Published 14th December 2009; The crowd played its part. The course lived up to expectations too, but Irish athletes couldn’t rise to the occasion of the European Cross Country being staged in Santry, although Mark Kenneally, Ciara Mageean and a couple of others did. But so much for home advantage; if anything, it made the failure to win medals all the more disappointing.
Hopes of individual glory for Mary Cullen never materialised, but that wasn’t as bad as seeing the hopes of a team medal disappear over the last lap. Ireland ended up fourth, having looked safe in the bronze for so long.
Cullen, who finished 12th, had no excuse; instead, she boldly said she’d let everybody down. Losing on home ground hurts deeper and longer – but the Sligo athlete doesn’t owe anyone an apology. Cross country reveals the smallest weakness on any given day, and Cullen just wasn’t at her best.
Fionnuala Britton actually finished ahead of her in 11th, and this might have been enough to deliver a team medal, had the next two scorers not been so far back: Linda Byrne in 25th, and Ava Hutchinson in 34th.
The fatal blow, though it came from pure audacity, was Deirdre Byrne dropping right back over the last lap. Byrne at one point was leading the Irish charge, in 10th, but unfortunately couldn’t sustain such effort, and ended up in 48th.
“That’s really shocking, to have run so badly,” said Cullen – who appeared just as shocked to hear Britain’s Hayley Yelling had won the title, at age 35, having come out of retirement at the start of the season.
“I don’t know what happened. I’d made up my mind coming here that I was going to go for it. But I didn’t feel good at all on the first lap. I thought if I relaxed I might come round. But it didn’t happen. I wanted to drop out, but knew I had to keep going for the sake of the team.”
For four of the five laps it seemed they’d at least win team bronze, but when Byrne faded, and some of the British and Spanish runners pushed through, the scores changed for the worst. Portugal won comfortably, but in the end Ireland fell well short – with 83 points to Spain’s 58, in third.
“With all the support out there, you feel like you’re letting everybody down,” added Cullen. “I’d felt some pressure as well, but no more than I wanted, on myself.
“I’d had a blood test a few weeks back, and the results weren’t great. But training, and racing, had been going very well. All season the training was geared for this. Maybe I should have had more people around me in Sligo, to train with, and maybe help me along. I don’t know. It does get a bit lonely by yourself. But no, I don’t really know what went wrong.”
Losing the team medal seemed incomprehensible to Britton, who was sure they’d done enough.
“It’s terrible, to lose a medal like that, on the last lap. We wanted those medals, and I really thought that we had it. That’s the best I ran all year, but it’s not the same. As a team we could have done so much better.”
Briefly, and perhaps a little ambitiously, it appeared the Irish senior men would make amends, and were second after the first of their six laps. Kenneally, the 28-year-old Dubliner who grew up in nearby Raheny, was running the race of his career, jostling inside the top-10 – but behind him, Martin Fagan, Alistair Cragg and Andrew Ledwith began losing ground. Kenneally ran brilliantly to finish eighth, although the team medals soon disappeared with Fagan (26th), Cragg (40th) and Ledwith (41st) visibly disappointed by their performance. So much for altitude training. Ireland ended up sixth, well down on Spain, Britain and Italy.
“That was the performance of my life. It’s great, and I’m delighted,” said Kenneally, who was part of a damn hard race.
Former Ethiopian Alemayehu Bezabeh won gold for Spain, out-sprinting Britain’s Mo Farah, with eight-time former winner Serhiy Lebid of the Ukraine third. To make the top-10 in this field, in such tough conditions, was indeed a great run for Kenneally.
“I’ve been a long time knocking around in the lower regions of this sport, and I wanted to try to kick on, mix it with these guys. Especially if I want to start running fast on the track. Because cross country is not my favourite surface. And there was so much noise out there. It was brilliant. I can’t explain how good it was.”
Again, the only pity was that all four team scorers didn’t perform.
Ciara Mageean has already got a reputation for performing when it counts, and didn’t disappoint, finishing ninth in the junior women’s race – and she still has two more years in the category.
The 17-year-old from Portaferry, Co Down, ran a typically fearless race, and although she never challenged the hugely impressive Karoline Grovdal of Norway, Mageean held her position throughout, and as a track specialist has once again underlined her huge potential.
Best of the Irish junior men was Ryan Creech in 41st place, and the team won’t be happy with their final placing of 11th.
The two under-23 races were extraordinary for their high standard. Noureddine Smail of France (Algerian born) looked like he could have challenged for the senior honours, and, in that sort of company, Michael Mulhare ran well to finish 18th, with Stephen Scullion and Brendan O’Neill also making the top-30.
The Irish under-23 women were the second-placed team for a long way, like the seniors, but likewise drifted back to end up fifth, with Britain also securing that title, ahead of Russia, France and Germany.
Best of the Irish there was Roseanne Galligan in 15th, which wasn’t a bad run.
It’s just, with home advantage, and such a vocal crowd, it’s a shame there wasn’t a little bit more to cheer about.