Christy O'Connor: Sport delivering great games at every level

It's impossible to define what matches are the 'greatest ever' but that healthy debate is all part of sport
Christy O'Connor: Sport delivering great games at every level

Cork forward Luke O'Farrell trying to get through the Clare defence in 2013's classic All-Ireland hurling final at Croke Park. Picture: Denis Minihane.

IN the recent World Darts Championship final, Michael Smith and Michael Van Gerwen played out the greatest leg in darts history, with Smith sealing a remarkable nine-dart finish.

It was pure magic from Smith but it had to be as Van Gerwen looked on course to shoot the nine-dart finish seconds earlier, throwing eight perfect darts before missing the double 12 by less than an inch.

“That is the most amazing leg of darts you will ever see in your life,” roared Wayne Mardle the Sky Sports commentator. “Absolutely unbelievable. The greatest ever, ever.” 

Context was everything as Smith’s feat was only the second nine-dart finish in the World final history. 

Michael Smith celebrates with the Sid Waddell trophy. Picture: PA
Michael Smith celebrates with the Sid Waddell trophy. Picture: PA

It was also a turning point in the match as Van Gerwen, who was leading by one set at the time, would have been on course to go two sets up if he had nailed that nine-dart finish. Smith eventually won the match 7-4, which was hailed by some commentators afterwards as “the greatest final in history”. 

Such a description is always up for debate, especially when previous games with such a status are excavated for comparison.

The 2007 World final between Raymond Van Barneveld and Phil Taylor has long been considered the greatest, with Van Barneveld recovering from 3-0 down to go 6-5 up before Taylor levelled the match to take it to a last-set decider, which was eventually won by Van Barneveld after a sudden-death leg. Surely that kind of drama secures its status as the greatest final? 

On the other hand, there is an increasing tendency now for any great game – in any sport – to be referenced as “the greatest ever”. 

Is that down to the effect and impact of iPhones, Tik Tok and social media overload which has led to decreasing attention spans? Or is the standard just continually increasing?

The recent World Cup final between Argentina and France can legitimately claim to be the greatest ever final, largely because of multiple incredible story lines and high-wire drama, which culminated in Lionel Messi’s crowning glory. The occasion was also heavily defined by a superstar rivalry between Messi and Kylian Mbappé, along with loads of goals. 

Argentina's Cristian Romero celebrates his side's third goal of the World Cup final in front of France's Kylian Mbappe. Picture: PA
Argentina's Cristian Romero celebrates his side's third goal of the World Cup final in front of France's Kylian Mbappe. Picture: PA

One of those goals by Ángel Di María was one of the greatest in World Cup final history, definitely in the same conversation as Carlos Alberto’s breathtaking goal in the 1970 World Cup final in Brazil’s 4-1 win over Italy. Iconic moments always alter memory and perception but goals also elevate the status of a match, particularly when World Cup finals are notoriously cagey affairs. 

In three of the previous four finals - 2006, 2010 and 2014 – there were only four goals scored across 360 minutes. 

The influence of technology is making the present more relevant than ever before. 

Yet is that reality also reaffirming how nostalgia is no longer such a powerful collaborator in framing history because everyone is so preoccupied with the present?

GREATEST EVER

In the aftermath of the Limerick-Kilkenny All-Ireland hurling final last July, Anthony Daly wrote in his Irish Examiner column that “this All-Ireland final was as good as any I ever saw”. In the same piece, Daly wrote that the 2022 championship also produced “a Munster final that will go down as possibly the greatest ever”.

Every match is of its time and era, which always makes comparisons difficult, but, fully accepting that reality, trying to compare ‘great matches’ is still instructive in examining nostalgia. In the popular imagination, time often reinforces the status of past players and past games, as if their feats from the past become more glorious as the years pass. 

That can have such a powerful influence on memory that some of those past matches will always occupy a certain status in the mind’s eye. The present becoming more relevant has altered that general outlook because access to old footage is so much easier now. Hurling and football may not necessarily seem better back then than it was often deemed to be. In fact, to a lot of people, it appears far worse. 

On the other hand, different generations view sport completely differently. 

“With the ball travelling so far now, it often wouldn’t worry me if I never saw a hurling game again,” said former Tipperary hurler and manager Michael ‘Babs’ Keating last August. “Hurling balls are not supposed to travel 130 yards. The way hurling is now, my generation have no interest in it.” 

The viewpoint of the modern player though is bound to be different again. 

“People want high-scoring encounters with scores going over from everywhere,” said Limerick’s Gearóid Hegarty a few weeks later. 

If the ball was to be made heavier or slower, it’s going to end up in games that are slower, that are not as high scoring. 

"I don’t think the spectator wants that. I don’t think the players want that. Even if the ball is lighter now, I think it makes for a better game.” 

In hurling and football now, both games have never been higher scoring. Despite such claustrophobic conditions, and space being instantly swallowed up, every team now still expects to shoot the lights out. 

Yet that level of expectation wouldn’t be possible unless all of the other metrics in the game had risen too, which most of them have.

The technical ability of most inter-county players is at a different level to anything seen before. The pace of the game has never been higher but the spectacle has changed because the game, both hurling and football, has changed.

Does that make it better? Does it make for more great games? Yes and no.

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