Sporting Life: Moments of the Year for 2019 including horse racing, Liverpool, Fallon Sherrock and more

Jack Leach rushes to congratulate Ben Stokes
Jack Leach rushes to congratulate Ben Stokes

Our writers pick out their standout moments from 2019, including a shock retirement in horse racing and a groundbreaking moment in darts.

Horse racing

By Matt Brocklebank

On May 1, racing waved goodbye to one of the greatest jump jockeys the sport is ever likely to see.

More precisely, he waved goodbye to us.

Ruby Walsh’s exaggerated farewell as he crossed the line in front on Kemboy at the end of the Punchestown Gold Cup rather belied his ice-cool riding style over the past 24 years, but to go out on a high, on his own terms, must have been a massive relief, and few could begrudge him one for the cameras.

In the saddle Walsh cut a unique figure from the outset; like no other rider he seemed at one with the horse. From guiding Papillon home in the 2000 Grand National aged 20 to that very last winner, the Kildare man maintained a level of composure few could rival.

Watching he and Master Minded win the Champion Chase at Cheltenham in 2008 was the next best thing to witnessing a wild animal running loose, doing what it was born to do, and loving every second.

AP McCoy’s remarkable achievements from the mid-1990s to his own retirement in 2015 consigned plenty of other jockeys to the shade, but the public’s appreciation for a silky, cat-like rider in Walsh was somehow accentuated in direct comparison to a weighing room colleague whose technique bore more resemblance to that of a hungry Tasmanian devil.

Walsh didn’t struggle with his weight. “I’ve never been a breakfast person - black coffee and a square of chocolate will do me in a morning,” he once remarked.

He had a strong team around him, including his father Ted and sister Jennifer, who acted as his agent, while Walsh clearly had the pick of some of the finest horses of his generation at two of the biggest and best yards in Britain and Ireland – those of Paul Nicholls and Willie Mullins.

Kauto Star, Big Buck’s, Denman, Master Minded, Azertyuiop, Hurricane Fly, Annie Power, Faugheen, Vautour, Quevega, Douvan… it’s a long list that doesn’t stop there.

In many ways he was lucky. But luck is an odd concept at the best of times - the link between Walsh and these greats of the game is no coincidence.

Blessed with all the qualities you’d look for in an elite sportsman, Walsh worked supremely hard, earned some golden opportunities and took them, controlling the controllables and focusing on what mattered most.

No doubt there were tough days - the injuries, the wrong decisions, the heartbreak, the falls. They weigh heavy on the mind. The life of a jockey is so challenging even for those at the top.

Amidst it all there was a purity to Walsh, in both his actions in the saddle and his demeanour out of it, that never left him.

“I’ve never been much of a poker player so didn’t fancy rolling the dice for tomorrow or Friday,” he said after his surprise announcement to call it a day.

Not a gambler, but a close ally for so many.

Goodbye Ruby, we’ll be seeing you.

Sir Anthony McCoy and Ruby Walsh at Punchestown
Sir Anthony McCoy and Ruby Walsh at Punchestown

Cricket

By Richard Mann

And the winner is... Ben Stokes.

That’s the obvious out of the way and it’s a phrase we’re all getting used to having watched Stokes and his World-Cup winning England colleagues dominate the BBC Sports Personality of the Year awards in December.

Stokes was a deserving winner of the top gong, his Cricket World Cup final heroics hauling England over the line at Lord’s before his brilliant, unbeaten 135 later in the summer defined one of the most memorable Test matches in Ashes history and went a long way to ensuring England were able to draw a series in which they played second fiddle for large parts.

Stokes’ Headingley heroics are sure to stand the test of time as Ashes memories are replayed for years to come, just as Sir Botham’s epic at the same ground in 1981 still draws such great interest every time England and Australia renew hostilities.

It was an innings made all the more special for the very fact that it was the second time in the match that Stokes had singlehandedly kept England in the contest, having delivered a relentless 16-over spell that a spanned a whole session on day two. Without it, England would have surrendered an unassailable lead having earlier being bowled out for only 67 and having seen Jofra Archer limp from the field.

Two days later, Stokes was at it again, only this time it proved to be a match-winning intervention with the bat rather than a match-saving one with the ball.

The innings itself was one that had it all, showcasing Stokes' great versatility as a batsman and also his ability to seize the moment when it comes.

It began late on Saturday afternoon, Stokes arriving at the crease with Australia on the hunt for wickets as Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood delivered impressive spells of high-class fast bowling.

That Stokes was able to weather the storm was crucial but Australia kept up the pressure the following morning, Hazlewood hitting Stokes with a sharp bouncer which sent both stem guards crashing from his helmet.

He wasn't rattled, though, and while others around him began to fall, a pulled six into the stands off Cummins gave an early sign of what was to come.

When Jack Leach arrived at the crease, England had been reduced to 286-9, still 73 away from their victory target, and for Stokes, it was now do or die.

