Congratulations to the winning team of Eoghan Totten (3rd), David O’Flaherty (9th), Seamus Lynch (10th), David Steele (22nd),Ian Bailey (24th), David McNeilly (25th), Paul Carlin (28th), Eamon McCrickard (49th), Mark Kendall (53rd), John Kelly (56th), Brendan Donnelly (67th) and PJ McCrickard (75th).
Could running be a team sport?
A report on the NI Junior Cross Country Championships by Bogboy
Anyone who thinks running cannot be a team sport should have been in Lurgan Park on Saturday when the Ulster & Northern Ireland Junior/Intermediate Cross-Country Championships took place. Clubs can bring up to 12 to the start-line with the first six home counting towards the team score but with runners in 7th and further back being important too as they can affect the position of scorers in other rival clubs. There is no hiding place when confronted with 5 laps and 10km of mud, mud and more mud – real cross-country with just a couple of short hills to break up the rhythm even more.
Newcastle AC was formed 33 years ago now and back in the 80s, in fact exactly 27 years ago, a team from the club last brought home the same Championship at Castle Park in Bangor – Robbie Bryson, Dermie McGonigle, Pat McCavana, Tim Janaway and the Rodgers Brothers producing a shock on the day in beating Willowfield Harriers into 2nd place. Could the modern generation (McNeilly, O’Flaherty, Lynch, Steele, Bailey, Totten, Carlin, the McCrickards, Donnelly, Kendall & Kelly) emulate that this year? 10th and last team in the same race at Lurgan Park last year did not in itself provide much confidence but since the start of the cross-country season last October there have been murmurings and rumblings that this would be the special year.
Club cross-country captain David McNeilly (no relation of old boy Deon) around a decade ago came home 7th man when running for Ballydrain Harriers when they won the Championship title. Many years, miles and international appearances on the mountains for Northern Ireland later and now a long-time member of Newcastle AC he persistently and consistently with the help of his captain of vice (sorry vice-captain) O’Flaherty cajoled the rest of the boys to trek to muddy fields as the winter progressed. The team spirit was building well. They even made two team training sessions in Lurgan Park over Christmas and a week before the race when Captain McNeilly marked out the course with stakes and the boys familiarised themselves with the twists and turns at speed. There had been indications of many individual improvements in fitness and form as the winter progressed and the initial aim of getting at least 8 runners to the start-line was replaced with competition to actually get into the starting 12 – there was the inevitable disappointment for those that did not make the cut.
Heavy rain, low temperatures and a cold wind greeted the runners as they arrived at Lurgan – would this suit the men from Mourne more than others? Strong competition was expected from top Donegal club with big pedigree Finn Valley and also Foyle Valley, another club that has been developing well in terms of depth over the past few years, in what would quickly become a west versus east battle. There was also a sense that history might be made as club stalwarts including President Billy McNeilly and Father Joe with their entire clans in tow made the modern generation realise (as if they needed any reminder) that today was a day of high expectations.
As if transfixed the team watched from the side of the course as the Masters Men’s Race and then the Women’s Race churned up the course. At 40 minutes to go some of the boys were still screwing in longer spikes into their shoes seemingly reluctant to head out for their warm-up in the driving rain – were they buckling under the pressure? Meanwhile, Eoghan Totten who had flown in specially from his winter hibernating home in London was struggling to warm up declaring that he would need to buy some clothes that actually fitted him to keep him warm – having nearly zero body fat on days like this is difficult. Totten was discovered by Father Joe at school around 7 years ago, finishing well down the field in his first cross-country race but has grown and developed over the years to the point where he now boasts Irish International Vests (finishing 61st in the European Junior Cross-Country Championships in Hungary in December 2012 and leading the U-18 Irish team to victory in World Youths Mountain Racing in Italy) and recorded a 31:09.01 10,000metres personal best on the track in Watford last May. His aspirations were to win the race overall but his team mates needed a top-5 finishing position if they were to win the title.
At the gun, the cavalry charge followed and when things settled down Totten was in the lead bunch but ominously Finn Valley had two in the top five and four in the top ten with Foyle Valley having four in the top fifteen. Strength in depth is key to winning any team race and for the boys in red and yellow O’Flaherty was showing early just outside the top ten with Lynch and McNeilly not far behind and positively runners five, six and seven all inside the top-30. At the end of lap 1 of 5, Finn Valley had a comfortable lead scoring around 85 points, with Foyle Valley in the mid-90s and Newcastle just outside 100 (the finishing positions of the top six runners in each club are added together with the lowest score winning). There was a long way to go.
