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*Supporters had to adapt in 2020. Photograph: Gerard O’Neill

Countless milestones, memories and gatherings were taken from our reach in 2020 but once again sport came up trumps in providing joy and solace with many organisations also leading the way when it came local community responses during the pandemic, Head of Sport Páraic McMahon dishes out the gongs in the inaugural Clare Echo Sporting Awards.

Clare Sportsperson of the Year: Paddy ‘Real Deal’ Donovan – Ennis boxer Paddy Donovan has seen his reputation in the boxing sphere get stronger with every punch during 2020. His professional record is now five wins from five bouts. His eye-catching form of 2019 where he collected three wins, continued in 2020. The 21 year old who is trained by Andy Lee was regularly spotted during the first lockdown partaking in intense training sessions on Lahinch Beach. His support for the Limerick hurlers is not enough to dent his challenge in securing the accolade as Clare sportsperson of the year.

Unsung Sporting Hero: Fionnuala Walsh – In December it was announced that the Kilrush swimmer would be inducted into the Irish Long Distance Swimming Hall of Fame. Despite her many achievements including becoming the first Irish female and 89th individual in the world to complete the Triple Crown of Open Water Swimming by successfully completing the English Channel 2012, Catalina Channel 2013 and Manhattan Island Swim 2014, Fionnuala’s accolades appear not to have received enough prominence or appreciation in her native county. The Cappa woman will deservedly enter the Hall of Fame and with that hopefully earn greater recognition for an outstanding career.

Fionnuala Walsh.

Top Performer Award: Tony Kelly – Dubbed by two-time All-Ireland winner Fergal Hegarty as “the greatest Clare hurler of all time” during a Clare Echo video special, Tony Kelly was in scintillating form for the county hurlers in the 2020 championship. The Ballyea sharpshooter amassed a tally of 1-53 in Clare’s four championship outings and was named player of the month for November. Injury lessened his contribution in the All-Ireland quarter-final versus Waterford but Tony was to the fore as Brian Lohan’s side battled with Limerick, Laois and Wexford in the championship. The Clare Echo was the first to predict in print that Kelly would receive an All-Star for his exploits on the field, with no selection announced as of yet, the secondary school teacher will have to settle for now with recognition from the county’s most read newspaper.

Tony Kelly. Photograph: Gerard O’Neill

Team of the Year: St Flannan’s College Harty Cup team – The wind’s they are a changing at the county’s biggest secondary school. A renewed focus seems visible when it comes to the sporting world and the results are bearing dividends. An excellent video on female participation has been released by the school while the U19 All-Ireland C basketball winners were in contention for this award. It is the hurlers captained by Conner Hegarty and Cian Galvin who take home the honours though. Coached by Brendan Bugler and Kevin O’Grady, they were by far the best drilled team to represent the county in 2020 and as a result ended a fifteen year drought to claim the Dr Harty Cup title for the twenty second time in their history. Their glory also provided badly needed hope that quality hurlers are still ready to come through the ranks in the county, the key to them reaching their potential being sustained quality coaching.

Photograph: Gerard O’Neill

Achievement of the Year: Rory Chesser – A memorable weekend in September saw Ennis Track Club claim gold and silver in the 3000m steeplechase at the National Athletics Championships. A time of 9:39:62 saw Rory Chesser claim his seventh national title with Mark Hanrahan close behind taking silver in a time of 10:04:78. Winning All-Irelands are no easy feat and the fact that Rory made it number seven certainly is worthy of applause.

Photograph: Sportsfile

Innovator of the Year: Gerry McNamara – Supporters were dent a lousy hand so far as physically attending games in 2020 were concerned. It didn’t stop St Josephs Doora/Barefield supporter for leaping to new heights. Ladders became the must-have accessory of GAA supporters with McNamara leading the trend while supporting The Parish to scale Dr Daly Park in Tulla. His efforts to follow Brian Lohan’s Clare hurlers were not as successful as attempts to watch the Banner versus Wexford from an apartment adjacent to O’Moore Park in Portlaoise just came up short.

Rising Star: Dylan Hogan – Recognition in the form of a Lester Award started the Christmas celebrations for the Newmarket-on-Fergus jockey. He won in the ‘flat ride of the year’ category for his victory on Wanaasah in Wolverhampton back in January. Based in the UK, Dylan had ridden 23 winners prior to receiving the Lester nomination.

Manager of the Year: Mark Culbert – As the man in charge of a very impressive Bridge Utd youths outfit, Culbert led his side to glory within Clare but also saw them reach the Munster Youths semi-final and the last eight of the FAI Youths Cup. There was a touch of class surrounding their efforts with fine players also doing well for the Clare Youths, for this Culbert is deserving of praise.

