Ireland’s 15 greatest athletes (we think!)

Ciaran O’Mahony

Ireland may be a small country, but it has punched well above its weight when it comes to sporting achievements on the world stage.

To celebrate St Patrick’s Day, The Jaded Newsman is tipping its hat to some of the greatest athletes produced on the Emerald Isle. This list is sure to spark debate and I must admit, it was extremely difficult to narrow it down to 15 names.

Before any GAA fans come banging on my door, I should mention that I have only included athletes that have competed in international sports. As the furthest thing from a GAA expert, I wasn’t able to judge how the likes of Colm Cooper and Henry Shefflin stack up against the rest of the field.

With that said, let’s dive into the list.

15. Derval O’Rourke (Runner)

One of three track and field athletes on this list (all from County Cork), Derval O’Rourke brings a World Championship in hurdles to the table. She shocked the world in Moscow (2006), clocking a PB and winning the 60m hurdles at the World Indoor Athletics Championships. Although she was unable to recapture the same form, O’Rourke also picked up numerous medals at the European Championships in both the 60m and 100m hurdles.

14. Pat O’Callaghan (Hammer Thrower)

His name may not be familiar to many, but it would be absurd to keep a two-time Olympic Gold medallist off this list. O’Callaghan and his two brothers paid their own travel fares to compete in the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam. It proved to be money well spent as Pat won Gold in the Hammer Throw. His medal presentation was the first time that the Irish tricolour was raised at an Olympic Games. O’Callaghan defended his title in 1932, firmly sealing his place in Irish sporting history.

Photo: Sean Sexton/Getty Images

13. Carl Frampton (Boxer)

It was tough to split Frampton and his former mentor (now turned enemy) Barry McGuigan, but I’m giving “the jackal” the nod. Frampton was a two-weight world champion in the highly competitive Super-Bantamweight and Featherweight divisions. He gained his first world title by easily dispatching Kiko Martinez – the current IBF Featherweight champion – twice. He later defeated his arch-rival and WBA Super-Bantamweight champion, Scott Quigg, before moving up to Featherweight and upsetting the highly rated Leo Santa Cruz.

12. Padraig Harrington (Golfer)

The epitome of an athlete who performed at his best on the biggest stage. Harrington is a three-time major winner, with two British Opens and one PGA Championship to his name. He won all three between 2007-2008, earning PGA Player of the Year and PGA Tour Player of the Year honours. It’s safe to say that at his peak, the Dubliner was on top of the golfing world.

11. Sonia O’Sullivan (Runner)

Undoubtedly one of Ireland’s greatest sportswomen, Sonia O’Sullivan is an incredibly decorated runner. The Cork woman was definitely at her strongest in the 5000m and 2000m races. She set a world record in the 2000m in 1994, which stood until 2017. In the 5000m, O’Sullivan won Gold at the World Championships in 1995 and Silver at the Olympic Games in 2000. She has plenty more medals in her cabinet, but it’s safe to say that the aforementioned achievements alone, have made her an Irish sporting legend.

10. Conor McGregor (MMA Fighter)

Love him or hate him, it’s hard to deny that “The Notorious” set the UFC alight during an incredible three year stretch. His legendary featherweight run included dominant victories over huge names such as Max Holloway, Dustin Poirier and Chad Mendes. But it’s perhaps that viral 13-second KO of the greatest Featherweight of all time, Jose Aldo, for which he is best known. No one could quite believe that the Brazilian’s 10 years of dominance were undone in the same amount of time it takes us to unlock our phones. A masterful performance against Lightweight champion Eddie Alvarez, silenced any remaining doubters, making McGregor the UFC’s first simultaneous two-division champion.

9. Liam Brady (Footballer)

One of the greatest playmakers of his generation, Liam Brady is a certified Arsenal legend. Brady had everything you wanted in a footballer – silky skills, vision, strength, and an eye for goal. He was a dominant force in the Premier League during the 1970s, picking up the PFA Players’ Player of the Year award in 1978-79, and appearing in the Team of the Season several times. He moved to the mighty Juventus in 1980, winning the Serie A in 1980-81 and 1981-82, before further successful spells at Sampdoria and Inter Milan.

8. Brian O’Driscoll (Rugby Player)

There aren’t enough superlatives in the English language to describe this man’s effortless talent. O’Driscoll was a player who didn’t just do the impossible, but made it look easy. BOD is Ireland’s record cap-holder, a Grand Slam winner, and for many years, was one of the best players in the world. For club, he won three Heineken Cups and three RaboDirect Pro12s. For country, he scored 26 tries in the Six Nations and was shortlisted for the IRB World Player of the Year – three times!

7. Jimmy McLarnin (Boxer)

Contrary to popular belief, Jimmy McLarnin (not Sugar Ray Robinson) was the first boxer to ever be called the best “pound for pound” fighter in the world. “Baby Face” had thunderous power in both hands, which helped him to floor some of the best fighters of his generation. Throughout his career, McLarnin faced World Champions from seven different weight classes, famously defeating five reigning champions in non-title bouts (as well as many future world champions). He finally captured a World Title of his own in 1933, with a vicious first round knockout of Welterweight Champion Young Corbett III. McLarnin would lose and regain the title in a legendary trilogy with the great Barney Ross. The pair contested three razor-close 15-round bouts in one year, with Ross winning the decider in front of 55,000 people at the Polo Grounds. Across 77 professional fights, McLarnin defeated 13 Boxing Hall of Famers.

