One of the most successful riders in the history of road racing has beaten sporting legends George Best and Alex Higgins in a prestigious public vote.

Joey Dunlop finished third in a list of the greatest Irish sportspeople, with only golfer Padraig Harrington and rugby star Brian O'Driscoll ahead.

Almost a decade after his tragic death while racing in Estonia, the 26-time Isle of Man TT winner remains a hugely popular figure, the New Year's Eve poll by RTE has proved.

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Road racing icon Dunlop finished ahead of bookies' favourite Best, Manchester United great Roy Keane, boxer Barry McGuigan, jockey Tony McCoy and Olympic gold medallist Dame Mary Peters.

The results of the public opinion poll were unveiled at a glittering ceremony in Dublin, which was televised on RTE 1.

The Ballamoney Times said Joey's third place was a further endorsement of a sporting icon who managed to bridge the religious and political divides in Ireland.

'It was often said that Joey - who hailed from Armoy - was a sportsman who transcended the religious divide,' it read, 'a conviction proven time and again as fans from the north and south united in their admiration and support of a truly remarkable competitor as they stood shoulder to shoulder at national and international road race meetings throughout the country and roared him to victory.

'Joey, who received an MBE in 1986 for his motorcycling prowess and was also later honoured with an OBE in 1996 in recognition of his charity relief trips to provide food, clothing and supplies to the impoverished in Romania and the Balkans, still stands head and shoulders above the rest as the most decorated rider in the history of the Isle of Man TT races with 26 wins - eleven clear of his nearest challenger, modern-day hero John McGuinness.

'His death aged 48 following a crash in the 125cc race at an obscure event in Tallinn, Estonia, in July 2000 rocked the sport to its foundations, with critics predicting Joey's tragic demise would herald the end of motorcycle racing between the hedges. In spite of the gloomy proclamations of the doom merchants, the sport eventually recovered from Joey's death and continues to thrive today.

'His nephew, Michael, breathed new life into the Dunlop legacy on the Isle of Man last June, when he won the second Supersport race aged just 20.'