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silver lining My 6 sporting spectacles to raise the spirits in 2021...and hope of returning fans

The greatest wish for any sportsperson for the next 12 months is the return of an audience

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Stephen Cluxton leads out the Dublin team before a packed Croke Park in 2019, hopefully we’ll see GAA HQ full again this year. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Stephen Cluxton leads out the Dublin team before a packed Croke Park in 2019, hopefully we’ll see GAA HQ full again this year. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Stephen Cluxton leads out the Dublin team before a packed Croke Park in 2019, hopefully we’ll see GAA HQ full again this year. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

The warmest glow of anticipation heading into 2021 is triggered neither by a ball player of the most fertile imagination nor a team on the cusp of immortality.

No, the greatest surge of adrenalin facing into the year ahead is born of something even more viscerally thrilling than the prospect of watching a standout athlete at the very peak of their transfixing power.

It is that their might be an audience at the theatre where Brian Fenton or Mo Salah or Katie Taylor express themselves with such uplifting beauty and poise.

The return of crowds, to know again the thrill of being at the centre of the sporting universe, the one that comes with taking a seat in an arena bursting with humanity and alive with the music of hope, is the number-one wish entering a new year.

To hear the turnstiles click, to see the pubs around Croke Park or Anfield or Semple Stadium or Old Trafford or the Aviva pulsing with communal longing, to sense once more the brotherhood of being when team and supporter become one, this is the most fervent wish for the months ahead.

Sport was a saviour for many, a candle in the unceasing darkness of 2020.

Just getting teams onto a rectangle of grass represented a small miracle, a logistical triumph, a stubborn pocket of resistance to the advance of Covid's jackbooted and pitiless army.

The GAA championship gate-crashing the bleakest midwinter was a thing of wonder. A lifeboat, a guardian angel, insulation against the despair that sought to invade the bones and steal away every last atom of hope.

Yet, still, it wasn't remotely the same. It couldn't be.

Even as Liverpool returned to the summit after 30 years, or Dublin pushed out the bounds of all that is possible, or Dustin Johnson mowed down the rest of the golfing world, the ghost arenas and deserted fairways cruelly intruded into their glory.

The Kop, Hill 16 and Amen Corner empty and forlorn might have been a metaphor for a natural order tilted and upended.

When the footballers of Cavan and Tipperary brought a kind of magic to bleak November, the absence of euphoric Breffni and Premier tribes felt like a torture too far. Instead of a parade, there was solitary confinement.

The drumbeat of the celebratory Mardi Gras permitted only in the boulevards of the mind.

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World Champion Katie Taylor. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

World Champion Katie Taylor. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

World Champion Katie Taylor. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Their Ulster and Munster uprisings were gorgeous and historic, yet the emotion that poured from Raymond Galligan and Colin O'Riordan at their moment of triumph inevitably focussed on those who were missing: The massed ranks of their county men and women who should, right then, have been wrapping them in a burning embrace.

Galligan spoke with eloquence of Covid deaths in his community, of how the umbilical cord connecting his team to the Cavan people watching in Kingscourt or Virginia, New York or London, had sustained them in their hour of need.It was powerful, profound, tear-inducing stuff.

Even neutrals - though, in truth, there were no neutrals on that supernatural November Sunday - yearned for a pitch invasion, for the delirious Cavan masses to come and raise their triumphant Caesar onto their shoulders.

For a world watching the biggest sporting events on TV, the artificial crowd sounds pumped into the living room were a stark reminder of all that was lost in a year that enmeshed the planet in its pernicious web.

For those few of us fortunate to have a ringside seat as the All-Irelands unspooled in December chill, a refrigerated, echoing, empty Croke Park, the silence pierced only by the urgings of the gladiators below, is the abiding memory.

Limerick were relentless and magnificent, Gearoid Hegarty and Tom Morrissey unerring long-range snipers. Some of the hurling felt like performance art.

Dublin's Ciaran Kilkenny, Con O'Callaghan, James McCarthy, Brian Howard and Niall Scully took turns in transforming a ball into a thing of wonder. Yet an opera without music remains a deeply unsatisfying experience.

So it was, then, that Liverpool fans were drawn to a padlocked Anfield, setting off their flares, singing their hymns, aching for the vitamin of participation in a storied day in the history of a club that governs their biorhythms.

It might have been a breach of the health guidelines, but anybody who has ever known the sensory thrill of accompanying their team at their moment of triumph and basking in the glow of belonging, understood.

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Masters champ Dustin Johnson

Masters champ Dustin Johnson

Masters champ Dustin Johnson

Birds fly, fish swim, supporters come together and feed on the food of a shared identity.

Elite sport without the comfort blanket of thronged, colour-dripping terraces, is, largely, devoid of soul. It is counter-intuitive to talk of days of thunder when a demon plague has muzzled the terraces.

The veteran racehorse trainer Noel Meade offered a lament for all that is lost as last week's ordinarily electrifying Leopardstown Christmas meeting played out as a silent movie.

"Meetings are soulless now. It just doesn't feel the same. It's more like going to the gallops than a race meeting. The excitement is just not the same."

Like exhausted foot-soldiers calculating the miles left to march, we countdown to the sun-draped dawn when the coliseums can throw open the gates and society escapes the purgatory of face-masked social distancing.

The effect of a packed arena, the audience lost in the contest playing out before them, is something close to hypnotic.

Right now, we are all prospectors seeking a glint of that precious metal.

