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The Magnificent Seven: individual performances

In honour of Kevin O’Brien’s record-breaking century on Wednesday afternoon, we relive seven other phenomenal individual performances, from Maurice Fitz to Mark Spitz.

Image: Adam Butler/PA Archive/Press Association Images

1. Michael Jordan

Boston Celtics 135-131 Chicago Bulls, 20 April 1986

Back when LeBron was still toddling around in nappies, the real king of basketball put on a display which underlined the fact that he is the greatest ever to take to the court.

1984 was a year so rife with basketball talent that Michael Jordan was still undrafted by the time that the Chicago Bulls had a chance to use their number three pick. They grabbed the 21-year-old shooting guard from the University of North Carolina. The rest, as they say, is history.

Despite sitting out a large amount of his second season with the Bulls due to a broken foot, Jordan was fit to take his place on court when they playoffs rolled around. Coming off the back of a disappointing regular season, Chicago were drawn against the Eastern Conference’s top seed – the Boston Celtics, proudly starring the “Big Three” of Bird, Parrish and McHale.

Unlike some of his vaunted successors, Jordan was no playoff choker. Though the Bulls eventually lost out in double-overtime that night, Jordan netted 63 points by himself, a total which still remains untouched as the highest ever playoff score by an individual.

His performance that night was so complete that Larry Bird famously commented that he had seen “God disguised as Michael Jordan” on court. The legend of Air Jordan was just beginning.


2. Nadia Comăneci

1976 Olympic Games, Montreal

As someone who doesn’t watch an awful lot of gymnastics, the technical brilliance of Nadia Comăneci’s first “perfect ten” at the 1976 Montreal Olympics might be lost on me somewhat.

However, the magnitude of her achievement and its significance within the sport is not.

Before the 14-year-old Romanian hoisted herself up onto the uneven bars at the Montreal Forum, nobody in Olympic history had ever been awarded a perfect score. Comaneci’s achievement was so unthinkable that the electronic scoreboards in the Forum were not even equipped to display the figure “10.0″.

Something about that smacks of poor preparation. After all, Comaneci had already pulled off perfection on a few occasions earlier that year, scoring multiple tens at both the American Cup in Madison Square Garden and the Chunichi Cup in Japan.

Though many would have quietly hoped that something special would happen in Montreal that day, 14-year-old Comaneci still had to perform knowing that the whole world was watching, waiting, expecting.

She did, executing a difficult routine on the uneven bars with such absolute precision that the judges could not help but make history.

Then, for good measure, she went ahead and scored six more “perfect tens” before the Games came to a close. As you do.


3. Maurice Fitzgerald

Kerry 0-13 Mayo 1-7, All-Ireland Final 1997

When it comes to great individual performances, the “Maurice Fitzgerald final” of 1997 is among the best which the GAA has to offer.

In almost ten years at inter-county level, Kerry’s star forward had seen his county fall painfully short on countless occasions. Though regarded as the greatest of his generation and one of the greatest ever, Fitzgerald had no All-Ireland medal to show for his troubles.

This time around, he was determined that it would be different, even if he had to do it all by himself.

He didn’t quite fly solo in Croke Park that day, but he wasn’t far off, scoring nine of Kerry’s 13 points as the Kingdom battled to a three-point victory against Mayo.

Put simply, Maurice Fitz was unplayable that day. His accuracy with a dead-ball was unerring as always, exemplified by a terrific score from the right-hand sideline midway through the first half.

From play, he was equally impressive, nonchalantly shrugging off the close attention of the Mayo back-line to slot score after score.

It’s very rare that a top commentator such as Jimmy Magee is left grasping for words. In reducing Magee to the faltering acclamation “I think there’s a word called wonderful,” Fitzgerald’s one-man show was acknowledged by something almost as precious as the All-Ireland medal hanging from his neck.


4. David Duval

Bob Hope Classic, 24 January 1999

Sub-60 golf scores are a thing of undeniable magnificence, regardless of the tournament at which they are posted.

As one of the early events in the PGA calendar, the Bob Hope Classic allows players to ease back in to the season on a less-than-demanding course, with high scores a regular feature of the tournament’s unusual five-round format.

There is a difference, however, between scoring well and shooting a 13-under par round of 59 as David Duval did on the final day in 1999.

To put Duval’s achievement into context, only four other players have officially shot 59 in the PGA’s history. The two most recent of those, Paul Goydos and Stuart Appleby, did so on courses of par 71 and 70 respectively.

