It has been quite some time since i last posted on here but an old friend from university inspired me with a St Patrick’s day themed piece he wrote on another site about Ireland’s 8 greatest sports people. Needless to say it created some debate between us so i thought i’d list an alternative 8 greats of Irish sport.
It felt only right to start with someone who perhaps wasn’t the biggest name, even his own sport, but rather could be described as a trailblazer in the late 1950’s and 1960’s. Along with Reg Harris, Brian Robinson and Tom Simpson, Elliott surely goes down as 1 of the first true cycling greats from the English speaking world.
Most of his pro career was spent as a domestique to five time Tour de France winner Jacques Anquetil but inbetween helping Monsieur Chrono to win after win he found time to finish 3rd in a Grand Tour (1962 Vuelta) finish 2nd in the World Championship road race (1962) become the first Irishman to wear the legendary Tour de France yellow jersey (1963) and win stages in all 3 of cycling’s Grand Tour’s. Shay Elliott might not quite have the Palmarès that one would associate with the greats of cycling like Merckx, Coppi, Van Loy or Anquetil but purely for laying the foundations for the likes of Roche, Kelly et al he deserves to be recognized as a great trailblazer of Irish sport. Sadly Elliott’s life ended in 1971 but fittingly Ireland’s most prestigious 1 day bike race is named the Shay Elliott Memorial Race.
After Shay Elliott it seems only right to feature Ireland’s greatest cyclist of all time, Sean Kelly. In the post Eddie Merckx era there have been plenty of serial winners in cycling but few can claim a Palmarès as great as Kelly’s;
1988 Vuelta a Espana winner (plus 16 stage wins + 4 points jerseys between 1980-88)
4 Tour de France green jersey’s between 1982-89+ 5 stage wins
7 x winner of Paris-Nice between 1982-88
9 Monument classics (2 x Milan – Sanremo, 2 x Paris – Roubaix, 2 x Liege-Bastogne-Liege, 3 x Giro di Lombardia)
They are just the major wins of Sean Kelly’s career, to list all his wins would take a long, long time, Kelly is perhaps the greatest cyclist never to win the World Championship road race and along with the Tour of Flanders they are the only major 1 days races missing from the CV of 1 of the all time great winners in 1 day bicycle racing.
The final cyclist on this list is Stephen Roche, who in 1987 became the 1st and so far only Irishman to ride into Paris and cycle along the Champs-Élysées wearing the yellow jersey. For most cyclists a Tour de France would be enough to constitute a great year, not Stephen Roche. Prior to winning a maillot jaune Roche had already won the Giro d’Italia and later that summer would triumph in the World Championship road race, 2 Grand Tour’s and a world title in the space of a couple of months is the kind of season most can only dream of having.
Henry Shefflin is a sportsman virtually unknown outside of Ireland but if Sean Kelly is Ireland’s greatest winner in cycling then Shefflin surely goes down in the history books as Ireland’s greatest winner full stop and perhaps the greatest living Irish sportsman. A hurling superstar for the county of Kilkenny his collection of winner’s medals is so big that should any museum ever convince him to put them on display they may well have to build a brand new wing to accommodate the collection. representing Kilkenny’s all conquering Hurling team Shefflin can boast to winning 5 National Hurling League titles, 13 Leinster championships and 10 All-Ireland championships, at club level representing Ballyhale Shamrocks he has a mere 5 Kilkenny titles, 3 Leinster titles and 3 All-Ireland club titles. In total Shefflin has 39 winners medals at club and county level and all this is made even more incredible by the GAA’s staunch stand on amateurism, during the week Henry Shefflin is a bank worker, at the weekend he is Ireland’s greatest sportsman, if that isn’t a Roy of the Rovers tale i don’t know what is?
Long before Roy Keane stuck the fear of god into opposition players there was another Irish tough man at Manchester United who gave centre forwards sleepless nights and some might say that without McGrath there would be no Keane. McGrath was the key man in the Ireland team of the 1980’s + 90’s that finally went from nearly men to finally qualifying for major tournaments under Jack Charlton. McGrath played in Euro 88 and the 1990 + 1994 World Cup’s and was involved in perhaps Irish football’s 2 greatest moments; the victory over England at Euro 88 and the World Cup win vs Italy at Giants Stadium in the summer of 1994, in which he produced 1 of the great individual performances ever seen by an Irish footballer to mark Roberto Baggio out the game. Of course McGrath had his flaws, he was a notorious alcoholic but he was also a human being but those flaws made him even greater.
To include someone who took up British citizenship in a list of great Irish sportsmen might seem somewhat controversial but as he was born in county Monaghan and in my books that makes it is impossible to exclude the Clones Cyclone from this list. The man was a great fighter, for anyone of a certain age he is 1 of the first names to come up if you ask who their favourite boxer is, but the man is also a great humanitarian. McGuigan boasted a record of 32-3 (28 KO’s) and was WBA Featherweight champion of the world in the mid 1980’s but perhaps his greatest achievement was to promote the idea of peace between Catholic’s and Protestant’s in Northern Ireland, “Leave the fighting to Barry” was a slogan used regularly in the 1980’s and it does make you wonder if McGuigan did far more than any politician to try to end the troubles. Nowadays Barry is still involved in boxing, he promotes Belfast’s outstanding IBF super bantamweight world champion Carl Frampton whilst his son Shane trains Frampton and became the youngest ever person to train a world champion.
The Celtic Warrior, 2 weight world champion, was 1 of many outstanding middleweights and super middleweights from the British Isles to shoot to international stardom in the 1990’s. After dominating Irish amateur boxing Steve Collins took a path heavily trodden by his fellow countrymen by moving to Boston in his early 20’s where he would go on to turn pro and fight out of the Petronelli gym made famous by hall of fame middleweight Marvelous Marvin Hagler. in 1995 Collins became the first boxer to defeat Chris Eubank and would then go on to beat him again in a rematch before twice beating fellow legendary British 168 lb fighter “The Dark Destroyer” Nigel Benn. Steve Collins would retire with a 36-3 record and 7 successful defenses of the WBO super middleweight world title he won by beating Chris Eubank.
The last person to feature on his list is 1997 World Snooker Champion Ken Doherty. He might not have a reputation as 1 of the most glamorous or exciting players to pick up a cue but Doherty was 1 of the few players able to compete with Stephen Hendry at a time when Hendry seemed to win everything in snooker, in fact Doherty beat Hendry 18-12 to win his world title. Twice a runner up at the Crucible it is hard to fathom how a player as dogged and determined as Doherty to date only has 1 world title to his name. As good as Doherty was the 1 abiding memory i have of him is missing the black ball whilst on 140 in the Masters final in 2000 and thus missing out on scoring a 147 maximum break in a major snooker final.
Well that’s my list, i don’t expect everyone to agree with it but it has been fun to write, as someone of Irish heritage it has been enjoyable writing about a couple sportsmen i grew up hearing stories about and others i’ve grown up watching.