The 12 Irish sporting faces of 2012 - from Olympian Katie Taylor to Rory McIlroy and Paidi O Se

Ireland's golden girl Katie Taylor
In an annual salute to those who thrilled the nation, Cathal Dervan picks his 12 sports stars of the year for 2012.

KATIE TAYLOR
There’s a great photograph on my iPhone of an entire newspaper office jumping for joy, led by editor Mick McNiffe, as the ring announcer confirmed that Katie Taylor had won gold at the London Olympics.

Trust me, it takes a lot to get an entire newspaper office excited, but Taylor brought the whole country to a halt, never mind the Irish Sun office, in August.

Our back page headline the next day said it all – OMG. That deserved an award but never got one.
Katie Taylor has already won every award going in Ireland and deserves them all. She fulfilled her lifetime dream with Olympic gold, she gave an ailing country a reason to smile and she did it all with grace and aplomb. Katie Taylor, a hero for all the ages and not just 2012.

RORY McILROY

He’s 23, the best golfer in the world, a double major winner, player of the year in Europe and America, a Ryder Cup star and he’s going out with a tennis babe by the name of Caroline Wozniacki. Surely Rory McIlroy has done it all?

Not at all. He has a new $250 million Nike contract to look forward to, he’s going to defend his U.S. PGA title in August and he is going to have a real crack at the Green Jacket when the Masters kicks off the 2013 Major season in Augusta in April.

On Tuesday, Rory was named European Player of the Year, a fitting finale to an incredible 12 months for Holywood’s finest – no matter who he decides to represent at the Olympic games in Rio. That’s a story for another day!

JOHN JOE NEVIN

The golden limelight belonged to Katie Taylor in August, but the streets of London had a silver lining as far as Mullingar’s John Joe Nevin was concerned. The quickest feet to come from the Westmeath town since Joe Dolan, Nevin went so close to winning the bantamweight title at the ExCel Arena until he came face to face with Britain’s Luke Campbell.

Second best was less than John Joe deserved but having reneged on his decision to go pro, he can have another go at the gold in Brazil in 2016. Don’t bet against him.

JIM McGUINNESS

The song of the summer was recorded on a tourist beach in the Canary Islands, and Jimmy has been winning matches ever since. Not alone did he win the Ulster title again, he also got the county team to Croke Park with the belief that they could go on and beat eternal bridesmaids Mayo in the decider.

That’s exactly what Donegal did thanks to a brilliant early goal from Michael Murphy, but it was McGuinness’s decision to switch tactics for the final that really won it for them.

He’s since made more headlines with his move to work for Celtic as a sports psychologist, a marriage made in heaven for all concerned. So get singing – Jimmy’s winning matches, Jimmy’s winning games ……. The rest is on YouTube.

HENRY SHEFFLIN

King Henry the Ninth was the easiest back page headline in the world on the last Sunday in September when the Great One masterminded the All-Ireland senior hurling final replay win over Galway almost on his own. Henry now holds nine All-Ireland medals, a record he has to share, but he will doubtless set his own standard and make it 10 next summer.

When he does he can be rightly hailed as the greatest hurler ever, and I say that with due deference to the likes of Mick Mackey, John Doyle, Christy Ring and Shefflin’s fellow Cats DJ Carey and Eddie Keher.

NEIL LENNON

Eyebrows were raised when a rookie like Neil Lennon landed the Celtic manager’s job, but most of those eyebrows are well and truly back in their rightful place by now.

Celtic are never going to win the European Cup again – they just don’t have the money to win it these days, and romance will only get you so far – but they do have a manager who can perform miracles and get them to the last 16 as Lennon has just done.
The win over Barcelona at Parkhead will go down as the night of nights for Celtic fans in the past year, but Neil Lennon as a manager is far from finished just yet. Far from it.

BILLY WALSH

The Wexford man finally got to win the Philips Sports Manager of the Year award last week – he had to share it with Katie Taylor’s dad Pete – but those who have followed Irish boxing in recent years have always known just how good a coach and motivator Billy is.

It’s no surprise to them that boxing has been Ireland’s most successful Olympic sport, and not just of late, such is Billy’s brilliance and his dedication to a system designed to produce medal winners as it did four times in London this summer.

We are lucky to have him and damn lucky that he is staying around in the build-up to the next Olympics in Rio four years from now.

JOSEPH O’BRIEN

Dad Aiden has long made the headlines as the greatest horse racing trainer of his generation, but now son Joseph is making his own way in the racing game as a young jockey of great promise and not inconsiderable success.

Ireland’s Flat Jockey of the Year for 2012, the 19-year-old and his father became the first father/son trainer-jockey combination to win the Epsom Derby with the great Camelot back in June. He also managed to win the Irish Derby, the Irish 2000 Guineas, the Tattersall’s Gold Cup, the 2000 Guineas, the Coronation Cup, the Derby Stakes, the Prince of Wales’s Stakes, the Queen Elizabeth Stakes, the Grand Prix de Paris and the Breeders’ Cup turf in 2012. Not bad, eh?


CRAIG BREEN

The 22-year-old Waterford driver had to endure an emotional nightmare when a crash in Sicily cost his co-driver and best friend Gareth Roberts his life in June. Craig did get behind the wheel again, and his bravery and skills were rewarded in November when he won the Super 2000 World Rally Championship on the final weekend of the season.

Irish world champions are rare in any sport so Breen deserves to be saluted. He was also voted World Rally Driver of the Year last month. By the way.

JAMES McCLEAN

Sligo Rovers winning the league title aside, it was a poor year for Irish soccer. Euro 2012 was a joke and nothing the national team has done since would offer any hope for them or manager Giovanni Trapattoni.

At least McClean kept us entertained with everything from his Twitter attack on Trap in Kazakhstan to his refusal to wear a poppy on his jersey on Remembrance weekend in England.

He’s a character is James, but the sooner he concentrates on realizing his footballing potential the better for all concerned.

JASON SMYTH

The London Olympics were a huge success from start to finish, but the Paralympics were raised to a new level in the English capital as Team Ireland enjoyed multiple medal success at the Games in September.

Having missed out on the able-bodied Olympic qualifying time by just four tenths of a second, Jason Smyth was determined to shine in the East End and that’s just what he did.

A double champion in Beijing four years earlier, the Derry-born sprinter did it again with two mind blowing runs en route to gold in the T13 100 meter and 200 meter finals. Lord Coe presented the second gold medal to Smyth on a hot September night before Smyth enjoyed a lap of honor and a trademark Usain Bolt style Lightning stance on the podium. What a star.

PAIDI O SE

They say in Kerry that those who called to their eternal reward at Christmas time are special, and Paidi was very special indeed. A legendary footballer with eight All-Ireland medals to prove it, he was also a great manager and a masterful self-publicist who enjoyed fame and everything that went with it.

Paidi’s passing at the age of 57 is a huge loss to Irish sport, but it is also a tragedy for the wife and three young children he leaves behind. At least their memories of him will be rich and wonderful and a comfort in the months to come.

(Cathal Dervan is sports editor of the Irish Sun newspaper in Dublin)

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