Sweeney leads Irish assault on Albufeira

Lindie Naughton

A strong Irish team faces a tough challenge from Portuguese and Spanish squads at Sunday's SPAR European Cross Country Championships in Albufeira, Portugal.

Albufeira, on the Algarve, is the most southerly location ever to stage the champion-ships and snow is unlikely to be a problem.


To acclimatise, Irish inter-county champion Joe Sweeney (pictured) took the wise decision to travel out a week in advance.

He heads a team that includes Mark Kenneally, the star of the team last year when he finished eighth, as well as Mark Christie and marathon man Gary Thornton.

Defending his title is Spain's Alemayehu Bezabeh who had a memorable battle with Briton Mo Farah last year in Dublin. Farah, winner of the both the 5,000m and 10,000 at the European Championships last summer, isn't running this year.

Although she only finished seventh in the British trials, Hayley Yelling-Higham will defend her women's title, but this time the opposition, led by Spain's Rosa Morato and Adrienne Herzog from the Netherlands, who were second and third last year, will not let her dominate the race so easily.

Fionnuala Britton, a fighting 11th last year, leads the Irish team.

Ireland's best chance of a team medal lies with the men's U23 race. Leading the team is US-based Ciarán ó Lionáird, 18th in the NCAA Cross-Country Championships recently after winning the South Regional championships.

Also US-based are West Waterford's David McCarthy and Raheny's David Rooney.

Breandan O'Neill, John Coughlan and Michael Mulhare are all veterans of last year's race, when Mulhare finished 18th. Among the opposition are last year's junior champion Jeroen D'Hoedt from Belgium.

Individually, Ciara Mageean hopes to improve on her ninth place of last year in the women's junior race.

And over the summer, Mageean made her mark at world level when she took 1,500m silver at the World Junior championships and won the junior race at the intercounties with ease.