The dream is that, before 2021 grows old, we might unearth the nuggets of so many sporting churches - of all denominations, Gaelic games, Association Football, rugby, golf or boxing - sparkling again with rapt worshippers.


Six events to look forward to in 2021...

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Manchester United's Bruno Fernandes.

Manchester United's Bruno Fernandes.

Manchester United's Bruno Fernandes.

1 A heavyweight Liverpool and Manchester United title showdown

Could Ole Gunnar Solskjaer - so often lampooned as a witless, Scandinavian lightweight - really have conjured the long-awaited post-Fergie surge of life at Old Trafford?

Manchester United, without ever entirely convincing, find themselves back on the Premier League's highest peak, eye-to-eye with Jurgen Klopp's champions.

Liverpool, having looked ready to separate themselves from the rest of the field just weeks ago, have hit a flat spot. And Virgil van Dijk's absence is an Achilles heel that might just prove impossible to cover up all the way to May.

The Anfield club remain worthy favourites and United's challenge could yet tamely ebb. But with their new Caesar, Bruno Fernandes, bringing a Cantona strut, Solskjaer's team have taken 16 points from their last 18, a suddenly powerful offensive fountainhead delivering 16 goals in six games.

An Old Firm title race between England's two most storied clubs would shorten the road back to normality.


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 Padraig Harrington.

Padraig Harrington.

Padraig Harrington.

2 Harrington's Ryder Cup rumble

For all that its bitter duels can trigger an authentic surge of the blood, the Ryder Cup will, for many of us, always trail golf's four majors as a measure of sporting greatness.

But Padraig Harrington is such a beloved, compelling and magnificently zany character, that even Team Europe agnostics, will happily march behind that truly ghastly blue-and-yellow standard come September.

Harrington's warrior spirit, his unbreakable work ethic and curious mind, carried him beyond superior natural talents to win three major titles. In so doing, he authored the greatest individual triumph in Irish sport's history.

Eminently approachable, unceasingly inquisitive, inherently decent, ferociously competitive and wonderfully "Nutty Professor", the Dubliner will bring a much-needed extra dimension to the duel with a loaded American super team.

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Trainer Willie Mullins.

Trainer Willie Mullins.

Trainer Willie Mullins.

3 Willie Mullins wins Sports Manager of the Year

The Closutton horse whisperer makes magic as routinely as a short order chef scrambles eggs.

Mullins portfolio of achievement, his sustained brilliance at the cutting edge of National Hunt racing, has never once interfered with his dignity or perspective.

He is the jewel in Ireland's sporting crown.

In March his Al Boum Photo pursues the peerless Arkle's Cheltenham hoof prints, his stalking of a third consecutive Gold Cup just one of many potential epic Mullins storylines in racing's biggest week.

The majestic Chacun Pour Soi is favourite for the Champion Chase - alone among the great prizes to have eluded Mullins - while Monkfish, Appreciate It, Sharjah and Concertista are primed to add to his already record-shattering 65 wins at March's great adventure in the Cotswolds.

If even a fraction of the anticipated glory is made real, the judges who select Ireland's Sports Manager of the Year will surely be compelled to right the one glaring omission from a distinguished roll call of previous winners.

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Dublin captain Stephen Cluxton.

Dublin captain Stephen Cluxton.

Dublin captain Stephen Cluxton.

4 Cluxton adopts the Captain Kirk mantra

To bravely go where no man has gone before was the fearless mission statement of Star Trek's USS Enterprise skipper.

Stephen Cluxton is among a small band of Dublin footballers who, this coming summer, can advance into territory untouched by a single human footprint.

Like James McCarthy and Michael Fitzsimons (and, should they choose to continue for another year, Kevin McManamon, Philly McMahon, Cian O'Sullivan and Michael Darragh Macauley), Dublin's captain is pursuing a ninth All-Ireland football medal.

It is almost to limit the Sky Blues achievement to say they are the greatest team in football history.

But if the challenge is to produce still more unrivalled deeds, the chance to ease ahead of the five Kerry titans with whom they share the current record medal haul of eight, might just stimulate men with an absolute commitment to clearing every hurdle placed before them.

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Shane Lowry

Shane Lowry

Shane Lowry

Shane Lowry to strike Olympic Gold

Perhaps some would prefer to see Rory McIlroy ascend the Tokyo podium to accept a golden glint of high achievement.

But Lowry, a pint-loving everyman touched with a rare sporting genius, rates as highly as Harrington on the likeability scale.

The notion of him reimagining the Open Championship glory of Portrush 2019 in the Orient, and emulating Irish immortals like Katie Taylor, Michael Carruth and Ronnie Delaney, has the heart skipping a beat months before the planet's best golfers gather in Japan.

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Davy Fitzgerald.

Davy Fitzgerald.

Davy Fitzgerald.

6 Davy Fitz's last shot at glory

Given Limerick's awesome power and Wexford's tame 2020 capitulation, it seems like a long shot.

But nothing in Irish sport would trigger such a volcanic outburst of euphoria as Davy delivering Liam McCarthy on the 25th anniversary of Liam Griffin's hauntingly beautiful surge through the summer of 1996.

Fitzgerald's manic, livewire, passionate, never-back-down personality found its perfect match in a hurling-obsessed county straining again for once-familiar glories.

An All-Ireland for Lee Chin and company may seem unlikely, but, then, who would have anticipated Cavan and Tipp striking football gold in 2020?

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