Monday 11 November 2019

Athletics: 'We could have won more if right work was put in'

Budapest glories were bittersweet for Anne Keenan-Buckley, writes Marie Crowe

When Fionnuala Britton hit the front of the pack just after the 2km mark at the European Cross-Country championships last Sunday, it seemed like an opportunistic move. A spur-of-the-moment decision to take the race by the scruff of the neck, defend her title and go for gold. But it was far from that – every move Britton made was all part of a well-thought-out plan orchestrated by her coach Chris Jones.

Before the race, Jones walked the frozen track in Budapest twice. The course was tougher than he'd anticipated so after much deliberation he concluded that their original tactics needed changing. Britton was in the shape of her life and Jones knew that if she made her move early in the race she was capable of seeing it through until the end. She could make her competitors hurt.

Jones admitted it was one of the biggest calls he'd made in his 20 years as a coach. It could have completely backfired, but it didn't; in fact, it turned out to be a masterstroke. Britton won the race in remarkable style.

However, it wasn't a decision that Jones made by all by himself. He sought the opinion of former international cross-country team manager Anne Keenan-Buckley. And when she gave her seal of approval, the new plans were put in place and executed perfectly by Britton. Keenan-Buckley may no longer be directly involved in Irish athletics but she still has a role to play and a valuable one.

"I work closely with Chris Jones and these things aren't something that happen in a couple of weeks, it's a couple of years of work," explains Keenan-Buckley.

At the end of October, the Laois woman was still the manager of Ireland's cross-country team and was doing a very good job. The athletes thought highly of her both as a coach and a person and she was getting results.

In 2011, she guided Britton to her first gold medal at the European Cross-Country championships and the previous year she was in charge of the men's under 23 team who took the team title in the same competition. With Keenan-Buckley at the helm, Ireland was making waves on the European stage and the future was looking good but behind the scenes the ship was far from steady.

Keenan-Buckley was reaching breaking point and just over six weeks ago she became so disillusioned with the high-performance management and the direction it was taking that she decided to resign.

"What I did I didn't do lightly and I'd like to think that as a result of my actions the people involved took note," she explains.

"Athletes have a window of opportunity in their lives and it's only for couple of years. I don't like seeing any athlete being a victim and, hopefully, by me doing something, they can rectify some of the things that I felt were going wrong."

Keenan-Buckley first competed for Ireland when she was 14 and gave 36 years to athletics at international level before getting involved in team management. She knows Irish athletics inside out and was overjoyed to see Britton and her team-mates Linda Byrne, Ava Hutchinson, Lizzie Lee, Sarah McCormack and Sarah Treacy win the team gold.

"I knew it was something that wasn't impossible. Coming into this year I thought we could challenge for the gold but we'd have lost Mary Cullen to that squad and she was a big loss.

"But the way it unfolded worked out well; the biggest thing was Britain not having one athlete finish in the top ten. That's very unusual and it definitely benefited us. Also the Portuguese are usually exceptionally strong and they didn't seem to perform well in the snow. Our girls worked hard, they were up at altitude and a serious effort was made to put them in the best position possible."

After the race, it was no surprise that each member of the winning team made sure to mention Keenan-Buckley. Her contribution was paramount. Yet even though the former manager was delighted for Britton and co, she couldn't help feeling a little bittersweet about the day.

"You can't remove yourself from the natural emotion, the excitement of being there. I've had my own career and I know

it's all about the athlete and that's the important thing. Whatever you do, you are there to make it good for them and that's what I work at.

"The reason you do it is because you want to have the best for them, you are a facilitator. There are issues with myself and they way things are handled, not just with the women's team but overall. I think a lot more can be done but that doesn't take from the success the girls and other people have achieved but I think we could have a lot more medals if the right work was put in."

So Keenan-Buckley wants to continue making life better for the athletes. She's got a vision. She wants structures in place to cater for the athletes who come back from America, for those who come out of third-level colleges and for the juniors who make the step up.

She wants satellite hubs around the country to be developed into high-performance centres. She wants a coaching community that is in constant communication and regularly up-skilled. She wants Ireland to win medals every year, Keenan-Buckley wants more. But the big question is: will she come back?

"You'd love to think you can get the genuine support you want in order to move it on. There are key people I want involved; if I have the right people there, then maybe."

Well, at least she didn't say no.

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