Positions stayed broadly the same over the next three laps with the faces getting markedly tighter and tireder. Out front was Ryan McDermott from Dromore (running for Annadale Striders) and coached by Mark Kirk who coincidentally has won the individual title on that famous day in Bangor 27 years ago when Newcastle won the team title. Could this be a good omen? Totten was sticking doggedly to Mark Hoy of Finn Valley in 3rd place with Finn Valley continuing to lead the team race with points difference to Newcastle now between 5 and 10 overall with Foyle Valley back in third place.
Every position counts at times like this – it’s an old cliché but accurate. The old boys strategically placed around the course to provide as much encouragement as possible were trying to help each individual to focus on every place counting. O’Flaherty was demonstrating that four months of consistent training can pay dividends as he moved into 9th place with Rathfriland’s Seamus Lynch also having a stormer in 12th. Behind there were four Newcastle vests almost stride for stride throughout the second half of the race – McNeilly, Steele, Bailey and Carlin. With Finn Valley and Foyle Valley having their 5th and 6th scorers behind this four it was clear that putting places between them as the finish line approached might make all the difference.
At the finish line McDermott stormed home in 36minutes 28seconds to win 12 seconds clear of Hoy from Finn Valley with Totten securing a fantastic bronze medal in 3rd. There was bad news as a good last lap saw Colin Watson from Finn Valley come home in 4th place and with Gerard Gallagher becoming Finn Valley’s 3rd scorer in 7th it looked ominous for the boys in red and yellow. In 9th place David O’Flaherty produced his best race of the season and Lynch kicked hard in the home straight to make up one more valuable place to make the top ten just 10 seconds behind O’Flaherty. So with three home Finn Valley scored 13 points with Newcastle already 9 points behind with 22. Foyle Valley packed well in 12th, 13th and 14th and with Scott Rankin already home in 5th they now had 4 home with 44 points. Finn Valley brought home their 4th man in 16th bringing their total up to 29 points and with Newcastle not scoring their 4th man in the top-20 it looked unlikely that the much sought after victory would be achieved.
Time and time again it is strength in depth that counts and the supporters of the red and yellow had not yet given up hope. David Steele has wintered well and he was now emerging as Newcastle AC’s next strongest followed by more red and yellow just behind. Steele kicked hard and came home in 22nd place giving Newcastle 44 points for their first 4 (with Finn Valley on 29 and Foyle Valley on 44 too). Kilcoo’s Ian Bailey, a strong man from the mountains stepped up next and made up one more place just at the finish line to register 24th closely followed by team leader McNeilly in 25th. This brought Newcastle’s total to 93 points for its six finishers. In 28th Newcastle’s 7th man home, Paul Carlin from Drumnaquoile improved Newcastle’s chances as his presence added two more points to each of Finn and Foyle Valley’s score who were waiting for their 5th and 6th runners to finish.
As they waited a Finn Valley supporter shouted “I don’t think Newcastle have six in” to which a Newcastle clubman standing beside him said “you’re right, we’ve seven in already” – precious. When Shane McNulty came home in 31st as Finn Valley’s 5th scorer – Finn Valley scored 60 points for 5 home compared to Newcastle’s 5-man total of 68 points. But it was all down to Finn Valley’s 6th scorer and that was Andrew Friel in 36th place giving Finn a total score of 96 points – 3 behind Newcastle. Foyle Valley’s 5th and 6th scorers were in 20th and 35th to bring home a total of 99 points only good enough for 3rd place.
So the boys had done it – for the first time in 27 years Newcastle AC had taken the team title in the closest of races. The outcome once again proved that it’s not just the top runners that matter but everyone on the team. Totten’s brilliant individual bronze; O’Flaherty and Lynch’s top ten; the brilliant packing from Steele, Bailey, McNeilly and Carlin in 22nd, 24th, 25th and 28th; Eamon McCrickard rolling back the years in 49th; Mark Kendall hating the muck in 53rd but building the strength for his next road marathon; John (the Hen) Kelly loving it in 56th and enthused to build on this performance; Brendan Donnelly the progressing triathlete strong in 67th place; and PJ McCrickard’s potential for the future in 75th place; all contributed to a significant piece of history-making for the club – well done to them all and the leadership shown over the past five months by McNeilly and O’Flaherty.
Afterwards celebrating went long into the evening at clubman Jack O’Hare’s hostelry in Newcastle. The banter was flowing and Donnelly looked for advice as to whether all 12 runners were barred from racing this event again or only the six scorers? Always one to give support and bring clarity to proceedings club chair Deon McNeilly replied, “Brendan don’t worry about it, you can do this race for the rest of your life without worrying about that” – harsh. What remains to be seen is whether the current generation can go one better than those of the past by winning a NI & Ulster Senior Cross-Country title next year…time will tell.