A six over long-off in the very next over moved him on to 67 but he was only just getting started and two more sixes in Lyon's following over, including an extraordinary reverse-sweep over the point boundary, took the requirement below 50.

Leach then managed to negotiate four balls from a fired-up James Pattinson before Stokes went to work again, Cummins taken for 11 in his comeback over before Hazlewood's next six balls were hit for 19 as the Durham star reached three-figures.

There would be no celebration from Stokes, though. Personal milestones would count for nothing if he couldn't get his side over the winning line, and his work was not yet done.

While all around him were beginning to feel the pressure, from a now delirious Headingley crowd to Tim Paine and his wilting bowling attack, Stokes was unmoved, keeping remarkably calm and manipulating the field wonderfully so as to protect Leach from the majority of the bowling.

Of their partnership of 76, Leach contributed just one and that owed as much to Stokes' cool head, sound mind and remarkable rotation of strike as it did his power and strength.

Finally, a weary Cummins was flashed through the covers and victory was England's, Stokes their hero as he stood in the middle of the Headingley square with his arms aloft.

An innings of great skill and some extraordinarily smart cricket, it also said plenty about his great heart and fiercely-competitive attitude, something he had now displayed for the second time in the Test; an outstanding, wholehearted spell of fast bowling followed by a masterful match-winning century.

A couple of months earlier, New Zealand learned the hard way that Ben Stokes just doesn't know when he's beaten and now it was Australia’s turn to fall under the sword of this cricketing giant.

World Cups, IPL deals, BBC awards; all are put into the shadow by that unforgettable Sunday afternoon in Leeds.

Ashes cricket makes heroes and villains and Stokes is now every inch the hero of English cricket.

Football

By Paul Higham

There can’t be many times that a mere corner, the most innocuous of set pieces, is seen as one of the highlights of the year, but at Anfield in the spring a remarkable piece of quick thinking from Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold helped finish off one of the most remarkable turnarounds in years.

The scenes moments before, and after, summed up the entire evening - Barcelona players waving accusing arms at each other, bewildered by what had just happened as Liverpool - quicker, sharper, hungrier - pulled off something utterly remarkable against one of the best sides in the world.

The context is, as ever, everything in this particular circumstance. Anfield has a reputation for being able to stage the unthinkable, but with Liverpool 3-0 down from the first leg against Lionel Messi’s mighty Barcelona, even the most optimistic of Reds fans travelled there more in hope than expectation.

Could Liverpool score four goals against the Spanish giants? A tough ask, but certainly doable with their strike force, even without absent pair Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino. But could they keep out Messi and co while doing it? That was the part most people had problem believing.

Then there was the pressure and the rollercoaster of emotions Jurgen Klopp’s side had been dealing with in their epic title race with Manchester City. A turnaround win at Newcastle kept them in it, before a Vincent Kompany thunderbolt from the blue all but sealed the title for City just 24 hours before the Reds took on Barca.

Appearing to be so close yet so far from ending their long top-flight title drought, suddenly they faced coming out of a remarkable season with precisely nothing – and who knows what psychological damage that could have done to Klopp’s developing team.

With all that in mind, it would have been forgivable had Liverpool folded tamely but, even with their stand-in forwards leading the charge, they came firing out of the blocks and Divock Origi, the bit-part player turned Anfield legend, struck first inside seven minutes. The dream was on.

Barca held out until half-time despite wave after wave of Liverpool pressure, but if they thought they had ridden out the red storm they were sadly mistaken as Georginio Wijnaldum, an unlikely source of goals, struck twice in two minutes just after the restart to incredibly draw the tie level.

The game was on a knife edged, as just a goal from Messi or former Liverpool duo Luis Suarez and Philippe Coutinho would surely kill off the hosts, but Barcelona were punch drunk, startled animals in the headlights and just could not clear their heads.

Then, the moment that clinched it, one which summed up Liverpool’s quick-thinking and desire as local lad Alexander-Arnold outwitted some of the best players in the world, catching them on their heels with a quickly-taken corner that only Origi saw coming.

The Belgian finished it off, finishing Barcelona off in the process, and sealing one of the best comebacks we’ll ever see in football.

Liverpool celebrate Divock Origi's second goal in the Champions League v Barcelona
Liverpool celebrations during their remarkable Champions League comeback

Golf

By Ben Coley

Maybe it hit you at the 12th, maybe it hit you at the 15th, maybe it hit you at the 18th. But at some stage, it hit you.

Tiger Woods is going to win The Masters.

It had been possible all week, but far enough away to remain illusory, as though every time he got close enough to make us all believe, something would happen to tell us to stop being so stupid. On Thursday night we had to reconcile the fact that in shooting 70, he'd taken one too many shots. On Friday, it was that Brooks Koepka held the lead. Come Saturday, it was Francesco Molinari. Tiger was back contending at Augusta and for that and nothing more we would have to be thankful.

