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Guns, slaps, jigsaws and the best 61 seconds of sport all year (the darts, obvs) - the A-to-Z of 2023

Every year is filled with heroic deeds of sporting immortality but every year is filled with spivs, chancers and ne’er-do-wells too. Here’s some of them, in all their glory.

A is for AK47, the gun that was found in the possession of Zane Robertson, the New Zealand distance runner, in September. Robertson, who also picked up an eight-year doping ban in March, was arrested in Kenya after police found the assault rifle and ammunition in his home. They were initially questioning him on a sexual assault allegation and when they entered his house during their investigation, they found the AK, plus 23 live rounds. All in all, not a great 2023 for the former Commonwealth Games bronze medallist.

B is for Brett Maher, the NFL kicker who became one of the most famous sportspeople in America for a week back in January. A 10-year veteran with a usually dependable right boot, Maher missed four PAT kicks (conversions in NFL-speak) in a play-off game against the Buccaneers, the most anyone missed in a single match since records began in 1932. The pressure on him the following week was unbearable – he missed his first one that night too. He left the Cowboys at the end of the season.

C is for Chelsea, who seemed to be trying to Brewster’s Millions their way out of trouble for most of the year. They had four managers in eight months and bought so many players that it led to a baffled Thiago Silva trying to sum the whole thing up in April. “It was all a bit vague at the beginning, then there was a change of ownership, many players came in. We even had to extend the dressing room as it wasn’t big enough for all the players.”

D is for Dana White, still the head honcho of the UFC, despite everything. White began the year by being caught on video slapping his wife during an argument on New Year’s Eve. They were rowing, then she hit him, then he hit her twice. In any sane world, the chief bottle washer for one of the biggest sports companies in the world wouldn’t survive being outed as a domestic abuser. White not only survived, his big sports move in 2023 was to introduce the sport of – wait for it – Power Slap to mainstream America.

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E is for Eddie Hearn, the oleaginous boxing promoter who brought Katie Taylor to Dublin and tried to lowball the GAA into a cut-price deal on Croke Park back in February. The GAA told him to either pay up or sling his hook. Liveline got stuck in. It came up in the Dáil. The Government decided it had better things to be worrying about than Eddie Hearn’s wallet. Ryan Tubridy got involved, saying the GAA should “rethink the rent for one night only” on their “overpriced hall”. He has since run into various overpricing issues himself.

F is for Frankie Dettori, who spent the whole year retiring and then didn’t actually retire. People were angry. Mostly, it was people on the internet, frothing at Dettori having spent 10 months giving princely waves from his various farewell tours before deciding that he fancied a few years riding in California to really round things off. There were plenty of think pieces in the racing press too. Dettori eventually had to go on I’m A Celebrity to get the stink off, whereupon he was outlasted by Nigel Farrage.

G is for the Greatest Ever Leg of Darts. The final of the World Darts Championship, January 3rd. Michael van Gerwen v Michael Smith. A 180 for Van Gerwen, followed by a 180 by Smith. Followed by a 177 for MVG, followed again by Smith. The crowd banshee-wailed every throw. Van Gerwen went for the fabled nine-darter, only to miss double 12 by millimetres. Smith tapped his hand to say hard luck. Then, with the Ally Pally going doolally, Smith stepped up and nailed it for a nine-darter of his own. Pandemonium. The best 61 seconds of sport all year.

H is for Hatgate, the reason the Ryder Cup went nuclear. On Saturday, Europe were cruising to victory and the Yanks just hadn’t turned up. Then Sky’s golf guy tweeted that Patrick Cantlay wasn’t wearing a hat as a protest against not getting paid. Kaboom! The Euro fans waved their hats at Cantlay on every hole. Cantlay responded by playing the best golf of the week. His caddie Joe LaCava started waving his hat while Matt Fitzpatrick was waiting to putt. Rory McIlroy went ballistic in the carpark and had to be bundled into a car by Shane Lowry. Magnificent stuff.

I is for Interview, specifically the one given by Matej Mohoric after winning Stage 19 of the Tour de France in July. Raw, tearful, heartfelt throughout, Mohoric says at one point that he almost felt he betrayed the second-placed rider Kasper Asgreen by beating him in the sprint. “Sometimes you feel like you don’t belong here because everyone is so incredibly strong.” Do yourself a favour and check it out in full. You’ll be punching the air for sport by the end.

