On the Saturday following Ireland's Grand Slam win in March, the good folk at Newstalk's Saturday Sports Show had us round for tea and custard creams and one of those what-does-it-all-mean conversations they do so well. Bernard Dunne had won his world title fight that same night a week previously and long and loud had been the talk all week about the lifting of the national mood through sport. And so we waxed and went on (and on) for half an hour or so and the further we got into it, the clearer it became that we were talking about a pretty oily and implausible notion to begin with.
When the revolution comes and we round up all the folk who've done us wrong during this recession, not quite first against the wall but reasonably high up the queue should be anyone who went on radio this year and yabbered on about how sick they were of all the doom and gloom. As if they were above it all, as if a generation of joblessness could be magicked away with a quip across the desk to Marian Finucane on a Sunday morning. The We-Are-Where-We-Are merchants who at that very moment were where they were because they not only still had a job but one with enough stature and profile to be invited on national radio to expound on matters of import.
So that day on Newstalk, it felt wrong somehow to be claiming any great spiritual bonanza from the weekend of sporting plenty that had just passed. Hidden away behind all the colour supplements and souvenir posters the Monday morning after the Grand Slam was a report by PricewaterhouseCoopers claiming that nearly two-thirds of all Irish businesses expected to be laying people off in the remaining nine months of the year. Those nine months are gone now and so are jobs and plans and pieces of minds across the country.
We lucky few whose lives tumble through the sporting calendar from week to week can meet for a pint this Christmas and hold forth on what a fine year it has been. We can marvel anew at the mixture of silk and stone in Brian O'Driscoll and Ruby Walsh, glory in the potential for wonder in Rory McIlroy and Noel McGrath, argue over the redemption of Paul Galvin and the rights and wrongs in the gone-too-soon reality of Sea The Stars.
We can pick and choose between Leinster's Heineken Cup and Olive Loughnane's World Championship silver medal, bicker over whether Shane Lowry's Irish Open or Paul Brady's third world title in a row was the bigger achievement, trade one-liners between the respective merits of battle and war when it comes to Liverpool's 4-1 win over Manchester United at Old Trafford back in March.
In the end though, every one of us has a friend who got laid off or a brother in negative equity, a sister who got shelled in the budget or parents whose retirement fund evaporated as the banks shrivelled away. Claiming that those lives were in any way improved by Ronan O'Gara's drop goal in Cardiff (or, for that matter, made worse by Thierry Henry's handball in Paris) is just too trite, even for the most ardent lovers of sport.
If anything, 2009 put sport in its place. What was the norm in the good old days looked like feckless indulgences when the reckoning came. The small concessions were the easiest struck off and so rugby players and county panellists who'd driven freshly-plated motors for free in the good times got apologetic phonecalls from under-pressure car dealers looking for them back this year. When the FAI hit on the wheeze of bringing the Irish soccer team outside of Dublin and playing a couple of matches in Thomond Park, they found out pretty sharpish that the days of people handing over €55 to see an August friendly are gone. "I think we probably got a little learning off that," said a sheepish John Delaney when just over 19,000 turned up for Ireland v South Africa.
That was micro stuff, though. Delaney had much bigger problems to contend with by the end of the year when the League of Ireland was mercilessly credit crunched and clubs who had lived beyond their meagre means finally ran out of long fingers and back burners. The year ended with Derry thrown out of the league and the Cork's owner banned by the FAI for 12 months. Sadder yet, the Niagara of unavoidably dreary headlines the league kept attracting means that Gary Twigg could streak down O'Connell St singing 'Flower Of Scotland' tonight and barely a soul would know who he is or what he's done this year.
Soccer wasn't alone by any means in finding its umbrella letting more and more rain in as the weeks and months passed. Horse racing went through a year in which the oil that kept the engine running so beautifully throughout the decade began to dry up with the speed of a desert lake. Racehorse ownership collapsed, from the construction moguls at the high end of the game to the syndicates lower down. Trainers across the land are finding their operations crippled by the bad debt of owners who can't pay their bills. Sponsorship has fled the sport, leaving previously well-heeled events like the Irish National, the Galway Plate and even the Irish Guineas Festival with their pockets turned inside out.
To some extent of course, this was inevitable. For all the passion of their supporters, domestic soccer and horse racing are small, niche interests in the greater scheme of things and the amount of money that was washing through them in the boom years was always going to be unsustainable if the rope bridge ever snapped and the country tumbled into the ravine. Only 9,000 turned up at Leopardstown in September when Sea The Stars made his solitary appearance on an Irish racetrack for the year – and that was the day before the All Ireland hurling final when plenty of people from racing stock were in Dublin already. If sport learned one lesson this year, it's that the floating voter is going to be much more discerning from now on.
No, all sport could do was all any of us could do. It turned its collar up against the economic winds and it got on with life as best it could. Giovanni Trapattoni walked us to the brink of a World Cup before being cruelly denied in Paris and said he was willing to take a pay cut for the opportunity of having another rattle at a major finals. We can only be happy that he did.
