Dave Craven: Who were the heroes of a sports year full of emotion?

LOOKING back on a year of vintage sporting action, it is hard to deviate from the mass of evidence which suggests Tony McCoy is a true hero not only of 2010 but any vintage.

Who says fairytales do not come true? The greatest jump jockey of all time has had more than his fair share of dreams materialise during his glittering racing career but – until April of this year – one notable prize eluded him.

Just as Jimmy White seems destined never to win snooker's World Championship, McCoy was often regarded as a man who would always fail to land the Grand National.

Champion jockey a record 15 times in a row, with more than 3,000 winners to his name, it seemed bizarre and almost unfair that one of British sport's most affable characters should not complete his marvellous CV.

However, in a show of the fighting spirit and unquestionable talent that has seen the Northern Irishman stand out so brightly for so long, McCoy finally tasted success in the most famous horse race of all.

It came at the 15th attempt but, as Don't Push It eased over the finish line at a raucous Aintree, all that agonising wait was soon forgotten.

"At least I can think that I've sort of done all right as a jockey now," he said afterwards, with typically modest understatement.

Rarely can a victory have been so roundly welcomed by so many people as the great McCoy – overcome by emotion – completed his magnificent feat. There is hope for White yet.

Sheffield's own Jessica Ennis does not seem to require hope of any kind as her star continues to rise.

The popular heptathlete was in command throughout the European Championships in Barcelona to add another gold to her fast growing collection, proving her mettle against the finest of her peers once more and setting a personal best score in he process.

Ennis had already shrugged off a foot injury to take the world indoor gold in the pentathlon in March at the start of another impressive year.

Graeme McDowell could also do no wrong in 2010, the Ulsterman surging from a comparable abyss to become one of golf's biggest names and most colourful characters.

He puts a lot of his success down to fate and being in the right place at the right time but that cannot disguise the skill, panache and the steel he showed in rocketing up the rankings to become Europe's first US Open champion since 1970.

Just a fortnight earlier, the Welsh Open was his first win of any kind in two years but then McDowell found wonderland at Pebble Beach with a remarkable triumph.

That was not the end of his "brilliant" season, though, the 31-year-old's meteoric rise seeing him make Europe's Ryder Cup team where 'G-Mac' as he would quickly be labelled went down in the famous competition's folklore, memorably holing the crucial putt which brought the trophy back to Europe.

Ordinarily, McDowell's feats would see him as the outstanding British golfer any other year but in 2010 the sport was graced by an awe-inspiring character who even surpassed his achievements.

Arriving at the game's summit has taken longer than the last 12 months for Lee Westwood, his entire career spent diligently striving towards the ultimate accolade, but it was in October when he finally achieved the title of the world's No1 golfer usurping Tiger Woods, who was still reeling from his off-course marital problems.

It was the perfect culmination to a superb campaign in which the man from Worksop had also produced his customary excellence in that Ryder Cup success, winning two-and-a-half points out of a potential four to spearhead Europe's charge.

A major may still elude Westwood, 37, but he finished runner-up at The Masters and The Open while clinching a victory on the US Tour in the St Jude Classic, all of which helped see him end Woods's amazing five-and-a-half year reign at the top of the rankings.

Westwood became the first European to be crowned the world's finest golfer since Nick Faldo in 1994 and it seems only a matter of time before he follows team-mates McDowell and Padraig Harrington in securinge one of the big four.

Even before the Ashes began, Graeme Swann had secured his place as England's cricketer of the year and found himself second only to South Africa's Dale Steyn as the world's leading bowler as the year chugged to a close.

In Bangladesh, he became the first England off-spinner to take 10 wickets in a match since Jim Laker in 1956 and continued where his breakthrough 2009 left off with a series of commanding performances, including helping England to World Twenty20 success in Barbados.

With 62 Test wickets already heading into the fourth Test in Melbourne, Swann – with his wit and humour off the pitch adding to his all-round appeal – has proved he was not a one-year wonder.

Those who were at Twickenham on November 13 will never forget how Chris Ashton scored one of the finest tries ever seen at the old stadium.