A look at the American’s scorecard simply boggles the mind. Over the last ten holes, Duval shot seven birdies and two pars, topping the haul with a memorable eagle on 18.

What is perhaps even more incredible is that this record-equalling feat was only just about good enough to give Duval victory in the tournament. Having started the day seven shots off the lead, in the end he beat Steve Pate by just a single stroke.

“I was more excited about my score than I was about winning the tournament,” Duval later admitted.

To be honest, I don’t blame him.


5. Frankie Dettori

Ascot Racecourse, 28 September 1996

I have absolutely no horse-riding experience at all, but I’m fairly confident in saying that somewhere out there, there is a racecard of such low quality that even I could saddle seven consecutive winners.

At the outset, it is most important to clarify that this was not the standard of competition which Frankie Dettori faced at Ascot on 28 September 1996. In fact, when asked about his chances earlier that morning, the jockey truthfully responded “I could have an each-way chance in the first, and I may win the third.”

The 25-year-old Italian jockey was right. His mount in the first, Wall Street, ran slightly better than Dettori had expected to win the opening race. Mark of Esteem, Dettori’s hope for the day’s third race, the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes also came home in first. In between the two, the jockey had guided home a 12-1 shot, Diffident.

Having watched the Italian win three consecutive races on a notoriously difficult card, the Ascot punters realised that they may be witnessing an important piece of racing history unfold. Anxious not to miss a trick, the money started to flow onto Dettori’s mounts.

And as the Italian’s three winners became four became five became six became – finally, unthinkably – seven, the bookmakers were left on their knees. Broken and beaten.

In a career dotted with over 2,500 victories, a “magnificent seven” will always have pride of place in Dettori’s heart.


6. Roy Keane

Juventus 2-3 Manchester United, 21 April 1999

Ask any Irish football fan what they consider to be the best ever individual performance  on a football pitch and you will hear one of two answers - Paul McGrath’s magnetic performance against Italy in 1994, or Keano in Turin.

While I could write at length about the heroic status acquired by McGrath on that summer’s evening, I have chosen Keane’s performance instead. The ultimate display of true professionalism, the embodiment of everything which United fans loved about their captain.

Or, as Alex Ferguson put it, ”the most emphatic display of selflessness I have seen on a football field.”

With United 2-0 down after just 11 minutes, Keane kicked into overdrive, rising above all and sundry in a packed penalty area to head home United’s first.

Then came the most devastating of blows.

Blomquist’s wayward pass. A crunching tackle on Zidane. An inevitable booking, ruling Keane out of the final should United get there.

Similar punishment had reduced others to tears in the past. Not Keane, however. He knew that unless United could complete the job and overturn their deficit, there would be no reason for upset. No final to miss.

For as long as he remained on the pitch, he had an opportunity to change that – and so he did, single-handedly inspiring his team-mates to come and join him on a higher plane until United left the Stadio delle Alpi with a 3-2 victory.

Say what you like about Keane the fan. On that night in Turin, Keane the footballer turned in the definitive footballing performance.


7. Mark Spitz

1972 Olympic Games, Munich

Sometimes, swimming fans engage in a silly little debate called “Spitz or Phelps?,” the object of which is to debate whether Michael Phelps’ eight-gold haul was a better achievement than Mark Spitz’s seven.

Such a discussion is, quite frankly, ridiculous. Not to mention unnecessary.

The world is full of athletes – be they professionals, try-hards or wannabes – all of whom would desperately love the opportunity to compete for even one Olympic medal. In winning seven and eight medals respectively, the achievements of Spitz in ’72 and Phelps in ’08 deserve to stand alone and be appreciated, without comparison.

In 1968, American hero Spitz was not afraid to talk the talk, claiming that he would bring home six gold medals from Mexico City. It is a measure of his ambition that the swimmer was bitterly disappointed when he only managed to win two.

After four years of hurt and dedicated work, Spitz travelled to Munich in 1972, ready to right the wrong. He did so in style. Not only did Spitz win gold in his first six events but he managed to set a new world record in each and every one.

The American was a perfectionist though. Minutes before his seventh race, the 100m freestyle, Spitz nearly withdrew, fearful that he was too tired to win.

“I know I say I don’t want to swim before every event but this time I’m serious,” he told reporters.

“If I swim six and win six, I’ll be a hero. If I swim seven and win six, I’ll be a failure.”

More than anything else, it was that fear which drove him on to a seventh gold medal and a seventh world record.

His work in Munich done, Spitz retired at the age of just 22, never to run the risk of failure again.

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About the author:

Niall Kelly

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