2011 sporting review: The year of the drought-breakers
Lancashire's title, Clarke's Open and Cavendish's jersey show that good things come (eventually) to those who wait
"When we go to Old Trafford," said Roberto Mancini, "we will take that banner down." The Italian's robust vow, made in the first days of his City reign at the start of 2010, was aimed not just a bit of terrace gloating – a banner, updated each year, detailing just how long it had been since City won a major trophy – but the chronic underachievement of one of England's big-city clubs. "I am well aware how long it is since City last won a trophy and this season we have a great opportunity to put that right," he added.
It didn't happen in 2010, but in May City brought the curtain down on 35 years of mediocrity as Carlos Tevez and Co swept aside a pallid Stoke in the FA Cup final. For City, it was a remarkable moment – but for 2011 as a whole, it was par for the course. City's 11 men have been far from the only sportsmen to end an unenviable drought over the past 12 months. 2011 was the year which proved that good things do, eventually, come to those who wait.
January: England cricketers win Down Under after 24-year wait
The last time England were cock of the walk in the "Lucky Country", Elton John turned up to help them celebrate. It was so long ago that the mullet was the hairstyle de jour, several members of the team sported what looked suspiciously like beer bellies, and Elton was married to a woman. Much has changed, and not only in the love life of one of England's favourite pop stars. If 1986-87 was the triumph that happened almost by accident – "they can't bat, they can't bowl and they can't field," one precocious rag had it – then 2010-11 was meticulously planned. The management of Andy Flower and the captaincy of Andrew Strauss ensured the England squad were famously fit and well-drilled. It meant that, Mitchell Johnson's inspired spell at Perth apart, they took the Australians to pieces.
Beginning in Brisbane, where Alastair Cook and Jonathan Trott compiled a partnership of 329 to leave England's second-innings scoreboard reading an utterly improbable 517 for 1, the tourists were in charge. By the time the last rites had been read for the Baggy Greens in Sydney, you almost felt sorry for them. Almost. "Australia will regenerate and come back strong because that is the way that Australian sport is," Strauss said. "I think we have overcome a barrier, but if we turn up next time expecting to win we will get the treatment we have had for the last 24 years."
And, he didn't say, it'll be 12 years since the Aussies have won in England by the time 2013 rolls around. But after a plucky home drawn series with the Kiwis, who'd bet against them?
May: City win a major trophy after 35-year wait
By the time City got to Wembley, it felt to some – if not to the club's more pessimistic fans – like the hard work had been done. In the FA Cup semi-final, they had faced Manchester United, for so long their tormentors. When they emerged with a 1-0 triumph – courtesy of a goal from Yaya Touré – and then discovered that Stoke would be their final opponents, the writing appeared to be on the wall, City's name already etched on the Cup.
This is the point where, traditionally, City would have performed a hugely amusing (for United fans, at least) pratfall. Not this time. They produced the performance of a team that expected to win: 1-0 doesn't sound like an easy victory, but Stoke were a huge disappointment after their 5-0 semi-final triumph over Bolton and, once Touré had again provided the only goal, that was that. Afterwards, goalkeeper Joe Hart's words spoke eloquently of a 35-year-old black cloud finally lifted.
"Getting a trophy that shut everyone up is important for the fans and for us," he said. "It was what we wanted to do, but it's easier said than done and we've gone out and done it. I'm sure there are a few people who didn't want us to do it and we've done it – so who cares?"
July: Darren Clarke wins Open at age of 42
Darren Clarke used to be famous for two things: drinking Guinness, and being one of the best golfers never to have won a major trophy. Well, he's still well-known for enjoying a glass of Ireland's famous stout, but at the age of 42 – when his chances seemed, by all sensible estimates, to be over – he won this year's Open at Royal St George's.
Leading by one from Dustin Johnson going into the last day, Clarke remained admirably calm to capture the Open at the 20th time of asking. It was clear from his acceptance speech how much it meant to him. "I've been writing this speech for 20 years now and it's been a long bumpy road," he said. "I've had good and bad things happen to me on the way. Sometimes I was good, sometimes I was bad but I have had so much support from everyone."
That support stemmed not only from Clarke's long wait, but also from the huge well of public sympathy the Northern Irishman has enjoyed since his first wife, Heather, died of breast cancer in 2006. "In terms of what's going through my heart, there's obviously somebody who is watching down from up above there and I know she'd be very proud of me," he said afterwards. "She'd probably be saying, 'I told you so'."
