Athletics: McCarthy leads Irish young guns to glory
IRELAND'S Celtic Tiger may be long dead and departed, but a few of his fittest cubs showed exactly the sort of guts and fighting spirit that the nation badly needs right now when making athletics history at the 17th European Cross-Country Championships in the Algarve yesterday.
The Irish U-23 men came to Portugal secretly harbouring hopes of a team medal and, along with Ciara Mageean (who was seventh), were fancied as a good outside chance.
But they shocked all of Europe's best, and even outdid their own expectations, by romping home to team gold on a historic day when the tricolour was proudly raised again in Albufeira. Ireland has only ever won one other gold medal at 'Euro Cross' and that came from the legendary Catherina McKiernan in the inaugural event 16 years ago.
By getting four men into the top 20, yesterday's team of young students from four different counties -- Waterford, Dublin, Laois and Cork -- pulled off Ireland's first team title, winning it by a whopping 18-point margin.
Leading them home was West Waterford's David McCarthy in 11th, followed closely by Dundrum South Dublin's Brendan O'Neill (13th), North Laois's Michael Mulhare (16th), Raheny's David Rooney (20th), Metro St Brigid's John Coghlan (34th) -- son of former World 5000m champion Eamon -- and Leevale's Ciaran O Lionaird (76th).
McCarthy (Providence), Rooney (McNeese) and O Lionaird (recently 18th at NCAAs for Florida State) are all currently on college scholarships in America and only flew home in the past week, which made the way they combined with O'Neill, Coghlan (both DCU) and Mulhare (University of Limerick) particularly remarkable.
Wild with delight afterwards, they credited their unexpected gold and team spirit with an eve-of-race meeting with U-23 team manager Br John Dooley.
Dooley immediately heaped the praise back on the athletes, but did reveal that he lit a candle and showed them the photo of Ireland's silver medal junior winning team of 2004, telling them "this is my favourite recent cross-country photo, but I want you to replace it."
"We were in Br Dooley's room, sitting three opposite three on couches, with him in the centre, and this feeling just came over us! We sat in there all evening, stayed away from everyone and I just felt it!" said McCarthy.
He was ninth in the junior race in 2007 and was never outside the top five until the final kilometre yesterday, a great run considering he's only back in Providence after taking a year out with suspected swine 'flu and had only run one cross-country race this year.
"Five of the six of us were on that junior team in 2007," explained Mulhare.
"Yeah, we're all great mates, and this was all about being smart and just pacing ourselves right," added O'Neill.
He was 18th at the half-way stage and Rooney actually made up 22 places in that second 4km to help make gold safe, once it became clear that they were leading the standings by 20 points with just a lap to go. France's Hassan Chahdi and Florian Carvalho, second and fourth last year, took individual gold and silver ahead of Russia's Yegor Nikolayev, but their hopes of team gold were dashed when their next two home were 24th and 51st and they pipped Spain for silver by a point.
Ireland's golden effort helped make up for the disappointment of junior hope Ciara Mageean. After a hectic track season, she could only finish seventh, having started far too conservatively.
The hilly course and distance (4,000m) certainly suited Britain's Charlotte Purdue, a top finisher at 5k and 10km at the recent Commonwealth Games and a previous silver and bronze medallist at the Euro Cross-Country. Her front-running victory was the most impressive of the day.
"I wanted to improve from last year, which I did, and you know what my aim will be next year now," Mageean said. "I never like to over-analyse a race, but maybe I should have gone off with all guns blazing." Apart from Fionnuala Britton's fourth place, Mageean's was, nonetheless, the second best individual Irish performance yesterday.
Another particularly encouraging one was Shane Quinn's 12th in the junior men, where the Waterford lad (son of Irish steeplechase record holder Brendan) and Donore's John Travers (25th) led Ireland to fifth place from 17 teams.
After two years lost to illness, Joe Sweeney's 21st in the senior men's race was a decent result in a contest which saw Ukranian veteran Sergey Lebid (35) leave it until the final 400m to storm home past Spain's Ayad Lamdassem to win his ninth title and 12th medal.
Fifth in Ireland last year, Lamdassem held off Portugal's bronze medallist Youssef El Kalai, but Spain, minus defending champion Alemayehu Bezebeh who pulled out due to the doping investigation which has thrown Spanish athletics into turmoil, lost their three-year hold on the team title to France.