Steadily, though, things began to happen. Molinari did not press on as many had expected - perhaps there was something different about being here, alongside Woods, than there had been when the Italian comprehensively won their battle at Carnoustie the summer before. Koepka did not charge. Schauffele faltered, Finau flattered to deceive. The rain, the early start... something strange was afoot as we crept towards the turn, waiting for a sign. Was this what we thought it might be, or was it something else?

Shortly after 5.30pm in the UK, Molinari hit his tee-shot to the 12th hole into Rae's Creek.

We had already seen Koepka suffer the same fate, and after Molinari dusted himself down to make double-bogey, soon came a birdie for Schauffele, an eagle for Cantlay, an eagle for Koepka; a run from Day, another from Watson, an ace up ahead from Thomas; Johnson flying, Cantlay now flapping.

Golf doesn't always have a second gear, but this was whirlwind. Molinari had carved open the chest of the tournament and blood was pumping all over the place. Augusta became momentarily unhinged, lemmings on ladders racing up and down to keep those grand, green-and-white scoreboards in the game.

And then, one hour after Molinari's mistake, Tiger Woods hit the first of two shots which ended the madness and began the delirium.

Since he returned to the sport in late-2017, and throughout a 2018 campaign which culminated in that burning East Lake success, Woods had been able to remind us that he remains the best iron player in the sport. For all his impressive swing speed, for all that he remained effective on the greens, it was his approach play which he would have to rely on to compete with the likes of Koepka.

The question was whether he could call upon it when he needed; whether he could still force and bend and flight and drop that golf ball to his will under the uniquely intense pressure of major championship golf. Carnoustie raised more questions than answers, Bellerive was not quite conclusive; only now, as Tiger stood over his second to the 15th, would we know for sure.

After a long-iron to the heart of the green, it felt a foolish question to ever have asked. Of course the greatest player in the history of the sport could remember how to do what he'd always done better than anyone else; of course he had been able to land the ball precisely where he had intended to; of course he made a complicated thing look simple to take the lead on his own.

The second and fatal blow came at the 16th, the scene of that famous chip-in against Chris DiMarco, perhaps the most replayed shot of his career. This time, there would be no need for all that. Woods simply stood up and hit his spot once again, allowing the contours of his favourite playground to deliver his ball to the side of the hole. Major number 15 had almost been won, and he hadn't needed to hole a putt.

If any doubt remained - and, really, it did not - then Woods' drive at the 17th hole ushered it away. He knew it as well as we did: this was his tournament to lose, and Tiger Woods does not lose tournaments. Not here, and not from here. This would be a thousand-yard victory lap; pop the cork, tweet the gif, cry a little. Remember this. Remember every second of this.

Tiger Woods is going to win The Masters.

Despite a flared drive at the final hole it was, if viewed in isolation, so much less dramatic than 2005, so much less dramatic than the US Open of 2008, but 11 years had gone into reaching 15 majors, and there was no need for drama now. This was a time for celebration, and it came in a roar from a Tiger no longer tamed. He had done it. Somehow, he had done it.

In your life, you'd seen something like that, but nothing like this.

How many more majors will Tiger Woods win in 2019
Tiger Woods celebrates after winning his 15th major

Darts

By Chris Hammer

Imagine the scene: an arena packed with a partisan crowd of sports fans - predominantly male - creating a ‘bear pit’ atmosphere unanimously in favour of just one side.

Everyone is on their feet as the anticipation for a decisive moment in history reaches breaking point. Seconds later, an explosive roar erupts and pandaemonium kicks in. It’s a sea of ’limbs’, beer is being thrown everywhere and groups of mates leap uncontrollably together. Strangers are even embracing. The crescendo of noise is insane and the celebratory chaos is barely describable.

Three thousand fans lost in a joyous moment of sporting time. But this wasn’t football fans watching England winning a penalty shoot out at the World Cup on a big screen. It wasn’t cricket fans watching Ben Stokes at Headingley.

It was a young mum beating a man at darts. Again.

Talk about smashing the "glass ceiling”, as Rod Studd so perfectly described Fallon Sherrock’s historic victory over Ted Evetts.

The incredible results and the performances to pull them off have been momentous, but the way her achievements have been celebrated are perhaps even more significant. And not just in the crazy confines of the Alexandra Palace, where she’ll be preparing for a third coronation on December 27.

Sherrock’s surreal week in the spotlight, in which she appeared on numerous TV shows and became a global social media phenomenon, will have brought in an even bigger audience for Saturday night’s clash with Mensur Suljovic, many of whom will perhaps be new to watching darts.

So not only is the 25-year-old sending out the most inspiring message to women the world over, you could also argue she’s done more for the global reach of darts with two victories then many leading men.

The official clip of her victory over Evetts has earned almost six million views on Twitter alone, blowing all other PDC darts videos out of the water while on top of that it was unsurprisingly their most retweeted and liked post ever.

y the time she’d managed to catch her breath in time to prepare for Suljovic, a united darting world were already firmly behind her crusade for increased opportunities and prize money for the ever growing band of talented female players and also break down barriers for the next generation to participate.

