So much of sport is divided by opinion. Who is the best? Who is the greatest? But what do you look for in a top sportsman? Sheer brilliance? Focus? The will to win?
The ability to rise to the big occasion? Having the confidence to back yourself? To me, that’s what you need to be the top of the tree in any sport. And with all those attributes in mind, here’s the top 10 sportsmen who I admired most during my career.
For me, the easiest people to relate to from a jockey’s point of view were penalty kickers in rugby.
If they miss the first kick, they have to re-focus to take the second kick. It was like having a disappointment in the first race and trying to re-focus for the race after that.
With O’Gara, what impressed me so much about him was his ability to put the last kick behind him. He proved it could be done. He had the concentration to put it behind him. It was that and his ability to read what was happening in front of him as well.
His decision making and to change what was happening if it wasn’t working. He was never afraid to change something in a match.
When watching Tiger Woods, I used to think that he was cold. But he’s not cold. It’s his ability to concentrate. A round of golf is the guts of five hours and you have to hold that level of concentration for that length of time.
I compare it to a day at the Cheltenham festival when the first race is 1.30pm and the last race is 5.30pm. It’s the ability to stay focused for that length of time.
Golfers do that for longer than jockeys do. Tiger’s ability to stay focused and then re-focus is what sets him apart. He just never loses focus when he’s in the zone and we saw that with last year’s US Masters win.
He stayed focused while everybody around him cracked.
He was, and still is, the master of staying focused and minimising errors.
It was Keane’s effort and commitment which impressed me most about him. The perfect example is the 1999 European Cup semi-final against Juventus when he got booked and was ruled out of the final. Yet, he carried the team that night and got them into the European Cup final, even though he knew he wouldn’t be playing.
He tried his hardest all of the time. It was his commitment to his performance which I loved. He gave it everything every day he went out on the pitch.
That’s a huge attribute to have in any top sports person.
One thing we knew about the Jamaican sprinter was that he was the fastest man in the world. That’s a fact. But it wasn’t just that. It was his ability to deliver on the big day as well. To break world records at Olympic Games.
It was his mentality. He believed in himself. He always seemed relaxed yet so focused. You’d watch him at the start of a race. Yes, he played to the crowd but as soon as the camera would move to the next runner, Usain Bolt would just be in the zone.
His ability to be able to move from entertain to re-focus mode. I could relate with that and that used to intrigue me.
You’d be watching him playing at second centre in a match and then all of a sudden, Ireland or Leinster would be driving for the line and he’d would appear at the back of the ruck and go over the line with the ball.
It was his ability to watch what was happening in front of him. Also, the way he would read a game and change tactics, like O’Gara did. He always backed himself to make the right call.
Reading situations in rugby is probably one of the hardest things to do but horse racing is the same.
It’s the ability to change tactics or a plan, without being told, and I could relate to that.
COLM ‘GOOCH’ COOPER
Maybe I liked him because he entertained. Or maybe because he wasn’t the biggest in the world.
But like Brian O’Driscoll, he would just turn up somewhere on the pitch and you’d be thinking, ‘how did he end up there?’ You’d look at the shots he’d take on and you’d be thinking to yourself, ‘yeah, he’s playing to win’.
He took on a shot that he thought he could make every time. He backed himself every time he went out to play.
What impressed me most about Federer him was his ability to constantly stay at the top. He seemed to turn up at the big events and get so far in them all. He always looked so composed but it’s his longevity as well which I liked.
He’s 36 and he’s still getting to Grand Slam finals and beating off the likes of Djokovic and Nadal, who have got years on him. It’s his physical preparation which makes him stand out. He maintained such a high level and still does to this day.
We all know that you need incredible skill to play hurling at the top level. But it was the manner in which Henry Shefflin could do it that made him stand out. You looked at Croke Park on All Ireland hurling final day when Kilkenny were in their pomp.
Henry Shefflin never seemed to be flustered. His body language always told you that he was calm. Everything just seemed so easy for him on those big days. For him, it was like ‘this is what I do’. He always seemed to rise to the occasion but he did so in such a cool, calm manner.
Tactically, he changed the way 800m was run. In the London Olympics, he set the pace but the fractions he set were incredible. The first six athletes that day would have won gold at any of the previous Olympic Games.
That was all because of the fractions and the relentless pace David Rudisha set. He just removed all the tactics from 800m running and he could race at the highest cruising speed. There’s an old saying in horse racing, ‘you did it the hard way by making the running’.
If you look at David Rudisha, he proved that it’s actually the simplest way.
If you ever talked to former Celtic and Rep of Ireland manager, Martin O’Neill, he would make you believe that you could walk on water. Whatever he was talking to you about, he could make you believe that it would happen.
It was just the way he held your attention. I used to walk away after talking to him thinking to myself, ‘imagine the self-belief that he gives to his teams’.
The belief that his teams must have had even when it’s against the odds. He would just get you in the zone. It was because of him that I’d convince myself that I could win on horses that I probably couldn’t have done. It’s no wonder he done so well with the likes of Leicester City and Celtic and got the Ireland job. I just found him hugely fascinating.