The Sporting Life end-of-year countdown begins with our writers' favourite moments of 2018, including Masar's Derby win and Tiger Woods' return.
Derby delight for Godolphin
Coolmore have ruled the roost in the Derby since the turn of the century. In fact, in just about all facets of Flat racing, they have dominated Godolphin for some time. Listing them together as superpowers seemed a mismatch.
But 2018, well, 2018 was different. 2018 was the year that Godolphin had double the top-level successes that Coolmore did. They had Group One wins in America, Australia, Dubai, Ireland, Germany, Japan and, of course, the United Kingdom.
Group One winners at Royal Ascot and Glorious Goodwood. The Melbourne Cup. A return to the good old days indeed and the man Sheikh Mohammed can thank above all others is trainer Charlie Appleby, who has just had a sensational 12 months.
His stats for the year in Great Britain were 88 wins from 310 runners at 28 per cent. Those earnings were almost £4,000,000 and that doesn’t include international conquests like Cross Counter’s extraordinary Flemington success that pulled in £2,500,000 alone.
When Appleby started training just five years ago, he picked out the Derby and Melbourne Cup as the two races he most wanted to win. He’s just done it, the double in the same year. It was Masar’s Derby that initiated such a feat and what a performance it was.
Beaten 41 lengths on dirt at Meydan in March, this wasn’t your usual Classic prep. But it blew away the cobwebs as he arrived at the Craven Meeting a well-oiled machine, blasting away subsequent quadruple Group One winner Roaring Lion by over nine lengths.
Things didn’t go his way in the Guineas, but he stepped up in trip by half a mile in the Derby and he thrived for it, travelling best and staying on well to fend of Dee Ex Bee with Roaring Lion third and Saxon Warrior back in fourth.
It should’ve been the start of a great summer, but an injured off-fore saw to that. It was a shame, but hopefully we’ll see him in 2019. As for 2018, he’s the Godolphin poster boy, and after the year they’ve had, it says a lot for his Derby performance and the status of that race.
City score a century
A side that hit at least three goals in 21 of their Premier League games should have had little issue heading to struggling Southampton on the final day of the season.
Victory would see them hit the 100-point mark, an achievement previously considered incredibly unlikely in England’s top-flight. An astonishing record beckoned.
Yet, as the minutes ticked away, Manchester City just couldn’t find a way through. Indeed their opponents had more shots on target, although the visitors found themselves controlling the balance of play. No change there.
City had already enjoyed a fairytale season. The Premier League had never seen a side as dominant; City had been so confident and just so controlling in what felt like every match.
Yet the desire was there for more. Pep Guardiola wanted to reach three figures - it had never been done before and may never be done again. City were one goal away from immortalising themselves.
And then Gabriel Jesus stepped up to the mark.
Kevin De Bruyne, a star for City throughout the campaign, played through the Brazilian striker and he made no mistake as he lobbed the ball over a helpless Alex McCarthy.
The goal sparked wild scenes at St Mary’s and any doubt as to how significant it was could be seen in Guardiola's celebrations, perhaps the most wild of his astonishing career as coach to champions.
With virtually the last kick of the game, City had done it, they’d become the Centurions, and it meant so much to their manager.
"What can I say, 100 points!" an ecstatic Guardiola said, once he'd caught his breath. "We won 50 points at home and 50 away. It's massive. One hundred points is magnificent."
City also set the record for away wins and away points in a season. They trailed for just 153 minutes, the fewest by a side in a single campaign. They smashed the goal difference record with plus-79. They did it all with such style.
Numbers - even such remarkable ones - can feel arbitrary, however much sport is obsessed by them. But not this one. City winning the title was one thing. City winning it with a hundred points was quite another.
Gold for Native River
"If it’s soft ground, he’ll win in a Gold Cup."
That was the matter-of-fact view of Native River’s groom immediately after his 12-length victory over Cloudy Dream in the Grade Two Betfair Denman Chase at Newbury back in February.
Ultimately, it was; and he did. But it’s rarely quite so simple.
No doubt aided by the Beast from the East, which battered Britain this spring, turning Cheltenham’s famous turf rollercoaster into a log flume, Colin Tizzard’s Beast from the West [Country] positively devoured all 22 fences before him as if starved of such fun for months.
In a sense, he had been – the eight-year-old was appearing on the track for just the second time since his creditable third to Sizing John on a quicker surface, and off a much slower gallop, at the previous year’s Festival.
It takes two to tango, of course, and the mercurial Might Bite, beautifully ridden by Nico de Boinville in spite of defeat, on this occasion played the role of valiant knight to Richard Johnson’s savage partner.
