive as the other.

The best GAA weekend…

EASILY the two All-Ireland Club hurling semi-finals earlier this month. Two classic contests that will never be forgotten.

Weirdest sight…

SEEING a poke van in Pairc Tailteann in December. Mr Curly Tops. It was magical.

An ice-cream in December. Where else but Navan, courtesy of Mr Curly Tops
Never forgotten…

THE Irish News lost three beautiful souls in 2023. Hugh Russell, Lorraine McCarthy and Dawn Egan. May they rest in peace…