Back to normal – with something a bit different – Part I

With the exception of one article from July 2018 to which this corner was vehemently opposed for very personal reasons, Eamonn Sweeney of the Sunday Independent is one of my favourite writers. Recently, the Sligo man domiciled in Skibereen began the new year with a sporting wish-list for the year ahead. Now read on…

As most of you will know by now, I have been kept busy with a certain other writing project for the past few months. So here it’s a case of getting back to normal – with something a little bit different! Cognisance of the fact that such pieces can be bland and a bit see one, see them all notwithstanding, here’s a bit of a run-down, sport by sport, of what’s kept me going and what is being looked forward to.

GAA:

Club matters have been exhaustively analysed and frankly it’s time to park them and go again. Admittedly, there’s a degree of trepidation afoot here as, with the year we’ve just had in Dunboyne the inclination is to feel that the only way things can go is down. However, judging by the signals our young players are giving off that need not be the case.

On a broader scale, there’s a realisation that this represents a vital year for the Meath senior football team. Sweeney’s irksome article related to his evading of the scandalous refereeing which saw our lads bow out last year against Tyrone. However, seeing them go so close against a team which ended up in an All Ireland final suggests that we may, in fact, be moving in the right direction, however slowly. The road map for the season would also suggest further progress may be eminently attainable.


Meath defender Niall Kane

In the last couple of seasons there have been definite signs matters pertaining to underage structures have improved and are beginning to bear fruit. Now, as many of you will know, to utmost regret, I don’t get to as many matches as would be preferred. However, thanks to the wonders of modern technology and the phenomenon that is streaming, one is still well in tune with what’s going vis-à-vis the county team. Thus far, the contributions of players such as Niall Kane and Darragh Campion would suggest that needed re-enforcements may be afoot. Only time will tell but at this time of year hope springs eternal.

Horse Racing:

This will undoubtedly come as a shock to many, perhaps even myself, but, I’ll begin with matters on the Flat. Specifically to a story which broke just after Christmas and which, to my mind, seems to have been largely unnoticed – that of trainer Patrick Prendergast basically ceasing his own operation and joining forces with John Oxx. Right, it may not have gone unnoticed, but I would’ve expected it to generate much more coverage.

Horse Trainer John Oxx

Firstly because it comes across as something of a strange move for the former whose ‘stock’ appeared to be burgeoning in its own right and second as it marks a shifting of the sands in the career of the latter. And it’s one which is felt rather deeply here given the local connections there are with the Oxx family. John’s record and standing within racing scarcely need elaboration. Since, however, the Aga Khan and the Tsui family withdrew their backing, the great man in Curraghbeg has faded somewhat from prominence. Yes, Godolphin have sent stock to him, but, with respect, with those in all blue have stock in that many different yards it’s hard to escape the feeling that John was only getting the shakings of the bag.

Thus, while it may have seemed a strange manoeuvre given how Patrick’s standing in the sport was burgeoning in its own right, the intrigue lies in the inclination that it will be mutually beneficial for both. The younger man will surely learn plenty from the elder, who himself was too much of an institution in Irish racing to be allowed fade away.

Soccer:

“And Solksjaer has won it” – five words – yet one of the most iconic pieces of commentary ever uttered. Well is it recalled, a certain former member of Brady’s staff (no names mentioned!) dropped a full tray of drink across yours truly such was the roar when the Norwegian concluded one of the greatest acts of escapology ever seen in sport – that of Manchester United against Bayern Munich in the 1999 Champions League Final.

He was always a fan favourite anyway, but that Ole Gunnar hasn’t been ‘statued’ outside Old Trafford with Best and Law and Charlton and Busby remains something of a mystery. That may be about to change, however, if his spell as ‘interim’ manager thus far is anything to go by.


Ole Gunnar Solksjaer 

Indeed, consideration of same would lead one to wonder should the adjective be removed from his title. Watching United has become enjoyable again, and more or less confirmed the suspicion that the players had downed tools towards the end of Jose Mourinho’s tenure. Surely, given the transformation since, a stance of “If it aint broke don’t fix it” is justifiable.

Aside from that, there’s actually a lot more to look forward to in this sphere close to home than might normally be the case. Top of which – if I may say so – is undoubtedly the fact that my nephew Ian recently signed for St Patrick’s Athletic. Now, there are those that would associate yours truly with being a Bohemians fan. Which would be entirely true were it not complicated by the fact that a ‘soft spot’ for the Super Saints has always been maintained.

Owing to Dunboyne connections going back to the Mullally family in the last century, Martin Reilly and John Ryan among the playing ranks in much more recent past, club President Tom O’Mahony residing with us presently and, for very sentimental reasons, with my favourite writer of all time – the great man from Castle Island – being their most devoted disciple. Now, at least, on top of all that I have very personal reasons to look forward to the Richmond Roar again.

Rugby:

Beginning this particular segment undoubtedly represents the most tricky portion of this journey thus far. Simply as, with the sport at such a plateau in this country where it has surely never been before, there is a fear that things can only go one way. Something exacerbated by injuries recently accumulated by the likes of Luke McGrath and, in particular, Tadhg Beirne. The Kildare man has been an absolute colossus as a rejuvenated Munster finally look seriously capable of challenging for honours again. Wise heads down Shannon-side believe he may yet surpass the (formerly) flame-haired behemoth who once ruled the skies over Thomond. But then, wild and whirling words have been known to circulate in the January winds.

Either way, England coach Eddie Jones stirring the pot by saying the pressure is all on Ireland is about as surprising as Bayern Munich running away with the German league. However, gut feeling is that the title holders are better equipped to negotiate such scenarios than ever before.

From a personal perspective, the greatest fillip in this regard has to be the recent return to fitness of Sean O’Brien – albeit at a time when Ireland appear multiply handed with options in the back row. The enforced exit of Beirne from the equation – even if temporary – is another timely reminder of the perils of resting on one’s laurels.

That said, the Munster player’s misfortune will most likely open the door for Meath’s Devin Toner to partner the irrepressible James Ryan in the second row. Mention of the Moynalvey man, by the way, brings thoughts to one of the unique, special stories doing the rounds in the early part of the new year.


Leinster scrum half Hugh O’Sullivan

That of two Moynalvey men – Toner and Hugh O’Sullivan – featuring for Leinster in their European Cup win over Wasps. Not only another chapter in the rich sporting tradition of that particular part of Meath but also what is surely a unique sports story in the guise of the O’Sullivan family.

Frank and his brother Niall were talented performers for Meath in yesteryear and in recent times Frank’s sons Mark and Cillian have developed into talented dual players in and for the county. Throughout the last year, though, their younger brother Hugh has carved quite a reputation for himself on the rugby fields of Leinster and beyond.

Admittedly, there was a time when watching schools rugby would’ve been about as appealing as getting an injection. However, with advances in technology and the increased availability of a wider range of sporting action for viewing, the option of having a look was taken up last spring. Entirely down to a tip off that young O’Sullivan was making quite the name for himself in the colours of Belvedere College.

Given his GAA roots, it was no surprise to see the youngster line out at full back and assume responsibility for place kicking duties. What has been an eye opener – to me at least – is the relocation of Meath’s latest rugby star to the half back line in his chosen code. His appearances are becoming more regular now and will add another angle of interest in the weeks and months going forward.

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