We’re compiling our list of Britain’s Greatest-Ever Sportsmen. Having already discussed candidates from the major individual sports (click here), who of Britain’s lesser-known stars makes the shortlist?
“No machines, no pastimes, no animals… No thanks”
In researching this article I thought long and hard about including motor sports and parlour sports, as well as equestrian. The realisation that as much (if not more) skill and dedication goes into snooker, darts, horse/motor racing as any other sport puts their master craftsmen firmly on the sporting map for this writer. Let’s look at the candidates…
As mentioned, I’m willing to accept all sportsmen from all (ahem) fields. With that in mind, it’s impossible to look past 20 time Champion Jump Jockey Sir Tony McCoy. Another Northern Irishman, “AP” rode a record 4,358 winners (including a high of 289 in 2001-02), claiming his first Champion Jockey title -identifying the jockey who had ridden the most winners during a campaign season – in 1995/96 and going on to win it every year until his retirement in 2015. McCoy has won almost every big race there is to win. His most high-profile winners include the Cheltenham Gold Cup, Champion Hurdle, Queen Mother Champion Chase, King George VI Chase and the 2010 Grand National. In National Hunt racing, no-one comes close. McCoy was knighted in the 2016 New Year Honours for services to horse racing. Rightly so.
On the flats, Lestor Piggott won all five British Classics on at least two occasions and was named British flat racing Champion Jockey a post-war record of 11 times (tied with Irishman Pat Eddery). He rode 4,493 career wins (135 more than McCoy). Piggott was undoubtedly one of the greatest jockeys of all time, but failed to dominate the sport in the manner of McCoy and tarnished his reputation with a conviction for tax evasion. He served 366 in prison and was stripped of his OBE.
On the same Sunday afternoon that Andy Murray sent tubs of strawberries and cream flying in SW18, Lewis Hamilton MBE triumphed at Silverstone to record his 4th British Grand Prix, finishing ahead of Nico Rosberg to cut his Mercedes teammate’s championship lead to just four points. If Hamilton goes on to pip Rosberg to the title it will be a British record-breaking 4th world title for the Mercedes driver.
In a rich history of successful British drivers, only Sir Jackie Stewart can match the titles he won in 2008 (McLaren), 2014 and 2015 (both Mercedes), but Hamilton’s 47 wins from 177 starts is unprecedented. This puts him 3rd on the all-time list and a 4th championship at the age of 31 would set Michael Schumacher’s world-record 7 titles firmly in his sights. Cynics will conclude that Hamilton’s Mercedes AMG Petronas car is unfairly superior to the remainder of the current crop (Rosberg-aside), but he’s earned his right to drive it from eye-catching performances in lesser beasts.
It’s impossible to look past the “King of The Crucible” Stephen Hendry who won the World Snooker Championship there 7 times between 1990-1999. John Pulman and Fred Davis may have won more during the years before the first professional 147 break was recorded by Steve Davis in 1982, but hardly comparable standards of play. Nugget himself won 6 World Championships and spent 7 seasons as World No.1, a list that Hendry tops with 9 years atop the rankings, including 8 consecutive years as he dominated the 1990s.
Only Ronnie O’Sullivan holds more maximum breaks (13) and tournament centuries (824) than Hendry’s 11 and 775, but Rocket’s inability to convert regularly on the biggest stage places him behind The Golden Boy from Edinburgh. Ronnie is generally regarded to be the most-talented player to pick up a cue, but Hendry’s desire, work ethic, attitude and success is unparalleled.
“The best player ever to pick up a snooker cue”
– Ronnie O’Sullivan on Stephen Hendry
When it comes to darts, no one comes close to Phil “The Power” Taylor. 214 professional tournaments wins. 83 major titles. 16 World Championships (14 x PDC, 2 x BDO). Unbeaten in 44 matches in winning eight consecutive World Championships from 1995 to 2002 and 14 consecutive finals from 1994 to 2007 (both records). Six-time PDC Player of the Year (2006, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012). Threw the first televised nine-dart finish. The only player to arrow two nine-dart finishes in one match. Highest three-dart average per match in the history of the game. Seven of the top ten PDC World Championship three-dart averages, including the TDA highest-ever recorded (111.21 in 2002) 51 times achieved 100+ match average in PDC World Darts Championship (next best is 13). £6,085,028 career prize money (in darts!!!). That’s an astonishing record of dominance, ’nuff said.
The suggestion that “any sport you can do whilst smoking a cigarette isn’t a sport”, doesn’t hold true for me. But despite his frankly ridiculous achievements, Taylor doesn’t automatically sail straight to the top of list. Like snooker, darts is hugely dominated by the UK and the Commonwealth. It’s not solely British-based, but it’s certainly not truly international.
DIVING (no, not Tom Daley…)
The Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series has been held at iconic venues in 27 different countries across the world since it’s inception in 2009. One man has been dominant in that time, with 5 wins and 2 runner-up placings out of the seven tournaments completed to date (the 2016 event is currently underway). That man is Gary Hunt, a Brit pushing an extreme sports to new dimensions. Hardly a household name, the 32-year-old is the only Red Bull athlete who’s competed in all 50 World Series stops and he’s won half of them (25 event wins).
Recognised as the most progressive cliff diver in the World Series, Hunt also carries pedigree in the pool with gold (2015) and silver (2013) in the high diving World Championships as well as Commonwealth Games bronze in the 10 metre platform synchro.
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