Tuesday 24 April 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: Sorry Jerry Kiernan, your passion and evangelism have earned you the right to slag off whoever you like

Ciara Mageean of Ireland with the bronze medal she won in the Women's 1500m Final on day five of the 23rd European Athletics Championships. Photo: Sportsfile
Ciara Mageean of Ireland with the bronze medal she won in the Women's 1500m Final on day five of the 23rd European Athletics Championships. Photo: Sportsfile

Eamonn Sweeney

Jerry Kiernan - An Apology. Normally when you see something like this it means one of two things.

Either it's a kind of a joke along the lines of 'I said Leicester City were going to be relegated and then they won the title' or it's something lawyers have asked a journalist to put in so the paper won't have to shell out a rake of dosh to some sensitive soul.

This is neither of those things. It's a genuine apology because I'm very sorry about something I wrote. A while back the aforementioned Mr Kiernan, not for the first time, launched a broadside against GAA players, the general gist of which was that their levels of fitness are over-praised and are only in the ha'penny place compared to those of athletes.

So I had a handy populist go at him in this column. I was wrong to do that and here's why. This day last week Ciara Mageean ran a tremendous race in the 1500m at the European Championships in Amsterdam to win a bronze medal. Afterwards she praised the coach who'd helped her come back from a potentially career-ending injury: "It was three years of Jerry taking me from walking to jogging five minutes to winning bronze here, and I can't thank him enough." The Jerry in question is Jerry Kiernan.

Read More: Mageean in elite company with surge to bronze

This wasn't just something Mageean felt obliged to say in the first flush of triumph. Back in April, in one of the most moving things I've read about the coach-athlete relationship, Mageean said: "He took me on while I was possibly in the worst place I have ever been as an athlete. Jerry helped to coach and guide me through not only the physical training back from my surgery but also proved to be a great friend. He was there through my tears and my triumphs."

In doing this Kiernan has performed a signal service for not just Irish athletics but Irish sport in general. Because the teenage Ciara Mageean was as phenomenal a natural talent as Irish sport has ever produced. When she finished second in the World Youth Championships 800m in 2009 and followed up with a silver medal in the World Junior 1500m the following year, she was impinging upon the dominance of African middle distance runners, as marked at those grades as it is at senior levels. This made her a rare talent, not only in an Irish, but in a European context. Yet since then Mageean has been dogged by injuries which have led to one long lay-off after another. Many people feared she might go the way of swimming prodigy Grainne Murphy, forced into early retirement with a great future unfulfilled. Instead, on this day last week came the best comeback in Irish sport for a long, long time.

You see, this is only the beginning for Ciara Mageean, who's still just 24. On paper she was among the slowest runners in the Amsterdam field and a slow first two laps also put her at a disadvantage as it more or less turned the race into an 800m, a distance at which several of her rivals had clocked much faster times than the Down woman. Yet a medal always looked on the cards. Mageean had got her mojo back.

Read More: Magnificent Ciara picks up a bronze for Ireland

She actually seemed disappointed afterwards because her run had been blocked down the home straight. Had it not been Mageean would have certainly finished second and maybe even snatched the gold. Yet the athlete who finished just inches ahead of her in second, Sifan Hassan, a transplanted Ethiopian running for Holland, is currently third favourite to take gold in Rio. This was a very strong field.

A fit Ciara Mageean's potential is almost limitless. She has the ability to eventually make the same kind of mark on the world of athletics that Sonia O'Sullivan did. So you can see what Jerry Kiernan has done. It's striking that it was left to him to carry out this sporting reclamation project. Mageean made no mention of Athletics Ireland's current High Performance director Kevin Ankrom, a man Kiernan has clashed with in the past.

Kiernan's training group contains a number of other promising young Irish athletes. It will be interesting to see how they go over the next few years. Mageean is a special case but there have been a number of stellar Irish underage prospects in recent years. If they are not properly brought through it will be an unforgivable missed opportunity.

When it comes to Irish athletics, Jerry Kiernan is a believer, a gadfly and a passionate evangelist. If the sport had a few more like this driven man from Listowel there'd have been more than one medal coming back from Amsterdam. In the circumstances I think he's entitled to give vent to his frustrations now and again. It's not as if GAA people don't slag off other sports themselves. I got that one badly wrong.

Rave on Jerry Kiernan, drive on with wild abandon.

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