The aftermath of that night in the Stade de France proved beyond any reasonable doubt that our national capacity for losing the run of ourselves wasn't confined to the cocaine and mojito years. But if Trap's side comes back next August and begins decorating the sparkly new Aviva Stadium with can-do and gusto that they did that World Cup play-off, Henry's handball will eventually be a footnote. And as for the protesting outside the French Embassy, well, we can hopefully all agree to draw a discrete veil and pretend it never happened.
The new stadium means that once next year's Six Nations is out of the way, we'll only be going back to Croke Park any more for the native games. But what a time we've had. The atmosphere on the night of the first leg of the play-off against France finally and definitively gave the lie to the notion the place couldn't host soccer internationals, two-and-a-half-years after the England game assured one and all that rugby could reliably ferry the goosebumps down Jones's Road. This year's England instalment wasn't the jamboree of 2007 but it was raw and tectonic nonetheless and in the other-worldly O'Driscoll, it gave us our sportsman of the year.
Way back in 2001, when he did his first sit-down interview with the Tribune, O'Driscoll told a now famous story of being approached in Grafton Street one night by a Blackrock College boy who was wearing his Leinster Junior Cup medal under his clothes and who screamed in his face, "YOU'RE NEVER GONNA HAVE THIS. NEVER. I HAVE ACHIEVED MORE THAN YOU!" When asked if he treated the kid with the contempt he quite obviously deserved, he shook his head. "No," he said, "that's the thing. You can't be smart about it, you can't shove it in people's faces. Then people have reason to call you an asshole."
Isn't it a warming thing that a whole career later, he still hasn't given anyone that reason? Think about it. He's the best player in a sport where the participants haven't historically been renowned for their humility. Not only that, but he's the most visible figure in a sport whose popularity in Ireland has grown exponentially in the past decade. He's been in two public-eye relationships in the most celebrity-obsessed years the country has ever known and was the best-paid rugby player in the land at a time when money turned a lot of people into ugly parodies of themselves.
And yet, for all our famed begrudgery, for all the chatroom gossip factories and camera-phone opportunists, when did you last hear a story about him behaving like a tosser? He had every opportunity imaginable to become insufferable or smug, to get notions of himself. But he never did.
Instead he became the man who having been grievously nailed off the ball twice in quick succession against England in Croke Park this year, threw himself head-first into a pile of bodies on the try-line for Ireland's only five-pointer of the day. He became the Ireland player who best worked out the ever-changing breakdown interpretations in the game and the king of turnover ball. The last play of the international rugby year was his injury-time hit on South Africa full-back Zane Kirchner, a tackle that almost cleared the fog that had settled on the stadium. And in case this sounds like the faint praise of accentuating the gritty and ignoring the guile, it should be remembered that the South Africa match was one of only two Ireland appearances all year in which he didn't score a try.
He wasn't the only one who lit up our year but his was the brightest light. His country won the Grand Slam, his province the Heineken Cup – feats of alchemy both that were downright unthinkable just this day 12 months ago. We said goodbye to Felipe Contepomi and a proper hello to Jonny Sexton on the same day, the one where Munster were toasted at Croke Park. That May afternoon was one of the loveliest of the year, when to be sitting in summer sunshine at the home of the GAA amongst the largest attendance in the history of club rugby worldwide was to smile and marvel a little at the good in the world.
We did that a few times this year. We watched from the couch as Rory McIlroy took a choke-hold on his nerves and played the bunker shot of his young life to win his first pro tournament in Dubai at the end of January. We saw Shane Lowry get adorably ahead of himself on that weather-beaten Sunday at Baltray before gathering himself to spin maybe the yarn of the year in the play-off. We spent Cheltenham thinking Ruby Walsh could teach Zen masters lessons in patience and calm and then we spent the summer realising that Mick Kinane has that market cornered already.
We sat in the Hogan Stand in August and saw nothing less than the declaration of a county's pride as Kerry tore Dublin limb from bewildered limb in the best half of football they'd played in an era. We trooped our mud-caked way down to Stradbally village along with a few hundred other Electric Picnic refugees to sit cross-legged in front of the TV as Kilkenny rope-a-doped another All Ireland in such a fashion as to be in danger of finally winning our affection having long since won our admiration.
After much sleuthing one Saturday night in October, we found a grainy real-time website that was carrying Paul Brady's astonishing world handball final, in which he was effectively employing a tightly-wrapped bandage as a quad muscle. We leaned against a pillar in a betting shop on a Monday afternoon in February to see Tony McCoy cajole his 3,000th winner around an apocalypse-skied Plumpton and smiled as the collection of old lags in the shop broke into a round of applause. All acts of in-the-arena heroism, seen and raised by year's end with the very public act of real-life heroism taken on by Donal Óg Cusack.
So no, it wasn't all doom and gloom. Sport brought days of courage and truth in a year that otherwise felt devoid of both those qualities. It showed that there's hope yet in the youth of the country despite having been let down by a generation of elders who thought they knew best. It brought out the best in the best of us and it continually excited and entertained the rest of us.
But we should be careful about making bigger claims for sport than it deserves. It was fun while it lasted and it'll be fun again next year too. But life tapped us on the shoulder this year and punched a lot of people in the mouth. No amount of cups and trophies will mop up all that blood.