That was just extra pressure - if she’d even had time to think about it - on top of the daunting challenge of trying to do herself justice against a major winning world number 11 and proving her exploits four days earlier weren’t just a fluke.

Not that a crushing 3-0 defeat would have tarnished any memories whatsoever, but it’s still the last thing anyone wanted, especially with Gerwyn Price saying she’d beaten “a young boy” affected by the crowd rather than a man.

The Welshman knows full well how booing from the fans on this stage - and plenty others - can cause your game to crumble and that’s seemingly what happened to the Austrian, who is so usually a fan favourite.

He missed three darts to win the first set 3-0 as Sherrock hit checkouts of 81, 70 and a roof raising 131 in a scintillating display of finishing and he’d also blow another 2-0 lead in the third when visibly looking rattled.

The Milton Keynes thrower, who averaged over 90, hit four 180s and converted 11 of her 16 double attempts, came from 2-1 down in the fourth in another display of nerveless character before wrapping up her victory in style on the bullseye.

Whatever happens now, the darting history books will all say this was her World Championship.

Everything else is a footnote.

  • Unfortunately for John Henderson, this award was cruelly ripped away from him by at the very last moment by a woman who weighs less than his throwing arm. It’s a fittingly familiar story for big Hendo, who has never lifted a trophy during his long career in the PDC, but I guess what made his roof-raising clash with Michael van Gerwen so special was the fact you can be an ultimate crowd pleaser without being a winner. If it’s any consolation, he does at least appear in the slide show that was made before Sherrock’s heroism.

Horse racing

By Ben Linfoot

Brilliant on occasion, mediocre in places.

That could be a description of this year’s British Flat season, but it also applies to the mercurial Battaash, the horse who broke Dayjur’s track record in the Nunthorpe in one breath, and flunked to 14th in the Prix de l’Abbaye in another.

Extreme highs and lows have been a mainstay in Battaash’s career. He won on his debut by four lengths and was then gelded after his second start. He was an average third in the final three races of his juvenile career, but was a spectacular winner of his first three races at three.

He flopped in that year’s Nunthorpe then won the Abbaye by four lengths unchallenged. He bounced back from Royal Ascot defeat to win at Goodwood by four lengths, but then he was beaten in the Nunthorpe, once more. And then the Abbaye.

On his day he’s spectacular. A brute force, a whirlwind of pure speed. But keeping a lid on his brilliance isn’t easy. He can ruin his chance before the starting gates have even opened. Such a thing happened at York in his second Nunthorpe defeat.

He should really come with a ‘handle with care’ warning. And his trainer, Charlie Hills, did just that in the summer of 2019. Battaash wasn’t quite as explosively brilliant at Goodwood, where he won by less than a length in his traditional Nunthorpe prep. They were keeping a lid on him.

Jim Crowley took it off at halfway at York. He’d got a lovely tow into things from Ornate but Battaash wanted to go faster - he always does on a going day. Two out he was a length clear and the winning distance grew throughout the final furlong with the result in no doubt.

He had scorched the Knavesmire turf in under 56 seconds, breaking the track record of Dayjur that was set 29 years earlier, to the day, in the same silks. It was some way to cement his legacy, for here was a horse that was one from six in Group One races heading into the Nunthorpe, a dismal strike-rate for one so talented.

A possible Breeders’ Cup tilt was put on hold after his Abbaye flop, which was so Battaash. The good thing is that gelding operation after his second start means we get to enjoy him thrilling and disappointing crowds in equal measure all over again in 2020.

But he’ll have to go some to eclipse the day he conquered the Nunthorpe.

Battaash motors home at York
Battaash motors home at York

Boxing

By Chris Oliver

When the best fight the best to find out who is the best, it is hard to find a better sport than boxing.

This recipe will always generate interest, excitement and skill levels of the highest order, and that is exactly what we got when Josh Taylor took on Regis Prograis at London's O2 Arena in October.

While Anthony Joshua's two fights with Andy Ruiz Jr dominated the headlines in 2019, no fight reaffirmed to boxing fans how great the sport can be more than this light welterweight World Boxing Super Series final.

The scene was set for a special night, with both men unbeaten and arguably the top two in the division on the back of impressive title-winning performances, but the reality exceeded even those lofty expectations.

The Americans had long been raving about their man and he started as the favourite, having barely lost a round en route to a perfect 24-fight CV and displaying serious power in halting 20 of his opponents. Taylor had been fast-tracked through the pro ranks after winning Commonwealth gold in 2014 and notched a few notable scalps in racing to a record of 15-0.

The Scot nicked a cagey opener, but the visitor began to have success in the second round as he expertly slipped punches and landed power shots of his own. The next two rounds went a similar way and while very competitive, it was Prograis who was landing the cleaner blows - the kind that had deterred or stopped every man he had previously faced. And yet Taylor proved he is no ordinary fighter as he refused to wilt, until the tide began to turn in the fifth round as he closed the gap with relentless pressure.

