Tuesday, January 09, 2007

The Humanity! Top 5 Irish Sporting Heartbreak

For those unaware of the majesty of the Observer Sport Monthly magazine (free with the Observer newspaper on the first Sunday of every month), firstly accept my pity, then check out the link above for the online version of last Sunday's issue, which featured sport's 50 most 'heartbreaking' moments.

Of course being a dirty English publication, there's none of our own home-grown heartbreak - which leaves a rich seam of gut-wrenching calamity sadly unmined.

For the sake of record, here are a mere five occasions when the cruel hand of fortune slapped Irishmen in the face, leaving them prostrate on the floor, crying "Why?!"

1.Wim Kieft and His Magically Spinning Header
Proof positive that the extraordinarily unlikely turn of events that had gotten Ireland to Euro 88 (specifically Scotland's purloining of a victory from darkest Sofia) had seen us drain dry the well of serendipity, was the bizarre trajectory of the ball which beat Packie Bonner to send us home from the finals.

You might add that we rode our luck till that particular steed was only fit for making glue in the opening, mythical victory over England in Stuttgart. Thing was, in the second match against the USSR in Hanover, not only did Ronnie Whelan score The Greatest Shinned Goal Ever, but the team performed magnificiently against the eventual losing finalists, earning us fairly our shot at the semis against the Dutch.

The fatal goal was not the only mysterious, supernatural phenomenon that day - Paul McGrath's bulleted first half header was a goal in every way but the formality of it having actually crossed the line. It should have been awarded posthumous goalhood. Somehow neither it nor the playground-style scramble which ensued thereafter led to a score.

No matter, a draw would be sufficient to see the archetypal green army progress to the semi-finals, a spectacular achievement for a team were presupposed to have ticked the 'For the Beer' box in the 'Purpose of Visit' section of the immigration form.

With eight minutes remaining, a scuffed Ronald Koeman volley bounces off the ground, brushes Kieft's crown at an angle sufficient to imbue the ball with the spin of Shane Warne's Ball of the Century and past a bamboozled Packie.


2.Barry McGuigan in Leaving Las Vegas
In hindsight this defeat served the purpose of getting McGuigan's boxing career out of the way so that he could proceed with his phenomenally successful motor racing and singing incarnations. But at the time, the sight of poor Barry wilting in the searing heat of the Nevada desert as Steve Cruz took his world title from him was pretty harrowing.

Having been used to seeing McGuigan in those fleeting glory nights in packed British and Irish venues (McGuigan's time at the top spanned only three fights: the title win over Eusebio Pedrosa at Loftus Road, and defences against Bernard Taylor in Belfast and Daniel Cabrera in Dublin) the fierce heat of the Caesar's Palace car park was always going to work in favour of Cruz, rather than the man from the more temperate climes of Clones.

Despite starting well, he suffered dehydration, went down in the 10th and 15th rounds and was rushed to hospital for rehydration. It was all a terribly sad sight.

3.Lynagh's Try makes Hamilton's Academic.
The 1991 Rugby World Cup final between Australia and England almost never happened. In the semi-final against Scotland, the scores were tied 6-6 with around ten minutes remaining. Gavin Hastings had a straightforward penalty to put the Scots ahead, one normally a formality for a metronomic kicker such as the Watsonians man. He missed, Rob Andrew dropped a goal and England were through.

Even more of a twist in history would have occured had not Michael Lynagh's late try at Lansdowne Road in the quarter final denied Ireland what would have been the greatest result of their test history, the current golden era included.

It's testament to the lean stock of happy memories that Irish rugby has that Gordon Hamilton's sinew-wrenching run to the corner with five minutes of that match remaining is one of our bona fide Golden Moments. The fact that Australia responded with a score of their own to eliminate us is generally left as an aside, spoiling as it does the perfection of Hamilton's try. Jack Clarke beating Campese to the set-up, then Hamilton pumping his thighs defiantly. The crowd mentally dragging him over the line, then engulfing him.

Yes, let's leave it at that, shall we?

4.The Five Minute Final
There is a warm, lively metaphorical house in Irish sport, wherein reside the counties and characters who made the 1990s a storied decade in the history of hurling, Ger Loughnane banters with Liam Griffin; Brian Whelehan and Anthony Daly share a drop; Clare, Wexford and Offaly laugh now over old enmities.

Looking in the window, forlornly and bitterly, are the 1994 Limerick team. Four minutes remained on the clock in that year's All-Ireland hurling final, and Limerick led Offaly by five points. Johnny Dooley lined up a close range free. Under instruction from the sideline to point it, he defied, and struck it incredibly into the net. Limerick collapsed, Offaly scoring a further goal and four points in the remaining moments.

Hold on and it would have been Limerick who would have kick-started that egalitarian period in which the Liam McCarthy Cup was a prize for more than the few. Instead, it will be 34 years since their last success come this September.

5.Sonia's Problems 'Down There'...
Sonia O'Sullivan, Ireland's greatest modern athlete, ended her peak athletics years with one solitary Olympic medal - a silver in the Sydney 2000 5000m behind Romanian Gabriele Szabo. She also missed out on a medal in 1993 World Championships 3000m when beaten by three Chinese (boo hiss!) competitors. Both Szabo and the Chinese later had serious accusations of drug taking made against them.

But it was O'Sullivan's retirement from the 1996 Atlanta Olympics 5000m final - for which she was favourite for gold - which provided the most memorable major championship heartache for the Cork woman, and this time, it was apparently her own body which conspired against her.

When something goes wrong in a middle distance race, it generally doesn't happen in that shocking, sudden way it might in a sprint race: a hamstring tear or a false start disqualification. The best laid plans in distance running gang aglae slowly; the runner falls inches, then feet, then yards behind, until the gap cannot be reasoned away through the explanation of a sudden burst from a leader.

For O'Sullivan, it went wrong nastily. She dropped back through the field and kept on going, until her tearful withdrawal and the subsequent revelations that she'd been suffering from a 'stomach upset'. Unquestionably her time to win Olympic gold, and was denied her in the most undignified way.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

This made me think of USA 94, not only against the Dutch again, but against a Dutchman named Wim. This time Wim Jonk, as Packie Bonner spilt his shot into the net. We all remembered Timofte though.

6:50 p.m.  
Blogger Paddy C said...

Heartbreak is over-rated Tom. Anger and blame generally follow such self-pity, so how's about a list of the Baddies of Irish sport?

My tip for the top of the list: that Israeli 'keeper from the Germany '06 qualifying group. What a b@*&^x.

'Combat 18' would have to be there as well... I'm sure there's plenty more..

9:14 a.m.  

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