His dashing 90-metre effort was more than a thing of rare beauty though for the long-suffering style-starved masses.

It was a sign of hope and, indeed, if one player could epitomise the resurgence in English rugby during the last 12 months, it is the exciting winger from Wigan, who ripped up the game-plan to prove the wilting Red Rose does indeed possess the ability to flourish.

Flashes were seen when Ashton debuted in the final Six Nations game in Paris, before his finishing prowess came to the fore with a clinical try during a famous summer win Down Under in Sydney.

That gave Martin Johnson's beleaguered men a belief that the so-called big three in the southern hemisphere were not actually unbeatable, a fact emphatically proven when they backed it up with a marvellous autumn victory over the Wallabies that November afternoon, restoring hope that next year's World Cup might not be so bad after all.

Ashton's former Wigan rugby league colleague Sam Tomkins deserves hero status for brightening up so many games in Super League this year, his impish skills and elusive running making the stand-off/full-back a joy to behold.

The youngster inspired the Warriors' first title in a dozen years and, while he failed to shine for England at the Four Nations, his time will come on the biggest stage.

A couple of months ago, nobody would have predicted Milan Mandaric having any place on this page but it is amazing what a few million pounds in the right direction can achieve.

Fearful Sheffield Wednesday fans had the death-knell for their stricken club ringing in their ears not so long ago with an impending winding-up order set to leave the Owls' Christmas anything but merry.

However, the 72-year-old Serbian ditched Leicester City before completing a takeover at Hillsborough, wiping out their debt, restoring smiles and vowing to finance their eventual return to the top flight. What a hero.

Staying with football, starting the New Year with a famous FA Cup shock at the home of fierce foes Manchester United would have been enough alone to earn manager Simon Grayson hero status with Leeds United's fans.

However, by also going on and securing their much-awaited promotion out of League One, the unassuming Yorkshireman ensured his achievements in 2010 would long be remembered by everyone at Elland Road. His exploits are not finished yet, the young manager having impressively guided the Whites into promotion reckoning again.

Maybe the Premier League awaits them in 2011.

Amir Khan was already a world champion entering the year but, as 2010, drew to a close, the WBA light-welterweight marked himself down in boxing legend with a remarkably gutsy, brave and epic defence against Marcos Maidana.

It will be remembered as one of the finest displays from a British fighter in decades but also one which offered evidence he could have all the tools to go on to become one of the sport's greatest exponents.

ON TOP OF THEIR GAME IN A YEAR TO REMEMBER

Tony McCoy

AP McCoy deserves his spot as the sporting hero of 2010 after finally winning the Grand National at the 15th attempt. He rode Don't Push it to victory over the Aintree fences and then walked off with the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award... the first jockey to win the trophy.

Jessica Ennis

A great year for the Sheffield heptaphalete as she added the European title to her world crown. London 2012 is very much looming large for the face of our Olympics dream.

Graeme McDowell

What a year it was for the Northern Irishman as he first scooped the US Open at Pebble Beach and then helped Europe to Ryder Cup glory by holing out the crucial, winning putt against Hunter Mahan.

Lee Westwood

All the World's No1 golfer needs now is to win a major in 2011 and his place in golfing history is assured. Knocked Tiger Woods off his perch as No 1 and also helped guide Europe to Ryder Cup success.

Graeme Swann

SWANN has had everyone in a spin this year as England prepared for the Ashes Down Under with wins over Bangladesh and Pakistan. He was also a key player in the T20 World Cup winning squad.

Chris Ashton

Part of the new-look England side, he was at his exciting best against Australia in the autumn when he ran in a stunning try.

Sam Tomkins

Wigan's mesmeric talent cut a swathe through Super League last season and promises even more this coming campaign.

Milan Mandaric

the Serbian provided the millions that saved Sheffield Wednesday from financial disaster and now promises a brighter future for the Owls.

Simon Grayson

The driving force behind Leeds United's resurgence; can he really take them back to the Premier League?

Amir Khan

Played his part in a rare boxing classic.