Roy Curtis: Seven sensational sporting stories that may unfold in 2017
ANTICIPATION is the sauce that lends sport its flavour and 2017 arrives with so many special story lines poised to unfold. Here are a magnificent seven to whet any sporting appetite.
1. Can anybody shut the Notorious up?
Conor McGregor is loudmouth Marmite, a one-man Love/Hate boxset, the Celtic Donald Trump: He sharply polarises opinion, provokes extreme reaction, this brash, smart-suited inciter of a 21st century civil schism.
To his cult-like supporters, he is a revered, messianic godhead, a fountain of wit, the epitome of cool, the made-it-big measure of their dreams. Any dissenting voice is a heretic to be set aflame at the social media stake.
To others, McGregor’s athletic talents are nothing set beside his vulgar, crass, narcissistic persona. His Mammon-obsession, tasteless putdowns, the power-plays with the UFC, are interpreted as the last word in tacky cynicism.
Consider this correspondent firmly embedded among the Resistance, the refuseniks who decline to submit to The Notorious worldview; the atheists who find it impossible to believe in the divinity of this new, fawning global religion.
Few things in 2017 could be better than the discovery – in the shape of a superior opponent – of an antidote to this boorish, tawdry virus.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder: McGregor tapping out, beaten, broken, at a silenced, mid-summer Croke Park.
Earth could not have anything to show more fair.
2. Are Dublin on the Luas line to Immortality?
Jim Gavin and Stephen Cluxton are a Captain Kirk-Mister Spock combo: Bravely going – at unimaginable warp speeds – where no Dublin team in the last century has gone before.
Star Date 2017 and the Dubs sit on the precipice of immortality: Their mission, to strike down with a Sky Blue fist, to become the first team since Mick O’Dwyer’s Kerry 31 years ago to win three football All-Irelands in a row.
To achieve something that was beyond even Kevin Heffernan’s 1970s princes of the city.
Already 20-month Invincibles – their unbeaten run in league and championship, stretching back to March 2015 stands at an otherworldly 29 games – history’s embrace awaits if they can negotiate the landmines along the September Road.
Who can stop them?
Might Mayo be energised by the accusatory words of their former joint-managers Pat Holmes and Noel Connelly?
Could Gooch, in tandem with the seam of underage fuel Kerry have struck in recent years, offer a last detonation of brilliance? Might Tyrone reignite?
Or will Gavin – his treasure-house of talent further gilded by the return of 2015 Footballer of the Year Jack McCaffrey and the special, coltish talents of Con O’Callaghan – be radioing Scotty to beam up a Three-peat Sam?
3. Can Klopp satisfy The Kop’s eternal craving?
The loopy, emerald-hued, alcohol-soaked Mardi Gras that would be christened Italia ’90 had yet to be conceived.
Football shorts – tighter than Kim Kardashian’s hotpants – doubled as tourniquets. Charlie Haughey still had two years of his third term as Taoiseach to serve.
And Bombalurina would soon reach No.1 in the UK with Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini.
The distant universe of May 1990, the 18th and, incredibly, the most recent notch on Liverpool’s title belt.
But might something be stirring in Merseyside waters?
Jurgen Klopp, smiley, ambitious, brilliant, has been a purveyor of high-grade optimism, the kindling that has ignited a forest fire of hope.
Could he possibly be The One, can he find a way to upset Chelsea, outsmart City, and claim back the perch that Alex Ferguson stole for Man United?
4. Grand Slam Saturday, March 18, 2017?
When gold particles are smashed together at that Large Hadron Collider thingy in Switzerland, temperatures momentarily reach 7.2 trillion degrees Fahrenheit.
In other words, several degrees below the hottest ticket in sport this year: A potential End Of Time, winner takes all, Six Nations war of the worlds between Ireland and England at the exploding supernova that will be the Aviva in 11 weeks.
Should Europe’s form duo take care of Italy, France, Scotland and Wales, then the Dublin earth will palpitate like rarely before.
Not only will the Grand Slam be on the line, but England will be seeking a world record 19th successive Test victory.
Just two months ago, Ireland denied New Zealand access to that same untouched and supreme highland of achievement.
To pickpocket history from England, on Paddy’s Weekend, in Dublin? Yes, 7.2 trillion degrees of desire should be sufficient to bring Joe Schmidt’s side to a fiery fever pitch.
5. Can the Tiger summon one last feline flourish?
There was a time when the very epicentre of the sporting universe was effortlessly pinpointed: It was the exact spot at which Tiger Woods at that moment prowled, executing his latest wild-eyed fist-pump.
Woods was more than a golfer, so much more.
Here was a sleek, compelling, untouchable creature, an athlete without apparent blemish, a jungle cat, who, as he relentlessly hunted down Jack Nicklaus’s 18-Major haul, loped effortlessly up Everest, seemed to defy the very laws of nature, to push out the bounds of the possible.
Then came The Fall: Precipitous, disfiguring, tortuous, haunting, a bonfire of cocktail waitresses, crippling injury, and vanishing confidence. Tiger was rendered mortal.
It is now nine years since he won the last of his 14 Majors; he turns 42 this year, an anachronistic afterthought to the Rory Generation.
Last month he played tournament golf for the first time in more than a year. There were glimpses of the old Tiger in a second round 65 at the Hero World Challenge.
His broken body is patched together and in 2017 he will strain for old glories.
Either resurrected or finally admitting defeat, it will be again be an irresistible storyline.
6. Can Martin O’Neill walk in the footsteps of Big Jack?
Maybe, as the years pass, the Charlton Years are viewed through an ever more romantic prism, but, unquestionably, they were Irish football’s high water mark.
A World Cup quarter-final, three major tournament appearances in six years, giddy summers that lifted the public mood to something approaching rapture.
No manager since has secured a foothold at more than one summer fiesta.
The vaults at the Bank of Happy Memories are heavily guarded. Martin O’Neill, though, is moving with the air of a safe-cracker who has all the combinations memorised.
An assured start to qualification sees Ireland atop Group D with 10 points from four games. Wales (March 24), Austria (June 11) and Serbia (September 5) all visit Dublin in 2017.
Advancing to Russia, securing a second Finals appearance in two years, would place O’Neill, if not alongside, then in the slipstream of dear old cantankerous and beloved Jack.
7. Can Waterford be at the vanguard of a new hurling dawn?
Hurling is in acute need of a new flavour.
The taste buds are tiring of the familiar Tipp-Kilkenny cocktail: Two towering teams, pillars of achievement, but – after 10 All-Irelands in 11 years – the narrative is stale. A fresh condiment is required at the September table.
Cork are playing catch-up after years of neglect, Dublin are riven by disharmony, Davy Fitz will add fizz, but hardly immediate All-Ireland winning potential, in Wexford.
Maybe Galway can at last marry potential with achievement; Clare – the interlopers of 2013 and with new voices in the dressing-room – certainly have the ability to rise again.
But the most compelling story is that of Waterford.
Without an All-Ireland since 1959, the outrageously talented Austin Gleeson leads a team crashing hard against the glass ceiling, determined to deliver the piercing flourish.