From Rory McIlroy to Carl Frampton: What a vintage year this has been for sport in Ulster
2014 will surely go down as one of the vintage years in Northern Ireland sport. From McIlroy to Frampton, from Gallagher to Dunlop, our sportsmen and women excelled. Here, Ali Gordon looks back over a dozen of the memorable triumphs.
1 The year surely belongs to Rory McIlroy. The 25-year-old had a tough start to the year, dropping from world number one to seven but hehe bounced back in spectacular style. Winning his first World Golf Championship at the WGC Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone, two Majors and securing three vital points for Team Europe to help them retain the Ryder Cup at Gleneagles in September, any of these moments could make it into this list. But, for me, the moment of 2014 was the Holywood ace's putt on the 18th at Hoylake to win the Open. While his win at Valhalla to secure the US PGA may have been more dramatic, it was his Open victory that was the start of a sensational summer and seeing the expression on his mother Rosie's face as she embraced her then three-time Major winning son was just brilliant. He is a class act.
2 On September 6, 2014, the Titanic Slipways made history - and this time it wasn't for a ship's maiden voyage. Carl Frampton won in a unanimous points decision over Spaniard Kiko Martinez to become the new IBF World super-bantamweight champion at a purpose-built outdoor arena at the iconic Titanic Slipways. A record-breaking 16,000 fans turned out to cheer on the boy from Tigers Bay on what was a bitterly cold evening. The win came after The Jackal had defeated Martinez in February 2013, winning by technical knock-out in the ninth round to lift the European super-bantamweight title and retain the IBF Inter-Continental super-bantamweight title at the Odyssey Arena. Frampton, trained by former World champion boxer Barry McGuigan's son Shane, was fantastic, beating hard as nails Martinez in a thrilling fight.
3 Coming from a goal down to beat Hungary in Budapest really did seem like winning the whole Euro 2016 tournament to many Northern Ireland fans. And I'd be lying if I said I wasn't one of them. At the beginning of the second half, there was a huge sense of optimism as the possibility of the Green and White Army holding group-topping contenders Hungary to a 0-0 draw grew. Seventy five minutes in, though, a goal from Tamas Priskin was the first indication of a loss and the same old story for Northern Ireland. But thankfully it wasn't to be. Just six minutes later, super sub Niall McGinn netted the equaliser before Kyle Lafferty scored his first goal of the campaign to secure Michael O'Neill's squad's first away win in four dismal years.
4 The Commonwealth Games in Glasgow proved to be Northern Ireland's most successful Games since 1986. Lisa Kearney's bronze medal in the judo got medal proceedings under way but it took a few days for Northern Ireland to win the next medal - a silver in the bowls in the men's triples, followed by a bronze in the women's pairs four days later. The real excitement, however, started just a few days before the Games' closure when the medals started flooding in. The boxers amassed a total of nine medals, accounting for a whopping 75% of Northern Ireland's final medal haul. Going into the Games, the pressure was on Olympic medallists Paddy Barnes and Michael Conlan to deliver and didn't they just. Barnes became the first ever boxer from Great Britain to successfully defend a Commonwealth Games title while Conlan took bantamweight gold.
5 Inspirational visually-impaired skier Kelly Gallagher built upon three World Cup golds in January to claim Great Britain's first ever Winter Paralympics medal in Sochi. Bangor girl Gallagher, who was born with oculocutaneous albinism, and her guide Charlotte Evans negotiated the tricky Rosa Khutor course in just one minute 28.72 seconds after whizzing down the Super-G slope at 100km per hour. Due to her condition, Gallagher can only make out bright colours and shapes so Evans wore a fluorescent orange top and conversed with Gallagher through bluetooth headsets. Seeing the excitement in her face as she stood with her gold medal around her neck was a real joy to watch. Since then, Gallagher's achievements have been further acknowledged with an MBE honour.
