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BBC Sports Awards a night of triumph for Northern Ireland heroes Michael O’Neill, Damien Lindsay and Tony McCoy

By Ivan Little

It started off like the infamous 'don't mention the war' episode of Fawlty Towers at the SSE Arena in Belfast yesterday with BBC executives trying to discourage any debate about boxer Tyson Fury.

But it ended as a night of triumph for Northern Ireland stars in their own back yard at the Sports Personality of the Year awards.

Not only did AP McCoy win the lifetime achievement award but Northern Ireland football boss Michael O'Neill also took the coach of the year title and a west Belfast man walked away with the unsung hero accolade.

On top of all that, at the biggest ever gathering of international sporting stars in Belfast, the province's globally-known legends - including Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell, Martin O'Neill Barry McGuigan and Dame Mary Peters - were in the SSE spotlight to hand over some of the trophies.

Co Antrim actor Jimmy Nesbitt was also recruited to lend his voice to a report about the European championship qualifiers and the Ulster Orchestra played.

And a Northern Ireland choir provided a magical musical soundtrack to the proceedings in front of a raucous sell-out 8,000 audience who roared at every mention of their homeland.

The winner of the overall award was, to the relief of BBC executives, the Scots-born tennis ace Andy Murray who inspired his Great Britain colleagues to Davis Cup glory, and they were rewarded with the team of the year title too. Privately the Beeb's huge team at the SPOTY awards had been dreading that Fury might win the coveted top honour.

Indeed sources even admitted they were hoping that Fury would stay away altogether and save them the embarrassment of having to deal with the fall-out from his headline-grabbing attacks on gay people, abortion, paedophilia and women.

Several of Fury's rivals for the top SPOTY award - F1 ace Lewis Hamilton, cyclist Chris Froome and athlete Mo Farah - didn't make it in person to Belfast for reasons apparently unrelated to the boxer's outbursts. Hamilton had caused some unexpected annoyance after he tweeted about not being able to make it "to Dublin". But friends of Fury insisted there was no way that a man who beat mountainous Ukrainian Wladimir Klitschko to a pulp in the boxing ring would have run scared of controversy or of a Belfast protest by gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender groups.

And near the end of a red carpet event in Titanic Belfast before the main ceremony at the SSE, the larger-than-life 6ft 9in Fury was the last of the 12 nominees to turn up.

He posed briefly for pictures but didn't walk down the carpet to face an anticipated barrage of questions from waiting reporters. Inside the SSE there were a few boos as Fury's name was read out at the start of the awards ceremony and after he strode confidently on stage for an interview with presenter Gary Lineker the response was noticeably more subdued than for the other nominees.

Lineker, who'd earlier cut his hand on the SPOTY trophy, asked the boxer about the fall-out over his remarks which he had previously refused to withdraw. Fury twice indicated that he didn't understand the question.

But eventually the self-styled gypsy warrior whose mother was born in Belfast said that he had never intended to hurt anyone, adding: "It's all tongue-in-cheek, all fun and games to me. I'm not really a serious type of person. If I said anything in the past that's hurt anyone, I apologise."

Many in the crowd responded with a round of applause. Others clearly weren't convinced and athlete Greg Rutherford, who'd threatened to quit the awards process over the boxer's tirade, sat stony-faced with his hands by his side.

Even so, it was an apology the BBC must have wished had come a lot sooner to dissipate the row.

The Corporation had been determined that the demonstration by around 40 people outside the SSE wouldn't distract the eyes of the great British public from the great British institution that is the 61-year-old SPOTY ceremony.

But Belfast being Belfast, where protests are a virtual cottage industry, it was inevitable that the protestors would get their fair share of publicity, especially after the Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness and Sinn Fein's culture minister Caral ni Chuilin joined the demonstrators.

Mr McGuinness said: "Fury's remarks were disgraceful, misogynistic and homophobic and they had no place in a modern society."

Ms Ni Chuilin said: "We also want to express our support for Andy West, the BBC reporter who was suspended for his online comments about Fury."

The new First Minister in waiting, Arlene Foster, also voiced her anger over Fury's comments.

"Let's just say I don't think I'll be rushing to get my photo taken with him. He's entitled to his opinion, of course, but I couldn't disagree with him more on everything he had to say," she said.

Scores of police were on duty all around the SSE and at Titanic Belfast as security was raised to a level not seen in the city for years. But the protestors weren't the major concern for the PSNI who mounted three roadblocks on the main entrances to the venues in a bid to thwart any possible attacks from dissident republicans or terrorists from farther afield.

For journalists covering the SPOTY awards it was a marathon and not a sprint finish as what they called the biggest night of the year also became one of the longest. Reporters had to be at Titanic Belfast several hours before any of the big names showed up. For photographers, the picture of Fury was the big prize but they were virtually falling over themselves in their frenzy to snap golfer Rory McIlroy and One Direction star Niall Horan as they swept along the red carpet.

Given that the sportsmen and women who'd been in Titanic Belfast are among the fittest human beings on the planet, it was perhaps surprising that they were bussed to the short distance to the SSE Arena where the atmosphere was described by presenter Clare Balding as electric.

But it just grew more euphoric as it became clear that Northern Ireland was playing more of a starring role than just hosting the awards.

The roof nearly came off the building when one of Northern Ireland's sporting greats Rory McIlroy came to the SSE stage to hand over a Lifetime Achievement award to another legend from just down the road, AP McCoy. The entire crowd were on their feet to give the world's greatest ever jump jockey a spontaneous standing ovation which McCoy, who retired earlier this year, had difficulty silencing to allow him to speak.

Eventually he said it was a great honour and privilege to receive the award, especially in Belfast from someone like McIlroy, one of our great sporting success stories. McCoy raised a smile by thanking not just the people who had helped him during his glittering career but also the 18,000 horses he rode along the way.

The McCoy award was announced in advance of the ceremony. But there was a more unexpected Ulster victor, too, as comedian Eddie Izzard, who was raised in Bangor, presented west Belfast man Damien Lindsay with the unsung hero award for his work with St James' Football Club.

Another more seasoned football man was recognised too. Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill, who led his country to the Euro 2016 finals, was voted coach of the year, easing the tension on the faces of those BBC bosses who realised the Fury furore was no longer the big deal in Belfast.

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