A special report by Joe McCann
Newcastle and East Down celebrate the success of the McGrady Financial Services Junior Cross Country Series
A large, knowledgeable and appreciative crowd packed into the Assembly Hall of Shimna College on Monday 12th March to celebrate the success of the athletes who had competed so valiantly over the six races in the McGrady Financial Services Junior Cross Country Series. In fact such was the turn out that emergency chairs were sought, no doubt part of the job description of every Vice Principal!
As the athletes and their parents assembled for the presentation they were entertained by a montage of photographs from the six races, expertly snapped by Declan Rice. These pictures captured the spirit of the series in which young runners continually ran their hearts out, often in awful conditions and never complained. Eamon McCrickard had been given the task of emcee for the evening in the absence of some of the more vociferous members of the club committee. Eamon ‘manned up’ and did a sterling job of making sure the evening ran smoothly. If he is not careful he could get such a role permanently!
The first speaker was Ian Brannigan, who in typically modest fashion humbly refuted the claim of being a top athlete, remains the most successful athlete from Northern Ireland in British and World Transplant Games. For me, Ian is a true inspiration as he has overcame adversity and done so in such a positive manner. His attitude and commitment to running are as fervent as they were 20 years ago and he still competes with the same determination and will to enjoy every minute of every race. In this sense Ian is an ideal role model to everyone, young and old.
In his address Ian recalled how his career began at the age of thirteen in the grounds of Shimna College by a fresh faced 17 year old coach called Paul Rodgers. Ian said how he immediately became hooked and began to participate in races for both his school and the newly formed Tollymore AC. He paid great tribute to Mike McNulty, acknowledging Mike’s contribution to his development as an athlete. Ian also noted how he had been fortunate to attend Loughborough University (helping them solve some big hard Chemistry problems!) and met and trained with some very fine athletes. On returning to Newcastle in the early 1990s, Ian remarked how he raced less at this time, but still enjoyed training and keeping fit.
Ian required a kidney transplant in 1998, which theoretically could have ended his career. However Ian saw this as a new opportunity and a fresh challenge and has been competing with great distinction at the British and World Transplant Games ever since. Ian commented that his participation in these games has enabled him to travel to countries such as France, Hungary, Sweden and Japan to compete and represent the UK. In summing up Ian reminded the young athletes of the need to be gracious in their sporting endeavours and to set goals to try to achieve. He praised the work of both clubs present for promoting inclusive participation in events and encouraged the juniors to enjoy their athletics and use their training to benefit other sports they play.
The speeches were punctuated by the presentation of awards to all who completed four of the six races in the series and to those who were placed first, second and third in each category. Finally the team shields were presented to the host club for the second successive year. At one point with Deon, Billy and the Kenealley girls on the stage, there was something akin to a McNeilly dynasty on parade!
At this point in the evening Eamon was afforded the opportunity to talk about his hero and mentor. The second speaker of the evening was Newcastle’s most successful senior Deon McNeilly, a man with an impressive CV that stretches all the way back to the early 1980s and a man who has competed at the highest level internationally, most notable narrowly missing out on the English National championship to Eamonn Martin, an athlete who went on to win a London Marathon. Eamon described Deon as ‘a running god’ and perhaps given that the ‘Big Fella’ has recorded 28:40 for 10k on the road, his words were accurate. Eamon had prepared a two hour speech on Deon’s achievements, but was advised that it would imprudent to use it all! With all the research done, Eamon is now thinking of applying for Mastermind, taking ‘the running career of Deon McNeilly’ as his specialised chosen subject!!!
Deon began by thanking the committee for inviting him to speak and praised their efforts in organising such an effective and efficient series. Addressing the children he told them what a privilege running was and how it had enabled him to travel all over Europe and as far afield as New York and New Zealand to compete and in the process meet many different and interesting people. Reflecting on his teenage years Deon recalled that he was not a particularly talented runner and was dabbling in many different sports at the time. He shared with the audience how at his first visit to the Schools’ Cross Country he finished 56th overall. However, the next year, after some training, he managed to improve dramatically and finished 2nd.
For Deon it was the lure of the majestic Slieve Donard mountain that fuelled his desire to run faster and longer to pursue his ambition of competing in the race to the top of the mountain and back. His ambition was rewarded as he holds an unequalled 9 wins on Slieve Donard and is determined still at the age of 49 to win a 10th title. Deon also reminded those present that in the early days there was no junior club structure and reminded those present how lucky they were to have such a committed group of talented and caring coaches. He continued by praising the efforts of all those who contribute to the success of the junior club in providing opportunities for the local junior athletes to train, participate and compete regularly. In conclusion he urged the junior athletes to keep up their efforts as the club afforded a good outlet for relaxation, exercise and making new friends. His final words highlighted the fact that the most important aspect of any club or activity was the taking part.
The evening concluded with the presentation of the shields to the winning teams. Both were contested fiercely throughout the six races, but in the end Newcastle were able to retain both categories. Joe Quinn endorsed many of the sentiments already echoed in the words of the keynote speakers and, in typically good humour, remarked that East Down would be trying hard next year to prevent a hat-trick next year. In this series athletics was the real winner as evidenced by the large numbers who received prizes and certificates on the night. The packed hall was told that the generous sponsorship of McGrady Financial Services which has made the event possible for the initial two years would be renewed for the 2012-13 season. This will secure the sustainability of the now established series. Shimna College was thanked for its gracious and much appreciated hospitality throughout the winter. Thanks also expressed to the main sponsors, McGrady Financial Services who provided the magnificent array of trophies, medals and other prizes awarded, the coaches and volunteers who give of their time so willingly and the other local business’ who provided spot prizes during the season. Behind every great organisation there is a great woman and Newcastle AC feel it would be remiss not to mention all of the effort made quietly behind the scenes by our great woman, Martina Hawkins.
As proceedings drew to a close all were reminded of the Charity Family Fun Run (all proceeds will donated to Mary Murray House), organised by Newcastle AC to coincide with the Slieve Donard mountain race on 5th May. This Year the Slieve Donard race is the opening round of the Irish Mountain Running Championships and it will be a great spectacle. Junior athletes were encouraged to bring family members with them to take part in the 1 mile run. The run will begin immediately after the Slieve Donard race and will follow the course from the Newcastle Centre towards O’Hare’s, before swinging left onto the promenade and following a marked course that will take runners back to the finish at the Centre. To add to the carnival atmosphere there will be live music at the Newcastle Centre and spot prizes for race finishers.
As the longer evenings approach the Newcastle juniors will soon begin their training for track and field events. Juniors can expect to be long jumping, throwing javelins, hurdling and sprinting in the not too distant future, under the ever watchful eyes of their coaches. As well as this there is the exciting new development of the junior events at some of the Hill and Dale races. With visits from east Down planned and trips to East Down on the horizon, there is much to look forward to in the weeks and months leading up to the summer recess.