6 It was a first-class performance from Ulstermen Rory Best, Chris Henry, Andrew Trimble and substitute Iain Henderson to see Ireland win in France for only the second time in 42 years and take home the Six Nations trophy. Best worked tirelessly to rack up a number of vital tackles, Trimble scored a well-worked try, Henry's manoeuvre led to another try after he found Jonathan Sexton with a back-of-the-hand pass from the base of the scrum and Henderson made crucial tackles in the final stages of the 22-20 victory. They were superb against a French side that refused to be beaten easily, despite having no possible claims on the Six Nations trophy, and they made huge contributions to the whole Six Nations campaign.
7 Jump jockey AP McCoy smashed his own record to claim an incredible 19th Jockeys' Championship title at Sandown in April. Considering the Moneyglass man had missed the first month of racing due to rib injuries that had plagued him through the second half of the 2013 season, the win was even more impressive. What made McCoy's win even more memorable was the fact that he had endured such a difficult year personally. McCoy clinched the prestigious title after a number of months of heartbreak as his son, Archie, underwent heart surgery. He then went on to surpass close friend and former boss Martin Pipe's record and secure his 4,192nd career win by riding It's A Gimme to victory in the Betfred Summer Plate at Market Rasen.
8 It was time for Linfield to stand up and give David Jeffrey the send-off he deserved - an Irish League title win for the 10th time in his 17-year tenure at Windsor Park. But Cliftonville had a different agenda. After a shaky start, the Reds had ground to make up going into the new year but they established their position as champions by improving their form and lifting the Danske Bank Premier League title once again. Goals from Chris Curran and Stephen Garrett, coupled with Linfield's 2-0 defeat by Glentoran, delivered a 2-0 triumph over Portadown to win the league with a game to spare as the Reds became the first Cliftonville side to win back-to-back titles in their 135-year history.
9 The Giro d'Italia, the world's second largest cycling event, put our glorious province on the map and we have subsequently secured another top cycling event for 2015, the Gran Fondo. Despite the inclement weather, thousands of spectators lined the roads throughout Belfast, the Antrim coast and County Armagh over the course of an action-packed three days. The opening day was particularly exciting as teams raced around east Belfast, tackling the Stormont hill in the process, in the time trial eventually won by Orica GreenEdge. With everything from pink sheep to pink pylons, the public really got behind the Giro before the race made its way to Dublin and then onto Italy. Its success has even set us up for a possible bid at the biggest cycling race in the world, the Tour de France.
10 Powering to victory in not one but four races at the Isle of Man TT this year, Michael Dunlop managed to take his tally of seven TT wins up to 11 to edge him closer to his uncle Joey's record of 26. His final win of the meeting though, the Senior TT, was made all the more impressive after seeing his brother, William, crash out of the race after missing the apex as he flicked into the high-speed Graham Memorial section of the course and launching into the air. Michael was heard asking about William's well-being during the race, the concern obvious in his voice, and once he knew he was okay, he went on to clinch his fourth amazing win of the week.
11 Donegal became Ulster Football champions once again after a stunning performance to overcome defending champions Monaghan 0-15 to 1-09 in the final in Clones. Donegal avenged last year's Ulster Football final defeat by Monaghan, with Ryan McHugh, Odhran MacNiallais and substitute Patrick McBrearty all excelling and putting points on the board. The victory was Donegal's first win over Monaghan in a senior championship game in six attempts with their last success over the Farney County coming as far back as the 1983 Ulster semi-final. Donegal also won their first Ulster minor football title since 2006 after a comfortable 2-12 to 0-10 triumph over Armagh to give the country their first ever double on Ulster final day.
12 Ulster secured a home quarter-final and condemned Leicester to an away tie after ending the Tigers' 25-game unbeaten run at home in the Heineken Cup. Ulster were magnificent, battling back from 19-9 down in the second half to clinch a 22-19 victory and serve fans a house-warming party to remember at the newly refurbished Ravenhill. Ruan Pienaar was at his very best to win all of Ulster's points. While the quarter-final against Saracens in April did not end with the desired result, a 17-15 loss and full-back Jared Payne controversially red-carded in the opening minutes of the game, the atmosphere at the 18,000 capacity Ravenhill Stadium was electric and it demonstrated the potential for the renamed Kingspan Stadium to host big games.