Coach of the Year: Noel McNamara – Having guided the Irish U20s to Grand Slam glory in the 2019 6 Nations, the O’Callaghans Mills man was on course to repeat the feat until COVID-19 interrupted matters. Ireland were the only side to have won all their games thus far, with three wins from three games. Appointed the Academy Manager of Leinster Rugby last year, he is also Head Coach of their A team, he is not the only Clare connection to the province with Newmarket-on-Fergus’ Ryan Corry part of their communications staff. McNamara’s coaching reputation continues to rise.

Administrator of the Year: Brid MacNamara – More glittering awards already grace the mantlepiece of her Ruan home for her continued promotion of camogie throughout the county. Acknowledged by the Camogie Association as PRO of the Year in 2012 and 2013, Brid has been part of the County Executive for the best part of two decades. Her ability in securing increased media coverage for the sport is well known but this summer, she went the extra mile or 267 miles to be precise with a virtual walk to Croke Park and back. By travelling to each camogie club in Clare and doing a walk in the locality, she brought a buzz with her and in the process raised €16,000 for Clare Camogie in a year when all fundraising efforts dried up.

Brid MacNamara. Photograph: Burren Eye Photography

Leadership Award: Community Response to COVID-19 – The manner in which sporting organisations rallied together during the pandemic is to be commended. Numerous notable and worthy fundraisers were held and for the majority it was sporting organisations that led the way. There is far too many to mention but the endeavours must be saluted.

Best Baz: Cillian McGroary – Watching games of years gone by became a habit for many sport deprived fans in March, April and May of this year. Who’s to know if it inspired Clare minor dual player Cillian McGroary when it came to his ‘different’ hairstyle. The Corofin youngster would not look out of place at Mexico 86 as he combined the old with the new. He stood out from the crowd with his ability on the field too and as such does enough to hold off the challenge of Clare GAA TV presenter Michael O’Connor who despite not having access to hair and make-up ensured he didn’t have a hair out of place for their expansive coverage of local championships.

Cillian McGroary. Photograph: Gerard O’Neill

Sack the Barber: David Ryan – Closures affected barbers of the county throughout 2020 leading to many relationships being pushed to breaking point as scissors were placed in the hands of the nearest and dearest. Kilmihil’s Ryan could have done with a razor or clippers, fortunately for him limited numbers could attend crowds. Clare footballer Cian O’Dea can count himself lucky not to take the top spot in this category.

Niall Kelly is held up by David Ryan. Photograph: Gerard O’Neill

Best Boots: Keelan Sexton – While collecting his third Clare SFC medal, the Kilmurry Ibrickane attacker did so while sporting a fetching pair of Nike Mercurials. During Clare’s National Football League campaign in early 2020, Adidas was the go to choice for the UL graduate. Form can be difficult to maintain for any player but when it comes to his boot game, Keelan is generally hard to beat.

Keelan Sexton. Photograph: Gerard O’Neill

Top Geansaí: Clare intermediate ladies football – Beo Wellness were announced as the new sponsors of the Clare ladies football intermediate side prior to the resumption of games and what a gem of a jersey they produced. It’s not a traditional design of a Clare jersey, while keeping the county colours they managed to add a new dimension which made them look the part.

Ellie O’Gorman. Photograph: Gerard O’Neill

Worst Jerseys: Clare senior camogie – Saffron and Blue are said to be the county colours of Clare but a different memo must have been issued prior to Clare’s Liberty Insurance All-Ireland camogie quarter-final with Cork. What appeared to be more of a bright yellow rather than saffron didn’t help the cause as Ger O’Connell’s charges bowed out of the championship.

Sinead Conlan, Roisin McMahon and Gretta Hickey. Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Bryan Keane

Biggest Fashion Statement: Donal Cooney – Initially the commitment of the Clare ladies footballers and camogie panel members to sporting fake tan in front of no crowds was the front-runner but an East Clare reader put forward a strong argument in favour of Donal Cooney. The O’Callaghans Mills selector was commended for his “selection of Armani shirts” on the sideline, it added a splash of flair as the Fireballs reached a first senior decider in twenty seven years. There is debate among the Mills following on the branding of the shirt with some suggesting Ralph Lauren, Dunnes Stores or Armani.

Marty Baker & Donal Cooney celebrate. Photograph: Gerard O’Neill

Distinction Award: Marcus Rashford – No Clare connections can be claimed for the Manchester Utd striker but nonetheless his continued campaign to tackle child hunger does impact families in the UK with links to the Banner County. His drive against child food poverty and ability to put the UK Government under pressure and hold them to account has deservedly led to Marcus being hailed as an inspiration and a crusader. This example is the definition of a sporting role model.

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