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Sporting drama has been welcome distraction... NI stars played their part in helping many get through a difficult 2020

Steven Beacom


Top of the pile: Jonathan Rea cemented his status as the greatest ever Superbike rider with a sixth consecutive world title

Top of the pile: Jonathan Rea cemented his status as the greatest ever Superbike rider with a sixth consecutive world title

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Top of the pile: Jonathan Rea cemented his status as the greatest ever Superbike rider with a sixth consecutive world title

When this year started, all of us had a 2020 vision of how we wanted it to be with sport part of those dreams for many.

As we prepare to move into a new year, we now know that 2020 will forever be remembered as the time the coronavirus pandemic entered our lives, leaving heartbreak across the globe for millions of people as loved ones died.

For months there was no sport as staying healthy became the most important activity of all. The Olympics, Paralympics, Euro 2020 finals, Wimbledon and The Open were just some of the major events postponed or cancelled.

Eventually sport returned and while it didn't feel the same given for the most part it was without spectators, it helped put smiles on faces again and provided a welcome distraction from this most difficult of years.

Here, Steven Beacom reflects on 20 sporting memories from 2020 in Northern Ireland and beyond.

1. Michael O'Neill took Northern Ireland from the wilderness of international football to the promised land, guiding the nation to the Euro 2016 finals. He had hoped to inspire the team to the 2020 finals but with Covid-19 delaying this year's Euro play-offs, O'Neill had a decision to make. When he became manager of Stoke City in November 2019 a deal was struck between club and country that O'Neill would stay on as international boss for the play-offs in March. Uefa postponed them and O'Neill decided at the end of April he would leave the Irish FA and focus on his duties at Stoke. The Green and White Army were disappointed but also understanding and thankful for all that O'Neill had done for them following his appointment in December 2011.

2. With O'Neill gone, the IFA replaced him with Under-21 boss Ian Baraclough who created history by leading Northern Ireland to a first ever penalty shoot-out success away to Bosnia & Herzegovina in the Euro 2020 play-off semi-final. In the November decider, however, the team underperformed and lost 2-1 at home to Slovakia, missing a glorious chance to reach another major tournament. There were no wins in the Nations Cup to cheer but the emergence of young players such as Ali McCann and the decision by legendary midfielder Steven Davis, who became the country's most capped player in 2020, to continue playing at the highest level offered hope for 2021.

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3. It was also all change for the Republic of Ireland with former Derry City boss Stephen Kenny taking over from Mick McCarthy. Like Northern Ireland, the Republic's results in the Nations League were poor and they were knocked out in the Euro play-offs at the semi-final stage, losing to Slovakia on penalties. It was a crushing blow for the Republic, who would have played games in Dublin in the finals.

4. On the upside on the international scene, Kenny Shiels' Northern Ireland women's team made the Euro play-offs for the first time in their history thanks to a strong finish in their group, climaxing with a thumping 5-1 victory over the Faroe Islands.

5. Another sporting triumph for Northern Ireland came in the shape of the ever-reliable Jonathan Rea who won a sixth World Superbike Championship, cementing his status as the greatest Superbike rider ever. The guy is unstoppable.

6. Then there was Portaferry's Ciara Mageean in record-breaking form, becoming the first Irish woman to break the two-minute barrier in the 800m. Mageean also broke former world champion Sonia O'Sullivan's long-standing 1,000m Irish record.

7. In contrast, those in charge of the Irish League were not so fast. In the most embarrassing episode in Northern Ireland Football League (NIFL) history, the NIFL Board allowed the premature curtailment of the 2019-2020 season to become a circus. Uncertainty and indecision dragged on for months as clubs fell out with each other before Linfield were awarded the title on a points-per-game basis, Institute were relegated and Portadown promoted from the Championship. Many managers, players and fans were left feeling let down by how the NIFL Board handled the situation. Larne owner Kenny Bruce was fiercely critical though happy that his team led the way from David Healy's Linfield in this season's Irish Premiership at the end of the year. The Championship campaign hasn't even started as the IFA controversially did not grant the second tier 'elite status'.

8. While the 2020 Irish League season wasn't played to a finish, the Irish Cup was with Glentoran's Robbie McDaid scoring the winner versus Ballymena in the final to give Mick McDermott his first trophy as boss.

9. Only the Scottish Premiership rivals Irish League football for craziness. Amid legal challenges, last season was curtailed there too leading to Celtic winning a ninth title in succession and Hearts being relegated. Celtic also won a fourth domestic treble on the bounce later in the year, beating Hearts on penalties in the Scottish Cup final, though before that Hoops fans were demanding that manager Neil Lennon be sacked for falling behind Rangers in the league table this term. Lennon remains in charge but will have to go some way to overcome Rangers for 10 in a row with Steven Gerrard's side well clear at the top.

10. When the Premier League was halted in March, Liverpool were miles ahead. Fans of other sides hoped the season would be made null and void but when it returned the Reds got what they deserved and won the club's first league title in 30 years with manager Jurgen Klopp enhancing his iconic status and captain Jordan Henderson lifting the trophy on the Kop at an empty Anfield to the joy of millions of Liverpool fans watching on TV all over the world.

11. Talking about iconic managers, Mickey Harte left his leading role as Tyrone boss in November after 18 years in charge, bringing down the curtain on an extraordinary reign which included three All-Ireland titles. Few predicted Harte's next move, becoming boss at Louth, but nobody was surprised when Dublin won the Sam Maguire for a sixth year in a row in an All-Ireland series which was straight knockout, just like the old days.

12. The Six Nations was split into two sections due to Covid-19 with Ireland finishing third behind England and France. Due to the nature of the tournament and the glamour autumn internationals replaced with the uninspiring behind-closed-doors Nations Cup, few Irish rugby fans will recall much of note in 2020, bar perhaps the heated debate over whether Ulster's Jacob Stockdale can play at full-back.

13. There was much frustration among Ulster rugby fans when it was announced in December that back-row Marcell Coetzee would return to his native South Africa to join the Bulls at the end of the 2020-21 season, but those same supporters have been encouraged by some strong performances by Dan McFarland's team in the Pro14 competition this year, suggesting optimism for the future.

14. Lewis Hamilton became Formula One world champion for a record-equalling seventh time.

15. And Ronnie O'Sullivan was a winner in the World Snooker Championships for a sixth time.

16. You want bigger numbers? Well, by winning the French Open, Rafael Nadal claimed his 20th Grand Slam title, joining Roger Federer on that mark.

17. An even bigger tennis story, though, was Novak Djokovic (17 Slams) being disqualified from the US Open after accidentally hitting a female line judge with a ball struck in anger during his fourth-round match against Pablo Carreno Busta.

18. Months before in Las Vegas, Deontay Wilder suffered a knockout of his own to Tyson Fury in the seventh round of their world heavyweight title fight in the biggest boxing contest of the year. There were also wins in 2020 for Carl Frampton and Michael Conlan, who expect to be much busier in the year ahead with world title fights on the horizon.

19. Dustin Johnson was the No.1 in golf, finishing his year with a magnificent Masters victory - though perhaps more telling was Bryson DeChambeau's first Major as he collected the US Open.

20. Most inspiring of all were the sports clubs and sports people who helped out across Northern Ireland during the pandemic in 2020.

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