Published Friday, 21 December 2012
Even the most casual of fans have found it hard to escape the glare of Bradley Wiggin's Tour De France triumph, Mo and Jessica winning gold on Super Saturday, or Spain claiming yet another major championship success at Euro 2012.
SPOTY was a great celebration of the British summer of sport but not to be outdone, sports teams and individuals from this part of the World have also enjoyed a sterling year. The past twelve months have brought great success for a number of Northern Ireland's sports personalities. I thought it only right that given the incredible achievements of our home grown talents it would be difficult to write about anything else.
There have been some amazing displays this year from Northern Ireland's golfing prodigy Rory McIlroy. Rory would be the first person to say that the first few months of the year didn't go according to plan but since the summer he has been outstanding. It really has been a fairytale six months for the Holywood man winning his second major, being part of a victorious Ryder Cup team and topping it all with being crowned World Number One and head of the money list on both sides of the Atlantic. Any other year and Rory would be the outstanding Northern Ireland talent in the sporting arena but 2012 wasn't just another year.
It could be argued that Paralympic stars Michael McKillop, Jason Smyth and Bethany Firth were the outstanding athletes of the year. Derry man Jason Smyth in particular turned in the performances of the year in claiming two gold medals and two world records at London 2012. Two other Northern Irish Olympians who surpassed expectations at this year's Games were boxers Paddy Barnes and Michael Conlon. The Belfast boxers may not have walked away with Gold but to achieve a Bronze medal at an Olympic games is an amazing achievement.
Northern Ireland also put itself on the world stage when it came to rowing as the Chambers brothers and Alan Campbell again won medals for NI as part of Team GB. If this year is anything to go by then perhaps in four years time instead of having our athletes compete for Team GB or Team Ireland we should send a team NI to Rio to clean up on the medals front.
It hasn't all been about the individuals this year as there have been some outstanding team displays. Both the Belfast Giants and Ulster Rugby could make the argument for being considered team of the year. The Giants claimed the Elite League title back in March and are sure to be in the mix again come the end of the season under head coach Doug Christiansen.
Ulster turned a few heads in their run to the Heineken Cup only to finish runners up to the history making Leinster. Mark Anscombe has managed to continue the good work of Brian McLaughlin having overseen a fantastic start to the season which saw the Ravenhill men go on a thirteen game winning streak.
There is another team who made it to a European final but were able to go one step better than Ulster as the Pegasus women's hockey team won their fourth European Championship.
One man who deserves a bit of praise for the job he's done this year is a man who splits opinion like Moses parted the Red Sea. People either love him or hate him but nobody can ignore him. I am of course talking about Neil Lennon. No matter what you think of him you have to appreciate the incredible job he has done in his short time at Celtic. For such a young manager to take an unfashionable team and beat the mighty Barcelona is a huge feather in the Lurgan man's cap. Not only that but he has managed to do what even Martin O'Neill couldn't do and take the Bhoys to the last sixteen of the Champions League.
All in all 2012 has been a great year for Northern Ireland with plenty of great stories. There is however, one sporting story which was written right at the end of the year that many people may not have heard. Norman Parke from Bushmills stormed his way through TUF: The Smashes to become Northern Ireland's first Ultimate Fighter. I wrote a blog several weeks ago praising Norman's performance in his first round fight and suggested that he could make it all the way and thankfully he didn't let me down. Norman can now enjoy his Christmas with a big fat six figure UFC contract and hopefully in 2013 can become MMA's Rory McIlroy as he looks to put Northern Ireland on the map in the world's fastest growing sport.
There isn't much left to say about Northern Ireland's sporting year. It is up for debate whether this was the greatest year for sport in our wee country but there can be no debate about the great sense of pride we have all felt thanks to our athlete's efforts. A big thank you to everyone mentioned for an amazing 2012 and congratulations to those people behind the scenes who helped them along the way but who all too often are forgotten.
Here's to a happy and successful year ahead in 2013.
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