Belfast Telegraph

Belfast Telegraph Sports Awards: So, who will be our star choice from an incredible year for NI sport?

Top man: Jonathan Rea with his 2017 award
Top man: Jonathan Rea with his 2017 award
Judgment day: (from left) Chris Nelmes, centre manager of main sponsor Boulevard, Banbridge, Sean O’Neill, Belfast Telegraph Sports Editor Jim Gracey, Dame Mary Peters, Eilish Rutherford, Angela Platt and Peter McCabe
Host Claire McCollum, Boulevard outlet manager Chris Nelmes and host Ruth Gorman
Adam McKendry

By Adam McKendry

The countdown is on to another star-studded Belfast Telegraph Sports Awards gala evening, hosted by our first all-female presenting team and with a new headline sponsor, The Boulevard outlet mall at Banbridge, on board.

Regular compere Claire McCollum will be joined on stage by broadcasting colleague Ruth Gorman of UTV at the Waterfront Hall in Belfast on Monday, January 14.

They will announce the winners of a range of awards, recognising excellence in another stellar year for Northern Ireland sport in 2018 from world level to grassroots. Ours is the only all-encompassing awards ceremony under one roof in Northern Ireland sport, the uniqueness of the event making it even more special for each category winner.

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You, our readers, provided the nominations from which the shortlists have now been drawn up by our judging panel, consisting of top sports people like Olympic gold medallist Dame Mary Peters, Down GAA legend Sean O’Neill, former hockey international Eilish Rutherford, now Chair of the Mary Peters Trust, the Northern Cricket Union’s first female general manager Angela Platt, also vice-chair of the NI Sports Forum, and Peter McCabe of Sport NI.

Their task was a tough one with some difficult decisions having to be made.

After yet another incredible year for Northern Ireland sport, which saw plenty of personal and team achievements, there were so many deserving recipients across the 12 months.

While there are many awards on offer on the night — platinum for professional winners, gold for amateur — undoubtedly the biggest accolade up for grabs is our marquee award, the Sports Star of the Year.

This year’s recipient will join an elite list of previous winners that includes Rory McIlroy, Carl Frampton and Rory Best, reflecting what it takes to win it.

Won by then three-time World Superbike champion Jonathan Rea last year, this time around the 31-year-old faces stiff competition, even after claiming a fourth world title in 2018. It was another incredibly successful year for Templepatrick-based Rea and his Kawasaki team as he claimed that fourth consecutive world crown after winning 11 straight races to finish his season on a high.

It will take something substantial to knock Rea off his perch, but there are some very strong claims from other homegrown sporting stars in the running for the top award.

For instance, after another sublime year for the Irish rugby team, both captain Best and star winger Jacob Stockdale (right) are contenders for top honours.

Best was the skipper as Ireland lifted only their third Grand Slam and also led them to a first ever victory over the All Blacks on home soil, while Stockdale scored the winning try in that spectacular win as well as setting a new record with seven tries in the Six Nations on his way to being named Player of the Tournament at just 22-years-old.

Or, after their amazing run to the final of hockey’s World Cup, perhaps Ireland women’s skipper Katie Mullan or goalkeeper Ayeisha McFerran deserve to go home with the award?

Mullan was inspirational as captain, leading them into the decider against the Netherlands, while McFerran was the stand-out player at the tournament by performing superbly in two shoot-out victories and being named Goalkeeper of the Tournament.

There were plenty of Northern Ireland stars making the headlines at the Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast back in the summer and some of them are up for Sports Star of the Year as well.

Rhys McClenaghan had a brilliant 2018. He didn’t just return from the Commonwealth Games with the pommel horse gold, he also followed that up by winning the European title too.

Meanwhile, sprinter Leon Reid made history after he took home Northern Ireland’s first track medal since 1990 when he claimed bronze in the 200m in Australia, and he then backed that up by making the final of the same event at the European Championships.

Or how about Niamh Woods, who was a stand-out performer for Northern Ireland’s netball team at the Commonwealth Games and also helped them qualify for the 2019 World Cup.

A dual sports star, Woods was also an integral part of the Tyrone Ladies side who took home the All-Ireland Intermediate title this year in an incredible year for her in both sports.

Sticking with Gaelic games and it was a fantastic year for Tyrone’s Colm Cavanagh, who not only starred for his county in their run to the All-Ireland final and was named an All-Star, he also enjoyed club success with Moy as they were victorious in the All-Ireland Intermediate Championship.

A fantastic year saw Antrim snooker player Mark Allen take home three rankings titles, including his maiden Major title in January’s Masters, and rise up to fifth in the world rankings, giving him a credible claim at the accolade.

Para-swimmer Bethany Firth had another sensational year in the pool after she won another three golds at the World Para Swimming European Championships in Dublin, while also claiming a silver and a bronze at the event.

Paralympian Jason Smyth also continued his untouchable form on the track as the sprinter maintained his unbeaten record at the European Championships with a 17th gold medal in Berlin, accompanied by several new records as well.

Despite his recent defeat to Josh Warrington, boxer Frampton will be in the running too, after he returned to the world stage with a bang following victories over Nonito Donaire and Luke Jackson.

And supporters of British Touring Car champion Colin Turkington will also feel he has a case for the award after his third Championship victory, the Portadown driver steering his BMW to the top of the GB standings.

With so many credible winners shortlisted for the prestigious award, it’s clear to see that this has been yet another phenomenal year for Northern Ireland sport across the board.

All those shortlisted deserve to walk away with the accolade, but only one can. Who will it be?

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