6. Katie Taylor (Boxer)

The Queen of Irish sport, Katie Taylor is still champion of the world, and it would hardly be surprising if she topped this list in a few years’ time. At 35 years of age, she has already won everything there is to win in Boxing. As an amateur, she won 5 world championship Gold medals (and one bronze), 6 European Championship Golds, and an Olympic Gold. As a pro, she is currently a two-weight world champion and the Undisputed Lightweight Champion of the world.

5. Rory McIlroy (Golfer)

Another sports star who’s not done yet – and we’re hoping he can add some more majors to his resume. Rory McIlroy held Golf’s No. 1 ranking for 106 weeks. Between 2011-2014, he won two PGA Championships, a US Open and a British Open. Throughout his career, he has scooped the following accolades on multiple occasions: PGA Tour Leading Money Winner, PGA Player of the Year, PGA Tour Player of the Year, European Tour Golfer of the Year. Enough said.

4. Stephen Roche (Cyclist)

If not for injuries, Stephen Roche may well have gone down as the greatest cyclist of all time. However, despite persistent knee problems, he is still considered an all-time great. Most professional cyclists hope to win one of the following races throughout the course of their career – the Tour De France, Giro D’Italia and the Road Cycling World Championship. If they’re lucky, they might even win a couple of them. Roche won all three of these races in one year. He is one of only two men to achieve this extraordinary “Triple Crown” and no one has done it since. While he clocked up 58 professional victories overall, and even added a World Championship Bronze medal to his list of accolades, his knee injuries severely shortened his prime.

3. Sean Kelly (Cyclist)

Stephen Roche’s achievements are hard to top, but his former teammate Sean Kelly, finds himself higher on the list due to his sustained dominance. Kelly is widely considered one of the greatest road cyclists ever. Arguably the best sprinter and classics rider of his generation, he won 9 monuments classics and 196 professional races. This included seven consecutive Paris-Nice victories and the 1988 Vuelta a Espana. Kelly won the coveted Green Jersey at the Tour de France four times as well as two Bronze medals at the Road Cycling World Championships. He was also the first cyclist to capture the No. 1 ranking – a position he held for five years.

2. Roy Keane (Footballer)

The man, the myth, the legend. Manchester United’s (and quite possibly the English Premier League’s) greatest captain drove the club to incredible heights for 12 years. Keane is best known as a tough-tackling midfield general, but he was also incredibly skilled. Blessed with pace and an excellent engine, his passing was top class and his finishing was extremely underrated. Ultimately, Keane’s best attribute was his ability to control a game and set the tempo. In 2000, he was recognised as the best player in the Premier League, winning FWA Footballer of the Year and the PFA Players’ Player of the Year. For United, he won 7 Premier Leagues, 4 FA Cups and the Champions League. Keane is also consistently selected in Premier League Teams of the Decade and Teams of the Century by football experts far and wide.

1. George Best (Footballer)

Perhaps the most talented footballer that ever lived, George Best’s story is one of greatness and sadness, in equal measure. In 1961, Manchester United Manager Matt Busby received a telegram from his scout in Northern Ireland, Bob Bishop. It contained just eight memorable words.

“I think I have found you a genius.”

Bishop was watching a 15 year old George Best, who was immediately snapped up. His prediction was proven right as Best carried United to the top of European Football just a few years later. During that period, Best became football’s first true superstar. A player so famous that he transcended the sport and became a pop icon. His silky skills dazzled football fans, while his good-looks and exploits off the pitch, made him a prime target for the tabloids. Who can forget this famous quote:

“If you’d given me the choice of going out and beating four men and smashing a goal in from 30 yards against Liverpool, or going to bed with Miss World, it would have been a difficult choice. Luckily, I had both.”

Thrown into the spotlight at just 17 years of age, Best battled an alcohol addiction that would curtail his career before he’d even reached his mid-20s. It was an addiction that dogged him for the rest of his life.

Nevertheless, his astonishing highlight reels live on and football experts agree that he was one of the greatest players ever. Best spearheaded Manchester United’s European Cup triumph in 1968, winning the coveted Ballon d’Or that season. He also won 2 First-Division titles with United and was the club’s top scorer for 5 consecutive seasons – all whilst battling serious personal demons. He came 5th in the Fifa Player of the (20th) Century vote and 8th in World Soccer’s Greatest Players of the 20th Century list.

But the honour Best cherished the most, was Pele’s confirmation that he was the best player in the world. “George Best until today, is a footballer without comparison and his technical skills will never be forgotten,” said the Brazilian.

In response, Best said “PelĂ© called me the greatest footballer in the world. That is the ultimate salute to my life.”

We all salute you George. Rest in peace.

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