From the very outset it had the makings of a royal rumble and the race played out at a breath-taking tempo – the standard metronome in Johnson’s head politely ignored; put in a box, safe for another day.
If this was to be Native River’s day then it had to be done on his terms – break the resolve of those tasked with bringing him down, and the battle would be won.
Our Duke didn’t last long and the cracks were exposed in Edwulf, American and Tea For Two. A clear round for Total Recall may have been interesting but stablemates Killultagh Vic and Djakadam were not up for the fight.
Anibale Fly, ridden for a place, seemingly achieved his objective, while Road To Respect, only seven, did himself proud as Native River had done at the same age 12 months earlier. The future remains bright for him.
The second ultimately lasted longer than some might have expected, even nosing ahead (depending who you believe) between the final two fences, but second best he was on that day – a memorable day when hooves and hearts pounded a fraction harder than before.
Cook's emotional farewell
And in a flash he was gone. But not easily forgotten.
Following another tough Test summer facing up to an impressive Indian seam attack armed with the Dukes ball, Alastair Cook finally called time on a remarkable and record-breaking career that spanned 161 Tests.
Cook finished his career in number five on the list of all time Test match runscorers with a staggering 12,472 runs not only illustrating his longevity in the game but also his incredible appetite and ability to score.
Cook enjoyed plenty of highs in an England shirt – including 766 runs at an average of 127.66 to drive England to that memorable victory in the 2010/2011 Ashes in Australia – but surely his greatest achievement came when under his leadership, England won a Test series in India in 2012. Winning in India is, without doubt, the pinnacle for any international cricketer.
However, his leadership was subsequently marred by Kevin Pietersen’s controversial exile from the England set-up and Cook bore the brunt of a fierce public and media backlash, leaving his reputation and career on the line.
So typical of the man, Cook responded with runs and a home Ashes victory in 2015 but despite the upturn in fortunes, only when he announced his retirement before the final Test of this summer did we see just how much he had come to mean to the British public.
When Cook chopped-on to Jasprit Bumrah for 71 in the first innings, the Oval stood to applaud and wave goodbye to a player who had earned their respect and a man whom they had grown to love. The chance of a farewell hundred had gone. Or so it seemed.
Yet Cook returned for one final bat in the second innings and despite India throwing all they could at the left-hander, he was able to go to the well one final time, bringing up a wonderful hundred just before lunch on the fourth day.
It was a moment that will live long in the memory and Cook was visibly moved as he the crowd roared in appreciation and refused to quieten even after a full two minutes of noise.
It was stirring stuff and the clapping and cheering just kept coming, forcing Cook to make his way back to the centre of the wicket to raise his bat to his adoring fans once more. They stood for Cook and he revelled in the moment, if only for a short while.
It was a fitting finish to a fabulous career and for once, a great sportsman left the field with us wanting more.
Southgate restores national pride
Had you asked an England fan about the World Cup at the start of the year, the likely response would have been a sarcastic one, along the lines of inevitable disappointment; possibly something to do with penalties and however many years of hurt.
After a disastrous Euro 2016, when Roy Hodgson's tenure came to an ignominious end, it is fair to say expectations could not have been much lower going into Russia 2018.
Gareth Southgate made a few surprising selections – notable omissions, too – and he took a fearless squad to Russia. Few expected success, but everyone wanted to see the players put in some kind of effort at the World Cup, maybe reaching the knockout stages.
With such low expectations and a relatively inexperienced young manager, the squad were able to perform without pressure - and perform is exactly what they did.
An injury-time winner for Harry Kane against Tunisia, six against Panama in a sensational first-half performance, a penalty shootout victory (repeat: a penalty shootout victory) and Kieran Trippier’s early free-kick in the semi-final against Croatia all ensured that the 2018 World Cup will live long in the memory.
A lot of that is down to Southgate and the job he has done since replacing Sam Allardyce. Not only did he guide a fearless Three Lions side into the knockout stages, he handed first caps to a handful of young, talented players and handled himself with class. For that he deserves immense credit.
Southgate fully earned his new contract and now has a pool of players that can produce football to excite and to inspire future generations, something that has not been done for a long time. Hopefully they can deliver UEFA Nations League success in 2019 and take that into Euro 2020, where they may arrive with a genuine chance.
For once, the future feels bright. That's largely thanks to Southgate and the players who have invested in his ethos, one which took them all the way to a World Cup semi-final. It was fun to dream again.
I'm Tiger Woods
I can't say for sure when Eldrick Tont Woods truly became Tiger, but I suspect it was on the golf course, on the prowl. William the Conqueror, Alexander the Great, Edward the Confessor and Tiger Woods. Say what you see, say what you be.