September: Mo Farah wins Britain's first 5,000m world title
Going into the Championships, Farah had been thought one of Britain's best chances for a world title – but then disaster, of a sort, struck. Having controlled the 10,000m, he was caught and overtaken by the little-known Ethiopian Ibrahim Jeilan with 20 metres left. Silver was still a remarkable effort, but Farah was clearly disappointed. Not the sort of man to feel sorry for himself, though, he used defeat to motivate himself for the 5,000m, which came six days later. "I'm going to be thinking that I've got a silver here and that I've got to work even harder," he said.
That attitude paid off. With the finish line looming and Bernard Lagat of the United States and Ethiopia's Imane Merga beginning to threaten, Farah found a little extra to claim Britain's first title at this distance. "I can't quite believe it," Farah said. "I pictured the 10k on the last lap thinking, 'I came so close then, I'm not going to let anyone pass me'."
September: Lancashire win the County Championship outright for the first time since 1934
In terms of long gaps between titles, the Red Rose County's was the big one. Indeed, so long had it been since the Manchester men had carried off the County Championship all by themselves – they shared it with Surrey in 1950 – that no one at the club was countenancing the end of the drought back in May. Glen Chapple, the county's captain, insisted he didn't want to think about it until at least August. "It's not fair to heap that pressure on this team's shoulders," he told The Independent. "It's not their fault that we've waited so long."
Even so, some outside the club were starting to talk. Could a year away from the county's base at Old Trafford, which underwent development in 2011, help break the hex? Aigburth's more intimate surroundings clearly suited Lancashire's largely home-grown side but, as September dawned, it looked like they would be forced to wait at least another year. A shock defeat to Worcestershire appeared to have handed the title advantage to Warwickshire – but Chapple's men held their nerve, hit back, and sealed the pennant with victory in Taunton.
"I am happy because nobody gave us a chance at the start of the year," said Peter Moores, Lancashire's director of cricket. "We have won because we have fantastic team spirit. It's been a magical season for us. After what has happened this season you think maybe it was written somewhere in the annals of time we would win. We tried every day to retain belief it was going to be our year and this means so much to us."
July and September: Mark Cavendish wins Britain's first Tour de France green jersey – and follows it up with a first British world title since 1965
Britain's cycling history is long, interesting and not particularly glorious. With the exception of Tommy Simpson, the 1965 world champion who perished on the slopes of Mont Ventoux two years later, and Robert Millar, one of the best climbers of the 1980s, there is not a great deal to write home about – or, at least, there wasn't.
Britain is now one of the cycling world's top nations, and Mark Cavendish – with his trademark combination of winning confidence, raw emotion and breathtaking final-straight speed – is the jewel in the crown. When 2011 dawned, he was already recognised as the best sprinter around, but he had never won the Green Jersey – awarded for most points gained in sprints – at the Tour. Now he has. Winning five stages (taking his Tour total to a barely credible 20), he sealed his triumph with a now annual victory on the Champs-Elysées. "I've been trying to get the green jersey for the last few years, it is a special day," said the 26-year-old.
Britain's wait, of course, had been rather longer but a nation used to plucky cycling losers would soon have another remarkable triumph to savour. September's World Championships, which took place in Denmark, witnessed a road race controlled by David Millar and the British team. As the race entered the final straight, they delivered to Cavendish a chance he was never likely to spurn. "It was incredible, we took it on from start to finish," said the Manxman afterwards. "It's been three years in the making and you just saw they rode incredibly. I'm just so proud."
October: New Zealand win rugby union's World Cup after a 24-year wait
Every Rugby World Cup since 1987 had boasted essentially the same story. New Zealand, having played much of the best rugby union in the world for the previous four-year cycle, would enter the tournament as (invariably) the favourites, and, every time, they would disappoint their fanatical support with defeat, sometimes in truly remarkable circumstances.
If it had happened again this year, with the All Blacks playing at home, you could have forgiven the Kiwi nation for turning to drink – or, at least, rugby league.
But, of course, it didn't. Graham Henry's side were beset by injuries to a series of fly-halves – most notably Dan Carter, the world's most talented player, who was ruled out at the group stage after suffering a groin injury in training – but they refused to make excuses. The level of commitment was demonstrated in spades in the final, when a previously lacklustre French side – who had limped past 14-man Wales in the semi-final – found their fire. In a truly thrilling final 40 minutes, Les Bleus attacked the hosts again and again, but Henry's XV refused to buckle. A final score of 8-7 was not what pre-tournament Kiwi dreams would have been made of, but it was enough.
Scrum-half Piri Weepu, replaced in the 49th minute of the final after missing three kicks at goal, spoke for an entire nation when he said that the demons created by repeated World Cup failure were gone."I think everyone can sleep easy now and not worry so much," he said. "I think everyone will feel a lot better now."
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