The excitement and intensity grew with each round, as these two champions traded blow after blow and displayed skills of the highest order. Some of the inside work on show was as good as you will ever see and it was Taylor who was coming off best, as he really took over from the halfway point. By the 10th, Prograis was beginning to look overwhelmed.

However, the tide turned yet again as the American somehow summoned the energy for one final push and, with Taylor partially blinded by a grotesquely swollen left eye, Prograis had a big last two rounds to leave this one very much in the balance as they went to the scorecards.

As a sold-out crowd rose to its feet following 12 rounds of war, with Taylor's eye looking like something from a horror movie and blood streaming from nose of Prograis, both men thought they had done enough, and nobody could have argued with a draw.

That is how one judge saw it, but the other two sided with the Scotsman and he dropped to his knees in an emotional celebration when he was announced as the winner of one of the fights of the decade, let alone the year.

With politics, promoters and egos getting in the way of so many great fights in the current climate and the consequent frustration of the fans, this thrilling and high-quality battle between two men at the top of their game was a timely reminder of why we love this sport. It was a feel-good night and one that will live long in the memory.

Taylor may not have the social media followers of Joshua, nor the money in the bank, but he is Britain's current number one fighter and hopefully 2020 is the year he gets the wider recognition his talent deserves.

Josh Taylor celebrates after maintaining his unbeaten record
Josh Taylor celebrates after maintaining his unbeaten record

Football

By Tom Carnduff

There will surely never be another goal in Manchester City's modern history to rival that famous Sergio Aguero strike but, after Vincent Kompany lashed home from distance against Leicester in the spring, it's equally clear which comes second.

Pep Guardiola’s men, coming into the 2018/19 season on the back of their 100-point tally in the campaign prior, had a new challenge in Liverpool standing in the way of their second successive title.

This season had seen the lead at the top switch hands between England’s new powerhouses. At Christmas it looked as if Liverpool had one hand on the trophy, but City fought back to retain control over their own destiny with two games still to go.

On an unusually chilly May evening in Manchester, Guardiola’s men faced Leicester, knowing that only victory would be enough. And for much of the game, it looked as though the balance of power had once again shifted west, to Liverpool, who were snapping away at their heels with late goal after late goal.

City knew that they were facing a tough test in Leicester. Brendan Rodgers’ new-look Foxes had won five of their last seven heading into Monday Night Football and their quality showed throughout as the home side couldn’t find the breakthrough.

The clock was ticking, and an electric atmosphere turned static; City, so confident in attack, were probing, bobbing, weaving, trying, but nothing was coming off.

Then came a wonder strike from the unlikeliest of sources. Vincent Kompany, the man so committed to keeping teams out at one end, sent the Etihad into pandemonium at the other, cementing his place in the history of the club; their captain, their leader, and now their title-retriever.

Kompany had possession 30 yards out, and the pattern in front of him was by now familiar. Leicester had been well-drilled, and they blocked off the passing lanes, content to allow the Belgian a yard or two closer, comforted by the unlikeliness of a pot-shot from a cool head.

Then Kompany unleashed an unstoppable, implausibly precise shot which rifled into the top corner; delight, surprise and relief quickly became exaltation as the entire City side flew towards the corner flag to celebrate a goal which was as perfect as it was shocking. Aguero had been the catalyst for title number one; now Kompany, their giant at the back, had given them title number four.

"I tell you, no shoot! No Vinnie, no!" said Aguero after the final whistle. Guardiola said much the same. Surely never had the Spaniard been more content to see one of his disciples step out of line and take matters into their own hands.

"I could hear people saying 'don't shoot, don't shoot!' But I've not come this far in my career to have young players tell me when to shoot,” said Kompany, the sort of words only a captain on his way to club immortality could dare to utter.

As City closed out victory with relative comfort, they returned to the top of the table - the 32nd and final time the lead had changed hands, as Kompany and co went on to beat Brighton on the final day.

On his final competitive appearance at the Etihad Stadium, Kompany completed his graduation to legendary status with the goal which changed the course of an engrossing title race.

Vincent Kompany celebrates
Vincent Kompany celebrates

Formula 1

By Tom Millard

After a terrible getaway that had left him down in eighth on lap one, he'd emerged from the pits in fifth position, 13 seconds off the lead. He'd breezed past three of his rivals and was bearing down on the long-time race leader, who looked to be cruising to a comfortable maiden win. He couldn't... could he?

But then there he was, two laps from the chequered flag, his Red Bull tucked under the rear wing of the lead Ferrari on the long run down to Turn 3 of this beautiful circuit in the Austrian Tyrol. Max Verstappen shimmied right and went ultra-deep on the brakes. Charles Leclerc laid claim to the same piece of tarmac and the two cars made contact, Leclerc losing traction on the outside, his chance of victory gone.