J is for Jigsaws, which Just Stop Oil protesters scattered across the court at Wimbledon in July. Deborah Wilde, (68) ran onto the grass on Court 18 and disrupted a match between Grigor Dimitrov and Sho Shimabukuro by tossing orange confetti and a 1,000-piece jigsaw (bought in the gift shop) all over the place, thus stopping the match for 10 minutes while club staff got out the brooms and hoovers to clear the court. Wilde was arrested. The gift shop immediately made their jigsaws available online only.

K is for Kiss, an unwelcome one from the president of the Spanish FA in August. Luis Rubiales, a bald creep who used to play for Hamilton Academical, upstaged the Spain team who had just won the World Cup by forcibly planting a kiss on forward Jenni Hermoso. Spain convulsed. He was expected to resign a week later but went in front of the cameras and did nothing of the sort. Spain’s World Cup squad refused to play for their country until he was gone. His mother went on hunger strike in a church. Hermoso filed a criminal complaint. He resigned eventually. Fifa banned him for three years.

L is for Lineker, as in Gary, who ran into the right-wing media machine for a weekend in March and ended up being pulled from Match of the Day. He had a go at the deeply unpleasant (and now former) Home Secretary Suella Braverman, comparing her language on immigrants to “that used in Germany in the 1930s”. The BBC went weak at the knees and sat him down from the football for the weekend, only to find Ian Wright, Alan Shearer and the MOTD crew sitting down in solidarity. It all led to the most dystopian highlights show ever (no theme tune, commentary or punditry). Lineker and pals were back the following week. Weird country betimes, England.

M is for Match-Fixing, which hit snooker like a bomb in 2023. Ten Chinese players, all based in England and some from the highest echelon of the game, were found to have participated in fixing matches, leading to bans for all 10. The two ringleaders, Liang Wenbo and Li Hang, were banned for life while other bans ranged from 20 months to five years. The allegations include manipulating games, approaching players to cheat, betting on snooker and fixing matches.

N is for Nike, who finally found someone who could shame them. England goalkeeper Mary Earps did what all the Lance Armstrong and Tiger Woods scandals never achieved – she forced Nike into a climbdown. They had no plans to sell her England replica shirt. She took to social media and gave them hell. It got brought up in parliament. They backed down and started selling women’s goalkeeper jerseys. They sold out in minutes. They released more. They also sold out even quicker. She won Sports Personality of the Year. For the goalkeeping, mostly. But the Nike row didn’t hurt.

O is for Oireachtas and yet another appearance by yet more FAI panjandrums. By the standards of FAI Oireachtas Appearances Past, Roy Barrett and Jonathan Hill’s afternoon of squirming in December might seem trifling. But the very act of having to explain away financial murkiness to haranguing politicians in the manner of the old FAI is, in itself, a problem. Especially since they will have to come back and do it again in the new year, in front of the much crankier Public Accounts Committee.

P is for Panic Room, where Robbie Keane and Rory Delap reportedly had to take shelter in Tel Aviv on October 8th, in the wake of the Hamas attacks in Israel. Keane took up his first managerial job with Maccabi Tel Aviv in July and his team was sitting top of the league when the attacks happened. The league was put on pause and Keane and Delap left the country. They’ve since returned and steered the team through a triumphant Europa Conference League group phase. But the year ended with Mary Lou McDonald calling Keane out for continuing with his job. “I don’t think sport and genocide mix,” the Sinn Féin leader told The Examiner.

Q is for Quinton Jackson, better known as Rampage Jackson, one of the original stars of the UFC in the 2000s. Jackson is 45 now and regularly threatens/promises that he’s about to make a comeback. But he has had drinking issues in his retirement, as he outlined on a recent podcast. “I was in Vegas and I got so mother f**king drunk that I got robbed at gunpoint. By a stripper, yeah. She got me for almost $200,000 worth of shit. My jewellery and shit. I said, ‘F**k that, I’m never getting drunk again. Like, I’m never getting drunk again. My biggest test is going to be New Years in Japan.”

