It is not long ago that a few of the concepts as witnessed in Belfast’s Titanic Quarter on Sunday evening would have surfaced in the realms of the impossible.
Given the violent backdrop to this city’s history, the very thought of the BBC hosting a Sports Personality of the Year event in Northern Ireland was once inconceivable. So, too, any suggestion of a Northern Ireland football manager taking delivery of the coach of the year. In a broader sense recent confirmation that the Open Championship will return to Royal Portrush served as confirmation of this region’s uplifting rehabilitation.
What has never been in doubt has been the ability of Irish fans, whether from the north or south, to hail sporting achievement. The sense of pride is palpable, as witnessed primarily and vociferously on the football scene in 2015. If Belfast was to stage Spoty, it was to become a memorable occasion for all the right reasons – a matter enhanced by events throughout little more than two hours at the SSE Arena.
There will be inevitable claims that certain awards were handed out with location in mind. So what? If the level of adulation bestowed on AP McCoy, Michael O’Neill and Damien Lindsay – an unsung hero from west Belfast – was intensified by the host city, then this show was all the better for it.
There should also be no quibble over merit. McCoy’s outstanding achievements in horse racing easily deserved a special prize; O’Neill’s leading of Northern Ireland to win their Euro 2016 qualifying group stands out as one of the finest international management performances of this era. Lindsay’s sterling work with a football team in a deprived area may well be replicated elsewhere in the UK but in this environment it was only fair that he was permitted an emotional bow.
Whisper it but the BBC put on quite the entertaining programme here. Some people inevitably and routinely quibble about the value of this evening – especially as the BBC withdraws from live coverage at an alarming rate – but the 2015 edition personified so much that is good about sport. The backdrop was significant; Belfast stepped forward and grasped its latest moment in the limelight.
From Max Whitlock performing gymnastics on top of a piano before breakdancing on stage – suit and all – to Jessica Ennis-Hill’s admission of her fears over an ultimately glorious return to competitive sport, it was captivating theatre. Even the non-appearance of three of those shortlisted for the main award, Lewis Hamilton, Chris Froome and Mo Farah, did not impinge.
Rory McIlroy raised the roof when appearing to present McCoy with his lifetime achievement trophy. “As soon as I heard where Spoty was, it was virtually the first thing in my diary,” said McIlroy. McCoy, meanwhile, was visibly moved. “This is an honour and a privilege, especially here in Belfast,” said the former jockey. “I will end with a message to all the youngsters watching or here in the audience: make the sacrifices, it is worth it.”
Murray seems confused by the theory that he, like Belfast, has enjoyed an upturn in reputation. That notion is unavoidable, though; a tennis player once portrayed as the ultimate surly Scotsman has been taken into the hearts and minds of the public, as proved even more the case after Murray’s talismanic showing in the Davis Cup. It has taken longer than should probably have been the case but Murray’s brilliance is now broadly recognised.
“The support I have had through all of my Wimbledon runs, obviously the Olympics was unbelievable and every time I played Davis Cup home matches the support has been great,” Murray said after collecting his second Spoty award. “I have had absolutely zero complaints about that and tonight I suppose proves that.
“You never can please everybody but I have tried my whole career to be myself as much as I could. I love competing for my country and my results when I have competed for my country are much better than when I am playing on my own. I do genuinely love it and I am proud to compete for Great Britain always. The support has always been there for me when I played in the biggest matches of my career.”
Murray will be heralded as the big winner. Belfast, too, should take well deserved acclaim.
This article was written by Ewan Murray in Belfast, for theguardian.com on Sunday 20th December 2015 23.15 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010