"It's hard racing," said Verstappen after the race, countering Ferrari's accusation of foul play. "Otherwise we have to stay home... if those things aren't allowed in racing, then what's the point of being in Formula 1?"

Verstappen's virtuosity at his employers' home race reminded F1 fans, often so quick to complain, what a brilliant sport we have at its best. The Dutchman, still only 22, personifies the nature of motorsport heroes of yore - spectacular on track, gladiatorial in combat and unapologetic amid controversy.

His foe that day in June, Leclerc, joined him in F1's very top tier this season. He got a measure of revenge on Verstappen in the following race at Silverstone, outmuscling him in a memorable wheel-to-wheel tussle that lasted several corners, and would go on to take two beautifully-judged, back-to-back victories at Spa and Monza, those cathedrals of speed that continue to transcend the sport.

But surveying those squabbling pups from his pedestal sits Lewis Hamilton, the undisputed master of his craft. Six titles, 84 wins, 88 pole positions and counting, Hamilton will start next season as the clear favourite for a Schumacher-equalling seventh crown. And for all the excitement that the challengers provided this season, it's difficult to escape the impression that the Mercedes man rarely got out of second gear.

One can't help but feel that Hamilton is hoping his young rivals will make things a bit harder for him in 2020. From Austria to Britain last summer, Verstappen and Leclerc offered hope that they may well be about to rise to the challenge.

Max Verstappen
Max Verstappen

Snooker

By Richard Mann

‘Goodness me, what a game.’ (Neal Foulds, 2019)

When the curtain finally comes down on Ronnie O’Sullivan’s illustrious career, one that has seen him win the World Championship five times, The Masters six times, and the UK Championship seven times, there will be countless matches and numerous moments we will be able to recall with a mixture of fondness and awe.

It was way back in 1993 that O’Sullivan first announced himself on the big stage, the then 17-year-old beating the great Stephen Hendry, in doing so becoming the youngest ever player to win a ranking event, a record that still stands to this day.

There have been any number of memorable triumphs since, from becoming world champion for the first time in 2001 to his record-breaking 19th Triple Crown success in York a year ago.

What has set O’Sullivan apart from the rest is his longevity and his ability to meet the challenges presented to him in over 25 years at the top of the sport.

From Hendry to John Higgins and Mark Williams – two classmates from that famous Class of ’92 – through to the likes of Ding Junhui and Mark Selby, O’Sullivan has looked them all in the eye and overcome them to a man.

Even when the supremely gifted Judd Trump came along, O’Sullivan was able to hold sway but more recently, as Trump’s trajectory has been upwards while O’Sullivan has aged into his forties, the tide has finally started to turn.

It began in Beflast in November 2018, Trump beating O’Sullivan in the final of the Northern Ireland Open before inflicting an even heavier defeat upon him only a few months later at The Masters.

A changing of the guard, it seemed, had begun, and when Trump when raced into a 6-2 lead in the semi-final of the Coral Tour Championship in their next meeting in early spring, Trump was on course to record his third straight win over O’Sullivan, all in significant and high-profile matches.

O’Sullivan is no ordinary sportsman, however, and he returned for the evening session to produce one of the finest displays of his career, leaving Trump punch drunk at the end of night where his opponent mixed incredible skill and flair with such heart and determination that it was no surprise that O’Sullivan punched his chest with joy having dropped the final black into the bottom corner pocket at the conclusion of a pulsating deciding frame.

Despite winning the opening two frames of the evening session to reduce his arrears to 6-4, O’Sullivan’s chances still appeared slim when he fell 8-5 behind, but sublime breaks of 134 and 130 helped him draw level at 8-8 before Trump again edged in front.

Even with Trump on the cusp of victory, O’Sullivan would not be bowed, somehow overcoming a 39-point deficit in frame 17 with a nerveless clearance of the colours that defied belief, a horrible yellow with the white chained to the side cushion floated in like it was hanging over the pocket, before he negotiated the rest of the clearance with typical verve.

If O’Sullivan was feeling the pressure, he certainly wasn’t showing it, and while Trump could be visibly seen wilting under the strain, O’Sullivan continued to glide around the table, even when finding himself 50 points behind in the decider.

It was far from plain sailing, and when O’Sullivan was unable to capitalise on an outrageous fluked pink to seemingly hand Trump victory with only a simple yellow needed to win, the match threw up yet another dramatic twist.

Trump rattled the jaws with the yellow and having laid a devilish snooker, O’Sullivan stroked in a brilliant pot from distance before inching towards the winning line while all around him watched on in disbelief.

The final black wasn’t easy, off its spot and with the white sat higher than ideal, but yet again, O’Sullivan potted it with all the flair of a genius.

The match won, O’Sullivan finally allowed himself a celebration that reflected all the drama of an unforgettable, supercharged night in Wales.

As ever, Neil Foulds on commentary summed it up best: “goodness me, what a game.”

