When historians sit down to put pen to paper to document Sport 2020, the focus will certainly not be to celebrate herculean triumph on the playing field, nor to laud David vs Goliath derring-do or die epics, but, sadly, to chart how the calendar has been cruelly decimated by Covid-19, a fearsome unseen plague that leaves death and desolation in its wake as it continues to rage throughout the globe, with all human beings – every single one of us included – a target, caught clearly in the crosshairs of this terrifying stealthy virus!
Blithely unaware of the horror to come, the year started off in usual fashion, with Darts supplying the first world champion, Scotland’s colourful Peter ‘Snakebite’ Wright, becoming the oldest first-time winner of the PDC World Darts Championship when, just three months shy of his 50th birthday, he surprised defending champion Michael van Gerwen 7-3 in the final at London’s Ally Pally on new year’s day. Hairdresser Fallon Sherlock caused something of a stir in this beer-bellied alpha-male dominated sport when the girl from Milton Keynes, not just female but blonde as well, became the most successful member of the gentler sex in history by reaching the third round of the tournament. The ailing BDO version held at the 02 London a fortnight later, saw the emergence of an even more ancient first-time champ, when 58-year-old Wayne Warren beat Jim Williams 7-4 in an all-Welsh final.
Tragedy rocked the world of sport to its core when basketball superstar Kobe Bryant was killed in a helicopter crash in California on January 26th, the 41-year-old legend perishing along with his teenage daughter Gianna and seven others.
In February, no surprise to see Novak Djokovic successfully retain his Australian Men’s Tennis Open title, the super Serb eventually emerging victorious over Austria’s Dominic Thiem after a five-set thriller, while in the Ladies event America once again provided the winner, but on this occasion it was not Queen Serena who reigned supreme, but Sofia Kenin who claimed the prize for the Yanks, the 21-year-old from Florida, via Moscow, fighting back from a set down to floor France’s Garbine Muguruza.
Earlier, the 2020 Super Bowl for once justified the hype, with Kansas City Chiefs ending a 50-year hiatus when they outpointed San Francisco 49ers 31-20 in an all-too-rare entertaining final at the Hard Rock Stadium in Miami. An estimated TV audience north of 100m witnessed the extravaganza, where a 30-second commercial cost an astonishing $5.5m.
So then enters March, yes, roaring in like a lion, but in this desperate year most definitely not departing like a lamb – Covid’s heavy black clouds were hovering, the chatter was of impending lockdown and, sadly, lacking the vision the year 2020 should suggest, I prayed that my beloved Cheltenham National Hunt Festival would be allowed to proceed unimpeded. My prayers were answered, and 278,000 horseracing fans from all over the British Isles and beyond, mingled cheek to jowl, enjoyed four sumptuous days of equestrian excellence, then sated, and infected, some returned home to friends and neighbours, blighting towns and villages and spreading the virus far and wide. It hardly seems important now that Irish wonder trainer Willie Mullins’ Al Boum Photo retained the Cheltenham Gold Cup, while Nicky Henderson won the Champion Hurdle with Epatante, owned by legendary punter JP McManus.
Sanity slowly trickled through however and lockdown was eventually decreed – the nation’s favourite race, the Grand National, was cancelled, and later the Derby was run behind closed doors. Epsom’s iconic race was won in runaway fashion by Serpentine at 25/1 and the blue riband prize crossed the Irish Sea to the stable of eight-time winning trainer Aidan O’Brien in County Tipperary.
The lockdown and later restrictions continue to have a massive impact across all sport – Golf saw the cancellation of The Open and the remaining majors were rearranged to be played behind closed doors, with all three being won by Americans, Colin Morikawa won the USPGA, Bryson DeChambeau the US Open and Dustin Johnson, golf’s number one player by some distance, running away with the Masters. The Ryder Cup between the United States and defending champions Europe has been postponed and rescheduled to September next year.
Rugby union saw England narrowly win the Six Nations Championship, pipping France on points difference, while little Exeter Chiefs stunned the sport when taking Europe’s Heineken Champions Cup, triumphing in a contest containing the continent’s heavyweights, Saracens, Racing Club, Clermont and Irish giants, Leinster and Munster.
Football saw Liverpool eventually crowned Premier League champions for the first time, a prize richly deserved, as the Reds under charismatic coach Jurgen Klopp, played fast, free-flowing football, evocative of the Dalglish and Keegan eras. It may be 30 years since Liverpool last won the league, but judging by the way the Scousers have opened their defence of the championship, they have no intention of relinquishing the title cheaply.
My abiding football memory of 2020, however, is the astonishing achievement of tiny Gibraltar, unbeaten and comfortably topping their group of the UEFA Nations League, victory and a draw over both their opponents, San Marino and Liechtenstein elevating inspiring coach Julio Cesar Ribas’s “Gibraltarian Warriors” to Group C, where they can look forward to crossing swords with higher class international competitors, and possible opponents could include Turkey, Northern Ireland and Bulgaria. Exciting times await!
On a sombre note, death came calling, claiming stellar sport stars: Motor Racing lost Stirling Moss, Football bade farewell to England and Leeds United legendary duo Jackie Charlton and Norman “Bite Yer Legs” Hunter, while there will be intense competition to be chosen as custodian of the sticks in Team Paradise with the arrival of England master ‘keepers Peter Bonetti and Ray Clemence, along with Northern Ireland’s Harry Gregg, the hero of the Manchester United Munich air disaster. Giants all, on and off the pitch, the world is now a poorer place.
Regular readers will be aware of my agony and ecstasy love affair with the King George VI Chase at Kempton Park on Boxing Day, a race where, astonishingly, I’ve tipped the winner on more than one occasion, and this year I’m entrusting my tenner with the Alex Ferguson partially owned CLAN DES OBEAUX to succeed once again – sorry Fergie! Get on, and if my flights to the UK and Ireland for the festive season don’t materialise, as now seems likely, I’ll be delighted to meet any of you guys in front of the Big Screen at the Sports Arena in Ocean Village on the day to watch the great race.
Finally, may I warmly wish you all a very Happy Christmas, a prosperous and, above all else, a safe 2021.