20 for 2020: Ireland's most influential sports stars of the century

The last two decades have been memorable in Irish sport in so many different ways. We have picked our stars of the century. Now tell us what you think.

Image: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

1: ROY KEANE (football)

Imagine the last 20 years without Roy Keane. No Saipan row to sustain the Joe Duffy show throughout the summer of 2002; no fall-out with Mick McCarthy, Alex Ferguson, Niall Quinn, never mind Harry Arter, Alf-Inge Haland or Jon Walters. And yet there was so much more to the man than the controversies, his credentials enhanced by a collection of major medals: seven Premier League titles, four FA Cups, a Scottish league and League Cup double and most memorably of all, a Champions League title. Then there was Ireland, his performances against Portugal and Holland in the 2002 World Cup qualifiers, unsurpassed by any Irish footballer in any era. His influence crossed borders, both sporting and geographic. You don’t have to agree with his opinions to agree with the opinion that he was the most dominant personality of his era.

2: KATIE TAYLOR (boxing)

A genuine A-Lister who won Olympic gold, five world titles and six European championships as an amateur, Taylor then jumped the fence to the murky world of the pro ranks to become a two weight champion. More than that, she has changed perceptions about women’s boxing, a sport which scandalously wasn’t included on the Olympic programme until 2012. Taylor’s victory in London was arguably the iconic image of the Irish sporting decade.

katie-taylor-emotional-after-winning-the-wbo-world-super-lightweight-championship Katie Taylor smiles after winning the world super-lightweight championship. Source: Gary Carr/INPHO


At the end of the last century, Ireland were playing a World Cup quarter-final play-off in front of a half-empty stadium. There was no such thing as the Pro14, while Leinster’s relationship had a loveless relationship with the Heineken Cup. Ireland hadn’t beaten France in Paris since 1972 when O’Driscoll announced his arrival with a hat-trick in March 2000. Historic wins over Australia and South Africa followed in 2002 and 2004; backed up by four successive victories over England (2004-07). By the time he’d retired, O’Driscoll had three Heineken Cups and a grand slam on his CV. More to the point, Irish rugby’s popularity had soared. No one did as much to change that as this guy.


No other Irish athlete – even Roy Keane – polarises opinion quite like McGregor. You don’t have to like his sport, or indeed McGregor, to accept that in this social media age, he is one of the most recognisable athletes on the planet. The value of his sporting achievements totally depends on the value you place on MMA as a sport. Put it this way, if sporting excellence was the sole criteria for making this list, then he wouldn’t be on it. He is an influencer, though – and a big one at that.

5:  RORY McILROY (golf)

There is little doubt that other Irish golfers – particularly Shane Lowry – are much more popular than McIlroy, but when it comes down to an examination of his achievements, he has to go down as the greatest Irish player in one of the world’s most popular sports. Nearly two years of his career has been spent as world No1 and even though his discomfort around the Irish flag has cost him in the popularity stakes, the size of his worldwide fame cannot be ignored. Only five Europeans have won more majors.

6: DONAL ÓG CUSACK (hurling)

We’ll get the playing stuff out of the way first. Three All-Ireland titles is an impressive feat, more so when you consider his role in them, as Cusack redefined the role of a goalkeeper. It’s what happened next – his principled stance against his county board as Cork held three bitter strikes – which cannot be ignored. Given his high profile, his decision to come out while his playing career was ongoing, was admirably brave.

donal-og-cusack Óg Cusack changed the role of goalkeeping. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

7: KEITH WOOD (rugby)

In the lead-in to the 1999 World Cup, Warren Gatland asked a sports psychologist to address his team. At this meeting, the Irish squad were asked if they believed they could win the tournament. Only one player – Wood – said they could. Without that mentality, you have to wonder if the golden generation who followed would have achieved as much as they did. Compared to those who came after him, his medal collection is unimpressive. But the pathfinder is always more influential than the follower.

8: TONY McCOY  (racing)

Champion jockey 20 times, winner of the Grand National, Gold Cup, Champion Hurdle, Queen Mother Champion Chase, King George V1 chase, rider of 4,358 winners, McCoy won everything except the Rose of Tralee and Eurovision Song Contest.

9: STEPHEN CLUXTON (Gaelic football)

No team have dominated any sport quite like Dublin over the last decade, Cluxton the driving force behind their charge to a record five successive All-Irelands. His kick-out strategy redefined the role of a goalkeeper. Add in the fact he kicked the winning point in the 2011 All-Ireland to set Dublin on their way.

10:  RONAN O’GARA (rugby)

Over a million Irish people tuned in to see his match-winning drop goal in 2009, as Ireland won their first grand slam in 61 years. Add in a couple of Heineken Cups and four triple crowns and you begin to get a picture of his greatness.

ronan-ogara-scores-a-drop-goal O'Gara lands his career-defining drop goal. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

11: SONIA O’SULLIVAN (athletics)

Silver medalist in the 2000 Olympics, O’Sullivan has won the RTÉ sports person of the year title on five occasions, more than anyone else. While most of her achievements were in the ‘90s, it can’t be forgotten that she also won two silvers in the 2002 European championships. Katie Taylor regards her as her biggest influence.

12: JOHNNY SEXTON (rugby)

While he has won more medals than O’Gara, the fact remains that if the team of the noughties had not led the way, then the men who came after them would have found things more difficult. Four European Cups, a grand slam and two Lions tours cements his status as one of the best players in Irish rugby history – his drop-goal in Paris in 2019 will never be forgotten.

13: ROBBIE KEANE (football)

The poisonous summer of 2002 could have ended as horribly as it began only for another Keane coming of age. No player in the history of the Irish international team scored more goals, played more games or wore the armband as often. Club wise, he did score over 100 Premier League goals, yet his medal collection is unimpressive. Criticised for not scoring often enough against the world’s top teams, Keane’s contribution to Irish football was nonetheless massive.

14: HENRY SHEFFLIN (hurling)

Ten All-Irelands puts Shefflin’s name in the record books while he is also the leading scorer in championship hurling. To put those figures in context, Limerick – the fourth most successful county in the history of hurling – have won eight All-Irelands, two fewer than Shefflin.

15: PAUL O’CONNELL (rugby)

He put the fear of God into the opposition and put Munster on their way to the 2006 and 2008 Heineken Cups. Also a grand slam winner with Ireland and captain of their 2014 and 2015 Six Nations championship winning sides.

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16: RUBY WALSH (racing)

Won the English Grand National in 2000 at his first attempt before winning the Irish Grand National that same year. Won 59 times at the Cheltenham, picking up the prize for leading jockey at the Festival on 11 occasions.

ruby-walsh-and-papillon-842000 Ruby Walsh celebrates his Grand National win on Papillon in 2000. Source: Allsport/INPHO


Before Rory, there was Padraig who collected three Majors in two seasons and paved the way for McIlroy, McDowell, Clarke and Lowry to follow.

18: COLM COOPER (Gaelic football)

Better known as the Gooch, Cooper was simply a class act, good enough to win five All-Ireland titles and keep football interesting in an era when the blanket defence threatened to send everyone to sleep.

19: CORA STAUNTON (Gaelic football/Australian Rules)

A superb player who has been at the top of her sport for over two decades before defying age and injury to end up as a professional athlete in a new sport – Australian Rules – at the tail end of her career.

20: DAMIEN DUFF (football)

So underrated and undervalued, and yet Duff was a two-times Premier League winner with Chelsea and a centurion with Ireland, helping to keep the national team relevant during lean years.

About the author:

Garry Doyle

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