Ronnie O'Sullivan
Ronnie O'Sullivan

Horse racing

By David Ord

Two furlongs from home in the Britannia Handicap and the dream was alive. Frankie Dettori had momentum, adrenalin surging through his veins and history in his sights.

He’d already won the first four races on day three of Royal Ascot and now, Turgenev, for his mentor John Gosden, had taken control of one of the most competitive handicaps of the season. He’d burst clear. Catch me if you can. And when the jockey is in this mood, on this turf, that’s easier said than done.

A’Ali, Sangarius and Star Catcher were the first on the scoresheet for Dettori that afternoon, the latter under an inspired ride in the Ribblesdale. Stradivarius duly delivered in the Gold Cup and all of a sudden memories of the 1996 Magnificent Seven were alive. Racegoers and punters celebrated - we were witnessing something special.

Bookmakers quivered in a corner, not daring to work out their liabilities, while on the track Dettori was rampant and seemingly bombproof.

Turgenev was always up with the pace, his rider’s gold armband for leading rider of the week glistening in the welcome sunshine. He had the assistance of the stands’ rail, too.

It was still a two-length advantage at the furlong pole and while there were signs of distress from the leader, in behind nothing much was moving forward. The one exception was Biometric. Slowly but surely he started cut into the advantage and 100 yards out was in front. Dettori knew the game was up and the perfect Ascot afternoon out of reach.

But what he showed right up to those final five seconds of the Britannia was the charismatic Italian in a nutshell. Yes he’s a showman, but he’s also the best big-race jockey we’ve seen for some time, certainly since Lester Piggott in his prime.

He was to later rue his excitement at pushing the button when he did on Turgenev. Perhaps he’d have held on had Dettori counted to ten. But right there, in the moment, it looked the perfect time to kick. And it gave us that split second when the unachievable was being made to look inevitable. Perhaps only Dettori can do that.

Sangarius and Frankie Dettori win the Hampton Court
Sangarius and Frankie Dettori win the Hampton Court

Rugby union

By Gareth Jones

To reflect now upon England’s World Cup heartbreak is to look back on the loss of your school sweetheart. First, it seems like the end of the world; it hurts for what feels like a lifetime, and you question how and why it all went wrong. Then, eventually, you just remember the good times; the buzz, the hope, the moments you know you won't forget.

England may not have brought the William Webb Ellis trophy home, but they made it to the final and in the process delivered a historic moment that will stay with us all - their 19-7 slaying of New Zealand, the back-to-back world champions who had seemed unbeatable before that famous semi-final.

It wasn’t just the result, or the fact that it put England into their first final in 12 years; nor that it was their first win in six attempts and seven years over the champions and first at a World Cup. This was magical because of the performance and how they out-thought and out-fought the most fearsome team in the sport.

By any and every measure, this was England’s greatest performance since lifting the trophy in 2003, and however disappointing the outcome of the final, we'll always have that Saturday morning when the Red Rose took apart the All Blacks.

It all started with the no-fear attitude, displayed perfectly by captain Owen Farrell’s sly grin in the face of the Haka - an iconic sporting image already. As his face was flashed on the stadium big screen and in millions of homes around the world, instantly the mood changed – this was a different England, an England ready for war, an England that would not falter. Later, we'd reflect that it was here, before kick-off, that the match was won.

Then came the perfect game-plan and execution. New Zealand expected England to be boring and negative - play one-out rugby, using their big ball-carriers to smash into contact and then kick it down field to play the game deep.

Instead, England were brave, exciting and open - throwing the ball out wide and stretching the play from the very first minute. There were inside passes, long passes, passes out the backdoor, flicks and tricks and dazzling runs.

Head coach Eddie Jones demands structure, tight drills and organisation, but in this moment he showed his trust in his players to make their own calls to when and how to play. That trust empowered the players to achieve a new level of performance, to beat New Zealand at their own game, as Manu Tuilagi crashed over in the very first minute.

The biggest question mark hanging over this England team travelling to Japan concerned their mental qualities – could they out-think opponents? Could they make the right decisions at the right moment? Could they deliver against the very best in the world when it mattered most, when the pressure was at its most extreme?

These were questions England had failed to answer since 2003, but on Saturday October 26, 2019, those red crosses became big green ticks.

England kicked at the right time, ran it at the correct moment and in defence they selected the perfect time to hit hard in the tackle; when to hold back, when to fly into a ruck to steal the ball and when to back off and realign their defence. They conceded just six penalties and won 16 turnovers in the match, almost unheard of under the pressure of the mighty Kiwis.

To see Jonny May and Anthony Watson dancing around statuesque New Zealand defenders, men in black being smashed back in the tackle by youngsters Tom Curry and Sam Underhill, and robotic All Blacks dropping the ball and looking at each other in sheer panic as England applied the pressure was to witness something virtually unprecedented.

England finally proved to both themselves and the world that they do possess everything necessary to become the best in the world. They broke through those final mental barriers in a performance which should form the foundations of a huge decade ahead.