No sportsman ever owned their arena and their opposition quite like Tiger Woods, but for all the positives of his latest resurrection it had been punctuated by uncomfortable reminders: that the game has moved on; that the meanest of machines was a mere mortal after all. Uncle Edlrick, the avuncular sage of the putting green, had lost his edge.
You could see it at the Valspar, when he got chinned by Paul Casey, a rogue whose head would ordinarily have been in the air as the winning line loomed. You could see it in the Open, when he got done for patience and poise by Francesco Molinari, an unspectacular golfer doing spectacular things. And you couldn't fail to see it in the US PGA, when Brooks Koepka dealt with him with a contemptuousness Woods had helped to mould.
From spring to autumn, Woods had chances to win for the first time in half a decade and to put behind him another unwanted chapter. Each time, something got in the way. Whether it was Woods' own play such as at Carnoustie or Bay Hill, or the remorseless front-running of Koepka at Bellerive, 2018 was set to end with the golfer who put winning ahead of everything forced to countenance the idea that new parameters were needed. That there was victory in defeat.
Then came the TOUR Championship, the final act of the season, one last opportunity to end it on his terms.
If the start was underwhelming, Woods' heavy-handedness resulting in an opening bogey, the end of the first round was Woods at his titillating best. In went the eagle putt, out came the fist pump, and on went the procession. By the end of the third round his lead was three and word was out: Tiger Woods was about to complete the most remarkable of sporting comebacks.
Sunday at the TOUR Championship hasn't always been the spectacle that sponsors FedEx have craved and that's because of a fundamental misunderstanding. You cannot deliver sporting drama on demand, whoever you are, however much you spend. You need the sort of cosmic convergence only the brightest of stars can provide; the sort that you can't plan for, however meticulously you prepare.
Such a point was underlined on September 23, as Woods strode down the 18th hole with a stampede of human beings following his every move, in amongst whom golf's most iconic figure had become hard to spot. He was in there though, somewhere, with his people; a new body of golf fans, casual to aficionado, many of whom having once fallen out with the modern game's greatest player only to welcome him back with open arms.
When the final putt went in we saw the man who'd once been so elusive laid bare. Eldrick Tont 'Tiger' Woods had done the sort of thing only he can do, both proving that time is indeed a great healer, and disproving one of the most known knowns of them all: that it waits for no man.
Apparently it does wait for Tiger Woods.
My nine-dart nightmare
Comparing 2018 in darts with recent seasons, this has to go down as one of my favourites due to the unpredictability and shock factor of many of the big events.
Although Michael van Gerwen won 18 titles, ‘only’ three of them – the Masters, Premier League and World Grand Prix - were proper biggies while the other seven key TV titles were shared between four other players.
Daryl Gurney’s triumph on the bullseye to win the Players Championship Finals against MVG has got to be up there along with Gerwyn Price’s bad-tempered Grand Slam of Darts victory over Gary Anderson, if only for the drama.
I was enthralled by the climax of the World Series of Darts Finals as James Wade and Michael Smith both spurned chances to win it before The Machine clinched his second successive TV title in the space of a week having waited nearly five years for the first.
I perhaps 'should' really go for Gary Anderson’s unbelievable World Matchplay final against Mensur Suljovic in which he edged a timeless classic 21-19 to complete a career Triple Crown, which also consists of the World Championship and Premier League.
But instead I’m going for another match involving the Flying Scotsman just a few days earlier in Blackpool in front of my own very eyes. Well, kind of.
He was facing Joe Cullen in the quarter-finals, but as the clash got under way, I was backstage waiting to interview Jeffrey de Zwaan following his impressive victory over Dave Chisnall moments before.
All of a sudden the media room shook (I want to use the word literally here because it honestly felt like it did) due to the roars and pandemonium emanating from auditorium of the Winter Gardens.
All members of the media looked at each other with a mixture of shock, excitement but also frustration upon the realisation that we’d only gone and missed a nine-dart finish!
My first thought at this point was Chris Morris yelling "Peter you’ve lost the news!" at Peter O'Hanra-Hanrahan in The Day Today, before quickly refocusing on De Zwaan, who was mid-sentence during an interview and not really sure whether to continue answering questions.
You can wait a lifetime to see a nine-darter so to be in the same building as one with the privilege of a ‘free’ ticket so to speak and still miss it, well it's something I’ll never forget.
Thankfully I did get to see the rest of what was, on merit, a truly remarkable game which Anderson won 19-17 - but only after Cullen had missed two match darts. I know how you feel, Joe.
Dragons fire for France
2018 was a historic year in the rugby league world. Catalan Dragons won the Challenge Cup.
It’s a sport that still craves deserved attention from outside the Yorkshire, Lancashire and Cumbria heartlands. The Dragons help provide it, proving a force in Super League for several years now from their base in Perpignan.