R is for Rahm, as in Jon, the guy who went from saying this about not joining LIV Golf: “When this first thing happened, we started talking about it, we were like, ‘Would our lifestyle change if I got $400 million?’ No. It would not change one bit. Truth be told, I could retire right now with what I’ve made and live a very happy life and not play golf again.” To saying this about joining LIV Golf: “[Money] is one of the reasons. I’m not going to sit here and lie to you… I believe it’s the best for me and my family.”

S is for Shohei Ohtani, the baseball player who signed the sport’s biggest ever salary deal when joining the LA Dodgers in December. Ohtani, the 29-year-old Japanese player who has changed the face of the sport by being equally proficient as a hitter and a pitcher, was signed by the Dodgers on a 10-year, $700m contract – double the previous record held by Mike Trout. Even though it’s still about a third of what the Saudis pay Ronaldo and Benzema annually, that’s still a fair chunk of cheese.

T is for Temetrius Jamel Morant, better known as NBA player Ja Morant, better known as the Memphis Grizzlies point guard who thought it was a good idea to pull a gun in a nightclub back in March. An Instagram video went viral and he got suspended for six games. Two months later, he again flashed a gun on Instagram. This time he got suspended for 25 games. He made his return on December 19th and promptly drained the game-winning shot in the Grizzlies’ 115-to-113 win over the New Orleans Pelicans. “The dumbest motherf**ker in the NBA,” said former player Kwame Brown. Hard to argue with that.

U is for Unopposed, which Gianni Infantino was as he won election to another four-year term as Fifa president back in March. He declared that since his first term was only taking over from the disgraced Sepp Blatter mid-cycle, it doesn’t count as a full term, hence Infantino will be able to run for re-election in four years again. Meaning that it’s entirely possible he will spend 15 years as the head of the world’s biggest sporting body – and there’s not a damn thing anyone can do about it.

V is for Vera Pauw, who came into the year as the Coach of the Year at the RTÉ sports awards and finished it as one of the odder footnotes in Ireland’s sporting history. The Dutch coach who guided Ireland to their first ever women’s World Cup found herself out of contract and out of favour afterwards. She had run her course with the playing squad and had lost the dressing room. But it was also down to her insistence on making the build-up to the tournament about historic allegations of bullying against her in America. All in all, a messy end to what had been a generally positive story.

W is for Wagering, which got high-profile footballers into some very hot water this year. First it was Ivan Toney, the Brentford striker who got an eight-month ban from the FA after admitting to 232 breaches of their betting rules. Then it was Sandro Tonali, the Newcastle midfielder who got a 10-month ban from the Italian FA for betting on matches while he was with AC Milan. Then it was Juventus midfielder Nicolo Fagiolo, who got seven months for similar offences. All three admitted to being gambling addicts. All three play for clubs who are deeply involved with betting companies.

X is for X, which used to be Twitter. As more and more sane people fled the nest in 2023 and decided they had better things to be doing with their life than scrolling on the platform, sport found it generally couldn’t quit Elon’s Roiling Hellhole. According to numbers quoted by the company themselves, sports fans make up 42 per cent of X’s audience. And while that number seems awfully high, there’s no doubt that sport makes X easier to take (and vice versa, for that matter). It’s a relationship that is going nowhere.

Y is for You, as in you have to read one piece of sportswriting that came out this year. It is headlined, ‘Bitter rivals. Beloved Friends. Survivors.’ It appeared in the Washington Post in July and it is about the half-a-century-long relationship between Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova. There aren’t a lot of masterpieces anywhere in sportswriting these days. But this long, spiralling epic by Sally Jenkins is astonishing. You have to read it.

Z is for Zakrzewski, as in Joasia Zakrzewski. You might not know the name but the details will ring a bell. Back in April, the Scottish ultra-marathon runner came third in a 50-mile race from Manchester to Liverpool, only for it to emerge a week later that she had in fact jumped into a car for some of the trip. She denied deliberately cheating, basically claiming that she had effectively pulled out of the race injured but that somebody had handed her a trophy at the finish line and she was too embarrassed to say anything. UK Athletics weren’t buying it. She got banned for 12 months in November.

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