Like with our school sweetheart, eventually it just wasn’t meant to be, but it made us want to find that special one even more. This might not have been the game that won England the 2019 World Cup, but it might prove to be the one that pushes them all the way to glory in 2023.

England confronted the New Zealand Haka by standing in a V, with captain Owen Farrell smiling throughout
England face the Haka before a famous World Cup win

Greyhounds

By Ian Brindle

Punters can often be accused of clinging on to clichés but if there’s a truism in greyhound racing, it’s that the draw is all.

The Greyhound Derby transported itself to a new home at Nottingham in 2019, and there was an early sign that this was going to be special renewal when Skywalker Logan smashed a long-established track record on the opening night of competition.

Dorotas Wildcat was to give a defiant defence of his crown before injury cruelly curtailed his campaign and it was Magical Bale who carried the hopes of the Kevin Hutton kennel into the £100,000-to-the-winner final.

For Ireland, the best chance appeared to rest with Clonbrien Prince, who had posted four victories in his five rounds.

Yet miles away from the track, the fancied pair were bowled a yorker by the former England cricketer Ryan Sidebottom as he made the draw at the Derby Luncheon in London. With no seeds, Bale emerged first from the bag and into the unfavoured trap one whilst Prince was left hopelessly marooned in six.

Despite only eight winners obtaining from the red jacket during the 62 heats and in a display of near collective hubris, the on-course punters plunged on Magical Bale and punted him into 11/10 favouritism when the hare was set in motion.

As the boxes were triggered, Bale propped slightly forward and though he tried to use his trademark acceleration to propel him into the first bend, Priceless Blake’s rear proved a barrier to progression, and he was to dive into the path of the luckless Droopys Expert.

There could be no bitterness directed toward the winner as Paul Hennessy had produced Priceless Blake cherry ripe for the big night and he did what was needed from the acknowledged ‘ping’ box.

The dominance of the victory was added to by the “greenwash” of Ballymac Tas chasing grittily into second and Skywalker Logan completing in third.

Rivalries will renew in 2020 but the English could head there with a potential superstar in their ranks with Ice On Fire.

Too inexperienced to take his chance in the Derby in 2019, Jimmy Fenwick’s dog could already be causing sleepless nights amongst the compilers following an unprecedented spell that has seen him land the Puppy Classic over course-and-distance, the All England Cup, the Eclipse and latterly, the Laurels at Newcastle.

Perhaps this time the one they all have to beat will find better luck when those traps for the final are drawn.

NFL

By Paul Higham

The 2019 Super Bowl was no classic, there were no points records, no remarkable and history-making comebacks such as we had witnessed when Tom Brady and the New England Patriots picked up their fifth Super Bowl with that epic victory against Atlanta in 2017.

This was a third straight Super Bowl appearance for the Patriots under Brady and coach Bill Belichick, and their ninth overall with the deadly duo running the show, but it broke records of the wrong kind for most spectators as they claimed a 13-3 success in a defensive arm wrestle of a contest.

The overall numbers are important here though – in a sport all set up to provide a level playing field, with a draft system and salary cap, no one team is meant to dominate for an extended period, yet here were the Pats claiming a sixth Super Bowl in 17 years.

Brady, at 41, was said to be finished, but he’s been written off so many times before and keeps defying the critics time and time again. He may not have been the star of the show this time, but he got just enough out of a game that defences dominated to haul his side over the line.

While teams and challengers have come and gone, Brady and Belichick have been constant threats throughout their time together – there has never been, and will likely never again be a more dominant quarter-coaching duo in the NFL.

For all Brady’s plaudits, and rightly so, this Super Bowl win was all Belichick, as the defensive mastermind yet again proved that coaching, especially of this calibre, can make all the difference in this brutal chess match of a sport.

On the opposing sideline were contenders to be the next Brady-Belichick combo, with young coach Sean McVay and young quarterback Jared Goff firing the LA Rams to the big game with some wonderfully expansive and innovative attacking throughout the season.

This was supposed to be the evolution of the NFL – elaborate offensive schemes aimed to pile up points at will and have opposition defences chasing shadows.

Far from being a passing of the torch though, the game just proved that as the old NFL adage goes, ‘defence wins championships’ and in the most defensive Super Bowl of all time, it was once again Belichick’s coaching prowess that won the day.

It was not a classic in the modern sense, not a game that many will have on DVD for future reference, but if you want a prime example of playing to the occasion, making sure the opposition can’t win, this is it.

Extending a period of dominance in a sport all set up to prevent it was an added bonus and when we’re eventually looking back on the Brady-Belichick era, this will look all the more significant.

Tom Brady and coach Bill Belichick are the masterminds behind the New England Patriots legacy
Tom Brady and coach Bill Belichick are the masterminds behind the New England Patriots legacy

What was your moment of the year? Tweet us @SportingLife or email editorial@sportinglife.com

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