Their development into a genuine top six side is built on the foundations of a strong group of French players augmented by the addition of significant numbers from the NRL in Australia. But things have slowly started to change.
They’re attracting players from England now too – ones who could easily find homes at other top clubs – and crucially adding silverware.
That was a final bridge to cross. When Rémi Casty lifted the Challenge Cup trophy aloft at a sun-drenched Wembley amid choruses of La Marseillaise, it felt significant.
The history books will show Catalan 20 Warrington 14 but as the Dragons prepare for a new campaign and the prospect of facing Wigan at the Nou Camp, they also might point to 25th August 2018 as being much more significant than just a result. It could even prove to be a watershed moment in the proud history of this great game.
Eagles win first ever Super Bowl
The Super Bowl is always the highlight of the NFL season and in 2018 it provided one of the greatest games, and stories, we’ve seen in the showpiece.
12 months on from producing the biggest comeback in the game’s history, Tom Brady and the New England Patriots took on plucky underdogs the Philadelphia Eagles, who’d never won a Super Bowl before.
Philly were also without their injured star quarterback Carson Wentz and back-up Nick Foles had looked shaky at best and had even questioned his future in the game a couple of years ago.
But, against the odds, the Eagles managed to make it all the way to the big game, denying Minnesota the chance to play in a home Super Bowl in the process, but there they faced the best team of their generation in the New England Patriots and ‘The GOAT’ Tom Brady.
This fairytale story did indeed have a fairytale ending, and what a way to win their first ever Super Bowl as Foles went from substitute to Super Bowl MVP with a stellar performance in a 41-33 success that was the highest scoring showpiece in 23 years.
The action was relentless as Brady and Foles, who looked ensconced in that transcendental state sports star often refer to as ‘the zone’, went stride-for-stride threading pass after pass as the Super Bowl yardage record fell as early as the third quarter.
To add to the mayhem there was even the battle of the trick plays as Brady, one of the slowest players around, popped up out wide just failing to take in a catch as coach Bill Belichick dug deep into the Pats’ playbook.
Eagles coach Doug Pederson then had the audacity to run an almost identical play, right on the Patriots goal line, on fourth down! The phrase ‘Philly Special’ was born…
Tight end Trey Burton ended up with the ball after some razzmatazz behind the line and he tossed the ball to Foles - who added a touchdown catch to a performance that would rival anything Rocky had produced for the City of Brotherly Love.
The Patriots could not recover from the knockout blow and one of the most remarkable stories ended with Philadelphia carrying home their first Lombardi trophy after the most extraordinary of performances.
Two for the price of one...
I am being greedy and having two moments.
The first is obvious but undeniable in the shift in power it delivered, as the Northern Hemisphere seized supremacy over the normally dominant Southern Hemisphere.
Ireland had been building exceptionally, with a Six Nations grand slam and their first ever series win in Australia. Their last challenge was to topple the world champions, New Zealand, something they’d only ever achieved once and never before on Irish soil.
Ireland weren’t just playing for themselves, they were playing for every nation that harbours hopes of winning next year's World Cup. Defeat for the best side in Europe would only have reinforced the view that the rest are playing for second in Japan.
In the end, the Irish did it courtesy a truly inspiring display that highlighted why they’ve become so good, combining a clever game plan, mental strength, individual brilliance and unrivalled unity. While it would be wrong to say Joe Schmidt’s side were comfortable throughout the 19-6 win, it is true to say they were always in control.
Yes, New Zealand had plenty of ball and threatened continually, but as you watched you just knew they would not break Ireland, the men in green who played as if they knew they had their rivals' measure. We haven’t seen such inner belief since a six-man scrum on their own line pushed the All Blacks off their own ball to seal a famous win back in 2003 – months later, England were world champions.
That moment at the Aviva Stadium proved Ireland are equally ready to rule the world, but it also gave huge belief to England, Wales and South Africa that they too can lift the William Webb Ellis Trophy in 2019.
Doddie Weir carrying his own cup out on to the pitch ahead of Wales against Scotland at the start of the Autumn Internationals must also be included in any reflections on the year just gone.
A Scotland great, one loved throughout the game, the former British Lions forward was diagnosed with motor neurone disease in 2017 and has spent his time since raising awareness and money to tackle this truly horrible illness.
As Doddie and his sons walked out at the Principality Stadium to a standing ovation ensued, tears flowed not only from his eyes but so many of those watching. It says much about one of the sport's most humble men that he seemed genuinely surprised by the reception.
Weir has already raised over £250,000 and at the end of another fabulous sporting year, he helps remind us all not only of the power of sport, but of the bigger picture.