COLD TURKEY anyone? Now that the Christmas dinner plates have been cleaned and put away, the tinsel hanging from every surface of the home is starting to lose its sheen, and the electricity bills containing the upsurge in kilowatt hours produced by multi-coloured bulbs illuminating every room of the house are dropping onto well-worn door mats, most of us are ready for a period of social and personal detoxing.

You could argue that 2023 has been quite a quiet year on these isles. No referenda agenda, no pandemic polemics, and just the one prime minister served up by a Tory government apparently addicted to permanent chaos. Eschewed are the kami-Kwasi budgets, Trussian longevity battles with lettuces and plots by clandestine sects within the Conservative Party each worshipping their own scriptures and prophecies about the future of the nation. For now.

All that trivial nonsense aside, the world of sport provides no respite in its relentless grandstanding and political intrigue. As deputy sports editor of a newspaper celebrating 240 years of reporting on all of the above and more, I have the enormous privilege of purveying those sporting stories which send shockwaves through the world and are brought to you in these pages as they were our great, great, great ancestors aeons ago. Here are some of our highlights from 2023…

Football: Scotland qualify for Euro 2024 in some style
Scotland’s circuitous route the Euro 2020 finals may have provided reason for optimism among the more sunnily disposed members of the Tartan Army, but failure to reach the World Cup in Qatar after a miserable play-off semi-final defeat to Ukraine was a reminder (as if anyone needed it) of our national team’s propensity to clutch defeat from the jaws of victory.

But no one could deny the influence of manager Steve Clarke, who guided the Scots to their first major finals since France ’98 at the previous European Championship, and the marked improvement in just about every department for the national team since his appointment as manager back in May 2019.

There is an esemplastic feeling to the current Scotland squad and the supporters who follow them, and the astonishing five-match winning streak to open their Group A qualifying campaign underlined the work Clarke has put in to restoring them as a force on the international stage. The undeniable zenith of a campaign which delivered just a solitary defeat (away to top seeds Spain) was the 2-0 Hampden victory over Luis de la Fuente’s side in March. Scott McTominay announced himself as the Scots’ talisman as he opened the scoring in the seventh minute, and when the Manchester United midfielder added his second after half-time, fans were already looking at booking flights to Germany next summer.

“We had belief. When the gaffer took over, that’s what was lacking,” said Scotland captain Andy Robertson after the epic win. “There was a kind of disconnect between the players and the fans. We were only maybe getting 15,000 if we were lucky, but let me tell you: playing in front of a full crowd makes a massive difference.” Onward and upwards in 2024…

Rugby Union: Van der Merwe sets the tone
Speaking of national triumphs, Gregor Townsend’s Scotland retaining the Calcutta Cup at Twickenham back in February would take some beating. “Giant South African winger Duhan van der Merwe will be the toast of his adopted country for days to come after his two sensational tries stretched Scotland’s winning streak over England to three matches on the bounce,” wrote David Barnes in these pages in the immediate aftermath of the thrilling 29-23 Six Nations win. “It was by no means a walk-in, but Van der Merwe is deadly when given half an inch with just 10 yards to make – and he swatted off white jerseys as if they were flies.” 

His incredible score was subsequently voted World Rugby try of the year – and one look at a replay will tell you why.

Golf: McIlroy speaks (to put it euphemistically) for a continent
“The sight of Patrick Cantlay’s caddie, Joe LaCava, ranting and raving on the 18th green like some enraged drunk and goading a brassed-off Rory McIlroy as he lined up a putt was something to behold,” writes our golf correspondent Nick Rodger on the infamous flashpoint during Europe’s 16½-11½ Ryder Cup victory in Rome in October.

“Subsequent footage of an incensed McIlroy effing, blinding and finger-jabbing in the car park afterwards put the tin lid on a quite extraordinary day. ‘It added fuel to the fire,’ hissed McIlroy ahead of the Sunday singles. Those fired-up Europeans would go on to deliver a knock-out blow.” 

In another year full of the kinds of twists and turns on the main golf tours that would cause Tiger Woods’ ailing frame to require a prolonged dousing in WD40, the Northern Irishman’s car-park tirade felt like the release of an LIV-PGA-Ryder-Cup-machismo-shaped pressure valve. The world No.2, who seems to represent the only sane one in the asylum at times in the cash-bloated world of professional golf, spoke (or shouted) for the whole continent.

Athletics: Kerr on top of the world in Budapest
Back in July 2021, a month before the 1500m men’s final in Tokyo, Scottish middle-distance runner Josh Kerr raised a few eyebrows when he emphatically told Susan Egelstaff in these pages that his goal was to bring home Olympic gold that summer.

“I like being brave enough to say, ‘Right, I’m going for this.’ There’s no fun in going for something that’s easy so I think putting a bit of pressure on yourself and putting yourself under a magnifying glass is something that I find fun and others find interesting to watch.” 

He may have been beaten to top spot on the podium by Norway’s Jakob Ingebrigsten on that occasion, with Timothy Cheruiyot of Kenya claiming silver, but the bronze medal he secured was a major upset.

Fast-forward two years and the Scot’s victory in the World Championships final over the Norwegian in Budapest was one of the major upsets in athletics history. That achievement will only bolster his Olympics goals in Paris next year. Roll on 2024.