David Clifford’s year like no other on home front eclipses giant feats on international stage

Right now, in these early weeks of 2023, this island provides the world of sport with its No 1 golfer and rugby player, its No 1 rugby team, a galaxy of female world amateur boxing champions, a world champion gymnast and the most formidable rowing pair, one of whom is now embedded deeply in any conversation about our greatest ever athlete.

n top of that, the women’s national soccer team is bound for a first ever World Cup finals appearance in Australia in July, having lifted the hearts of the nation with their qualification; an Irish female boxer continues to break every glass ceiling in the professional game, while world champion paracyclists and golfers routinely raise glass and silver on the global stage.

And yet it is to within that readers of the Irish Independent other independent.ie have been drawn for a sports star to elevate above all others in 2022, a Gaelic footballer who has redrawn the individual boundaries for what is possible in the game.

Gaelic games are indigenous sports catering for a domestic audience. In any individual awards scheme of this nature, they don’t usually compete against sporting behemoths on a global scale. And in 2022, Irish men and especially women inarguably reached higher and further than ever before, even in a year without the platform of an Olympic Games.

​But David Clifford is clearly different. This weekend, he will contest his ninth final of a season that is now overlapping into a second year when his club, Fossa, contest an All-Ireland junior decider at Croke Park. For college, county, district and club, he has been standard-bearer to deliver a season like no other for an individual.

All-Ireland, Munster, league and McGrath Cup titles with Kerry, a Kerry county championship with East Kerry (district) and Kerry and Munster junior titles so far with Fossa stockpile an unprecedented array of medals from one season for Clifford, in tandem with his brother Paudie. Only a Sigerson Cup title was left behind for Clifford with UL’s loss to NUIG in the final.

As much as anything though it is his absorption of the pressure and responsibility that he faces with each game he plays that is testament to him. There has, quite probably, never been a more parsed and analyzed footballer.

Yet in five years he has picked up four PwC All-Stars while his Footballer of the Year award was a fait accompli on the back of his Croke Park deliverance last July against Dublin and then Galway to lead Kerry to a first All-Ireland title in eight years.

That consistency then has drawn readers to vote in the same way that young fans are magnetized by him up and down the country after games. In 2022-2023 he has now scored 20-176 from 33 games across the board – phenomenal returns. The GAA hasn’t had a figure like him, at least in modern times, and he wears it easily.

Among those Clifford eclipses are Rory McIlroy, re-established as the world No 1 golfer, winner of four tournaments, a third FedEx Cup and $44million (€40m) in prize money and Rhys McCleneghan who put Olympic disappointment behind him to claim pommel horse gold at the World Gymnastics Championships in Liverpool last November.

In any other year, Josh van der Flier’s status as World Rugby Player of the Year would have warranted recognition while two world amateur boxing champions crowned on the same afternoon in Istanbul, Amy Broadhurst and Lisa O’Rourke, could lay strong claims too. Remember Katie Taylor, Michael Conlan and Kellie Harrington were the country’s only previous world amateur champions, prior to last May.

Taylor is a perpetual contender for top individual awards like this but for our readers her compelling undisputed world lightweight bout with Puerto Rican Amanda Serrano last May was unquestionably the Magic Moment Of The Year.

For a women’s fight to headline at the famed Madison Square Garden was a true landmark for the sport, earning seven-figure purses for both. And it more than lived up to its billing, truly pushing women’s boxing, for which Taylor has been the outstanding pioneer, into a different sphere.

Gruelling in its nature, Taylor had to draw on extraordinary courage to survive and then thrive to retain WBC, WBA, IBF and WBO belts. Only this week, the prestigious ring magazine had it as one of its four nominations for fight of the year. Sports IllustratedBBC and ESPN are among the publications and broadcasters to have already given it that status.

Vera Pauw and her Irish soccer team are pioneering too in how they have lifted the sport in this country. Their 1-0 win over Scotland in Hampden Park last October to qualify for Australia was merely the culmination of a growing movement building steadily through the year under the Dutch woman.

Under her watchful eye they have become methodical, resourceful and masters of the 1-0 win, their scoreline in each of their last three qualifying games against Finland, Slovakia and the Scots.

From the principled stand they made in April 2017 with a threat to strike delivered from SIPTU headquarters in Liberty Hall over their treatment by the FAI to glory in Hampden, it has been a remarkable transformation.

Pauw took charge in 2019 and they now find themselves ranked 23rd in the world with at least three World Cup games to look forward to. Her guidance, calm and authoritative when the moment required either approach, have garnered her the votes from readers for the Manager of the Year award, representative of the team’s great progress.

When Ireland beat New Zealand for the first time in a senior rugby international a little over six years ago in Chicago, it was scarcely believable to those who had known nothing other than defeat when those steely antipodean eyes flashed this way. Those famed black shirts were kryptonite to successive teams in green, prompting white flag responses on all bar a couple of occasions when draws were scrambled.

But Soldier Field has ultimately shifted the dynamic somewhat in the relationship between the countries’ rugby teams. They’ve met seven times since with Ireland winning four.

For sure, that 46-14 2019 World Cup quarter-final defeat for Ireland in Tokyo can be held up as the only game between them where something tangible was at stake, a semi-final place that has eluded Irish teams in all nine tournaments.

But rugby friends are wired differently to almost all other team sports. And in New Zealand, winning a home series is nothing short of an imperative. If Harry Windsor thinks he has been getting it hard off the British press, he must never have noticed the sting of a scorned New Zealand rugby media!

Against that context then, their series win there last July, only the fifth time New Zealand had lost a home series, stands as arguably the great achievement by an Irish rugby team of an era, elevation even above a Grand Slam. Their 23-12 second test win, after an opening test hammering, was a first ever on New Zealand soil and the heaviest defeat for the home side in 28 years.

Following on home wins in the autumn internationals against South Africa and Australia, Ireland gave Ireland a clean sweep of successes over the three southern hemisphere giants in the same year for the first time ever and cemented No 1 stats and our readers’ Team of the Year award.

Irish athletics is buoyant and enjoying a sprint revolution, chiefly through the achievements of Rhasidat Adeleke and Israel Olatunde. Last August Adeleke contested the women’s 400 meters final at the European Championships in Munich while Olatunde made the men’s 100 meters final where he finished sixth but in a time, 10.17, that was .02 quicker than Paul Hession’s 15-year-old record. As Ireland’s fastest man, Olatunde was natural choice of readers as Young Sportstar of the Year, an accolade he shares jointly with 15-year-old Greystones boxer Tadhg O’Donnell, who won gold at the European junior championships in Italy in October.

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