Katie Taylor
The trees are down and the women of Ireland have had their little Christmas. The decorations are away for another year and there is even a slight stretch in the evenings.

So what can we look forward to in 2012 from a sporting point of view? Let’s do some crystal ball gazing!

The European Championships

The Irish soccer team will depart for Poland on June 3. By then several thousand fans will already be on their way to the Euros, Ireland’s first appearance on a big football stage in a decade.

It’s a decade now since the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea, almost 10 years since the storm of Saipan that caused so much unrest inside and outside the Irish football camp.

Now we’re back on the international stage, back to trip the light fantastic as sport offers a suffering Irish people some hope this coming summer.

It won’t right the economic wrongs of the recent past. Success in Poland won’t pay-off the EU, the IMF and their troika. It won’t get hundreds of thousands of people back to work.

But it will make a difference to all our lives. And that’s the important thing.

There are no guarantees when Ireland face Croatia, Spain and then Italy at Euro 2012. Not many, anyway.

The one thing we can guarantee is that Ireland, under Giovanni Trapattoni, will be well prepared. No stone will be left unturned, no tactical advantage discounted by a man whose style of play is always effective if seldom entertaining.

Just as this Irish team has a point to prove at Euro 2012, so we have a manager keen to make his own mark on his personal return to the big stage for the first time since Italy flopped under guidance in Portugal eight years ago.

Trap and Ireland will go to Poland as underdogs in a Group of Near Death. That suits him and us just fine.
For now we can celebrate just getting there. Come June we can look forward with real relish.
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The Olympic Games

The great Bernard Dunne and the wonderful Jimmy Magee were guests on Irish television on New Year’s Eve when the lovely Miriam O’Callaghan asked them the very obvious question about the London Olympics in August.

Jimmy, the most knowledgeable boxing commentator in these islands, did what he always does. He called it as he sees it. So did Bernard Dunne as both men agreed that the Irish boxing team en route to England is the best yet.

That’s some statement when you consider the boxing talent that has won medals for Ireland at the Olympic Games in the past, not least last time out when Messrs Egan, Sutherland and Barnes all brought medals home from Beijing.

The Irish public will expect medals from the team of all the talents again this time, and the greatest expectations of all will rest on the shoulders of Wicklow girl Katie Taylor.

As Jimmy and Bernard pointed out on New Year’s Eve, there are no guarantees as far as Katie is concerned. She is the best boxer at her weight in the world, we all know that. But nobody knows what will be waiting for her in London.

The good news is that Katie, under the watchful eye of dad Pete, is preparing for anything that can be thrown at her by any opponent at the 2012 Olympics. She is leaving no stone unturned in her bid to find gold on the streets of London.

If anyone can get a medal home it is Katie Taylor. She will make the Olympics special for Ireland, that much you can bet on.

Dublin Defends Sam

With all the talk of Euro 2012 and the London Olympics, it is easy to forget that life will carry on regardless for the vast majority of the country’s sporting fans and players next summer.

The Euros and the Olympics only come around every four years, the GAA heartbeat is incessant. Those of a blue persuasion will need no reminding that last year’s September football Sunday belonged to the Dubs.

They were the high kings of Gaelic football for the first time this century and boy did it mean a lot to Stephen Cluxton, Alan Brogan, et al.

Dublin’s All-Ireland win was welcomed the length and breadth of the country, even here in Meath believe it or not.

There’s not a GAA fan alive who begrudged Pat Gilroy and his team their Sam Maguire success but therein lies the great rub.

If there’s one thing we’re good at in Ireland it’s building you to knock you straight back down again.
Dublin are sitting on the football pedestal right now and deservedly so but they are also sitting targets.

Every team they meet next summer will want to be the team to knock Dublin out of the championship.

How they respond to that challenge is going to be fascinating.

The Cats and Liam McCarthy

This time last year the Irish sporting community debated a great hurling question -- how would Kilkenny react to their All-Ireland 2010 final defeat to a Tipperary side that burst out of the traps at Croker in that dramatic match?

The answer was simple. They bounced back with the bravery of champions, the heart of Lions and the conviction of a manager who doesn’t know how to accept defeat.

Brian Cody didn’t just lead Kilkenny to another All-Ireland title when they played Tipp off the park from start to finish in September’s McCarthy Cup decider -- he also reminded us that there is no better hurling team in the world than his pride and joy.

Kilkenny were brilliant on the championship field in 2011. They’ll know better than most that Tipp will be looking for their own revenge in 2012. Hurling this year is going to be as good as ever – if not better.
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Golf’s Great Adventures

Darren Clarke, slimmer than he has been for quite some time after employing a sports scientist as his personal trainer, was in great form at his beloved Royal Portrush last Friday and why not?

Not alone is the British Open champion looking forward to the New Year with relish as a Major winner, he is also very excited about the prospect of the best golfers in Europe playing the Dunluce links at Portrush for the Irish Open championship at the end of June.

Clarke knows better than most how good a golf course Royal Portrush is. He also knows what it means for golf on the island of Ireland to return North for the first time since 1953, a truly significant gesture at a time when Ulster is looking forward to the future without daily reminders of the pains of the past.

Of course, we will look to see how Rory and Graeme and Padraig and Darren do in Augusta and at the British and U.S. Opens this summer. We’ll even keep an eye on their Ryder Cup progress ahead of the bi-annual clash with the Americans.

But those four days in Antrim at the end of June promise to be very special. And not just for sporting reasons. All concerned should take a bow.

The Premier League

Manchester City hammered Manchester United in the Premier League at Old Trafford earlier this season. Manchester United beat Manchester City in the FA Cup at the Etihad Stadium last Sunday.

Manchester City lead Manchester United at the top of the Premier League. The stage is set for a sensational finish to the title race in England.

It hasn’t been a classic season in football terms but the battle between Alex Ferguson’s know-how and Roberto Mancini’s Arab millions has been something to follow.

How it pans out is still anyone’s guess, but I wouldn’t write off the 70-year-old Scot just yet.

The Six Nations

Ireland were brilliant in the World Cup against Australia then threw it all away in the quarterfinals against Wales. How Declan Kidney’s team respond to that disappointment in the forthcoming Six Nations will tell us so much about them. That they will have to do it without the injured Brian O’Driscoll only adds to the intrigue.

Keane TV

Speaking of United, his Royness has already been box office material in his new role as a pundit for the British ITV network. If they can get him to Poland to work at the Ireland matches it will make for compulsive viewing -- especially if the training kit goes missing!

The League of Ireland

Not everyone’s cup of tea but I love it. Life without Michael O’Neill is going to be a tall order for Shamrock Rovers, so my money is on Sligo to finally win the title and prove how good a manager Paul Cook really is.

The Heineken Cup

Leinster are the reigning champions, Munster are still in sight of the winning line, and Ulster are playing better rugby in this competition than they have done for years. The European Cup is back this weekend and the sooner the better.