Belfast Telegraph

John Laverty: Jonathan Rea isn't Northern Ireland's greatest sportsperson, but he's in the debate

Jonathan Rea
Jonathan Rea
Rory McIlroy
AP McCoy

By John Laverty

Back in 2014, this newspaper gave readers the opportunity to cast their vote for Northern Ireland's greatest ever sportsperson.

It's the type of debate you don't need us to chair but, with the Belfast Telegraph Sports Awards coming up to its 20th year, it felt timely.

We published a shortlist - if you can call 20 'short' - of the candidates to get you thinking.

The usual suspects were in there: Bestie, Rory, Higgy, AP, Mary P.

And it's always good to be reminded of the thrilling exploits of Jack Kyle, Paddy Hopkirk, Sean O'Neill and Peter Doherty.

It was an impressive list; indeed, it could have been longer - and yet another hint to Stormont, when its chamber finally reopens, that our wee country merits a proper museum-type showcase for a remarkable array of sporting talent, for which we should be eternally proud.

One name not on that 2014 shortlist for 'GOAT' was Jonathan Rea.

That's because, back then, he was a 27-year-old hopeful of winning World Superbike titles.

Now he's 32, an unprecedented, history-making five-time world champion.

In this part of the world, you know you've made it when, as I heard yesterday, some idiot on the radio claims you've "put Northern Ireland on the map".

Hyperbole aside, if the Tele published a 'shortlist' today of candidates for the Greatest Of All Time, 'JR' would certainly be on it.

But would he top that list?

Mmm…

It's food for thought. Does five world titles top the four Majors (and hopefully counting) that Rory McIlroy has achieved in professional golf?

In any case, does a 'list of achievements' trump the ability to do something on the field of play that, literally, takes your breath away?

Manchester United's top player - achievements-wise - is Ryan Giggs; indeed, with 34 trophies, he's the most decorated professional footballer in the game's history.

You'd be hard-pressed, however, to find a Manc who'd put Giggs ahead of contemporary midfield team-mates Roy Keane and Paul Scholes - and you'd be an even bigger laughing stock if you mentioned the talented but infuriatingly inconsistent Welshman in the same breath as our own Bestie.

Yet the Belfast boy won only two league titles. That's 11 less than Giggs - but, knowing Bestie, if he was still alive today he'd have posted a picture of his European Footballer of the Year trophy on social media and asked: "Where's YOURS, Giggsy?"

You could argue, with some merit, that Giggs was more of a 'team player' and that prompts another strand of the debate; were you a great player, or merely part of a great team?

How much did GAA behemoth Peter Canavan benefit from the quality around him at Tyrone?

Ditto O'Neill at Down, rugby legends Mike Gibson, Willie John McBride and Jack Kyle with Ireland, Peter Doherty, Big Pat's big hands and goal machine David Healy with Norn Iron?

Come to think of it, how much (for some contenders) does their 'equipment' matter?

There's no doubt that Sir Tony 'AP' McCoy's record of 20 consecutive Champion Jockey titles is nothing short of astonishing, but you'll still get detractors who say: "Yeah, but most of them were won on Pipe's horses..."

You get similar remarks today about Lewis Hamilton - I mean, who couldn't win an F1 title in a car like that?

Would the Union Flag-waving tax exile be splashing bubbly around the podium if he'd just stepped out of a Renault and not a Mercedes?

Could he have won the 1964 Monte Carlo Rally in a Mini Cooper, like Paddy Hopkirk?

As for JR… that's a mean Kwacker the Ballynure native rides. We saw man and machine in perfect harmony at Magny-Cours on Sunday when number five was secured; how much does one depend on the other?

My issue with Rea is not his Kawasaki, it's the level he's competing at.

With all due respect, Superbikes isn't MotoGP - the Formula One of the two-wheel world; the undisputed pinnacle. And, despite his remarkable achievements since 2015, our Jonny hasn't cracked that nut yet.

Even if he did, devotees of the late, great Joey Dunlop - another five-time world champion, who finished top of our reader poll in 2014 - and all things road racing would probably still argue that short circuit biking is for wimps.

For me, the 'winner' has to be an individual performer - and I'm speaking as someone who believes George Best (who finished second) was not only the best footballer of his generation, but the greatest ever. Sorry, Leo.

So Rory (third in our poll) is my boy (for his jaw-dropping performance at Congressional 2011 alone) - with boxers Carl Frampton and Barry McGuigan, and Olympic hero 'Lady Mary', not far behind.

JR's not up there yet, but at least he's now part of the debate. And when you consider the quality of the 'opposition', that's quite an achievement in itself.

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