Tuesday 22 October 2019

'Now Sonia is back. Her name has been scandalised in the Australian media and we wondered how it would all impact on her'

Patsy McGonagle was Irish team manager for 25 years, four Olympic Games, six World Championships and six Europeans. In exclusive extracts from his new book, he tells his story

O'Sullivan in action against Gabriela Szabo in the 5,000m at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. Photo: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
O'Sullivan in action against Gabriela Szabo in the 5,000m at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. Photo: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE

There are 112,000 people gasping for breath as Sonia O'Sullivan comes around the bend and goes for gold. Gabriela Szabo, the reigning World champion, is holding on. But Sonia, the Sonia of old, is battling for dear life.

The night of September 25, 2000, will be regarded as the greatest night in the history of athletics as the world watched Cathy Freeman, Michael Johnson and Haile Gebrselassie light up the track, but we don't realise that as we watch Sonia and wait for Sonia all at once.

We are consumed in the moment and lost in the Sydney night. It is one of the great Olympic nights and nobody inside Stadium Australia can take their eyes off the epic battle on the track. People in those days didn't view history unfolding through the lens of a mobile phone.

With 300 metres to go in the women's 5,000m final, Sonia goes for it. Four years earlier, she had a disaster in Atlanta. Sonia didn't finish the 5,000m final and failed to qualify from the heats of the 1,500m.

But now Sonia is back. Her name has been scandalised in the Australian media and we wondered how it would all impact on her.

It is very clear that Sonia is in the zone. She's going to win this.

Of all the athletes he managed, Patsy McGonagle says Sonia O'Sullivan was the best. Photo: Pat Murphy / SPORTSFILE
Of all the athletes he managed, Patsy McGonagle says Sonia O'Sullivan was the best. Photo: Pat Murphy / SPORTSFILE

I grew up in rural Donegal. My dream was to coach an athlete who would get to the Olympic Games and win a gold medal.

Here I am, now, on this night of nights, at the finish line in Sydney, thinking it is going to happen. I'm not coaching, but I'm managing and being associated with this sensation of Irish athletics.

Sonia has a couple of goes, but she just can't get up to Szabo.

I know all about the Romanian. In my early days as Irish team manager, Szabo won gold in the 3,000 metres at the 1994 World Junior Championships in Lisbon. I was never a man for looking at splits or lap times.

People shout all this information at various intervals, but I just watch the person, see where that person is and what the whole landscape looks like at a particular moment in time.

Two Ethiopians, Gete Wami and Ayelech Worku, are arguing amongst themselves as the race hots up. Their plan was to have the pace at such a height that Sonia would get lost.

McGonagle consoles Robert Heffernan after his fourth-place finish in the 50km race walk in London 2012. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
McGonagle consoles Robert Heffernan after his fourth-place finish in the 50km race walk in London 2012. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

Faster, faster, faster!

Wami is on the trail of glory. Worku fancies her own chances. They are flat out by now, but soon the battle for gold is down to two... it's Sonia versus Szabo. It's a frenetic fight to the finish. Szabo goes first. Sonia responds and, as they're heading for home... neck and neck. GO ON... SONIA!

Sonia's on her shoulder, but Szabo finds a little something... again. I'm waiting for Sonia to burst past Szabo, but... it doesn't happen.

Sonia is out of time... out of track. Szabo has nicked it. Twenty-three hundredths of a second. One stride. So close. So far. F***... F*** IT.

My first meeting with Sonia O'Sullivan was before the 1994 European Cup, the first of 17 times I managed Ireland at the event.

The fact Sonia was even turning out for this was a big deal. She was big business and not all athletes treated the European Cup too seriously.

This one was in Dublin, which helped, but it was still a big thing to have Sonia with us.

Before the event started, I piled all the athletes into a tiny little room in the Skylon Hotel on the north side of the city, declining the option of a big room for a reason: I wanted proximity.

I didn't want distance between me and the team. I had to get them psyched.

I asked Fr Liam Kelleher from Cork to say a Mass in the middle of the 'meeting', but I got him to shunt the Mass in a direction of a team talk.

At the end of it all, I was at the 'altar' - a table, with some sort of Holy-looking cloth around it - beside Fr Liam and we got the team so up for it they were ready to burst out the door from Mass.

Sonia was one of the last to arrive that day.

The seats were all taken and you could see her train of thought.

Where am I going to sit?

I had never met Sonia O'Sullivan before.

I looked over at the ground beside the wall. "There you are... over there." Part of me was worried that she was such a big star that she'd kick up a fuss but, no, Sonia hunched down on the ground and didn't bat an eyelid.

Sonia was a gem.

She was part of a very good European Cross Country team that I had in Edinburgh in 2003. She won silver with Catherina McKiernan, Rosemary Ryan and Anne Keenan-Buckley.

Of all the athletes I ever managed Sonia was the best - without question.

SONIA was magic, but the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta was a nadir for her. Ireland expected gold.

Sonia expected gold.

She came through the heats and the semi-final, but with two laps to go in the women's 5,000 metres final, Sonia dropped out of the race. There was a question over where Sonia would go after '96. The country adored Sonia and nobody wanted Atlanta to have been the end.

Sonia studied at Villanova in the late 1980s and early '90s and developed shin splints, which kept her out for a year.

She struggled, but she came out the other side and showed incredible resilience to do that. If a silver medal at the World Indoors in 1997 hinted that Sonia would be back, Marrakesh in western Morocco and the World Cross Country Championships in 1998 was the confirmation.

She went to Marrakesh with the intention of running in one race. She got dropped off at the wrong hotel, lost her bag and her phone, but went to stay with Tina Ryan from Nike. Sonia was annoyed that she might be scratched from the second race, but she handled it so, so well.

It was the first year that there was an eight kilometre race for the women and the first year there were two different races.

Sonia went for a run around the course the night before the race and was prepared for the gap in the fence the participants had to go through to get to the finish line.

It was set up for a sprint finish. Sonia had that knowledge from the previous night and Paula Radcliffe admitted afterwards that she was just going to stop at the fence and not go through the gap. Radcliffe's hesitation and Sonia's knowledge meant that there was only going to be one winner.

That evening run made it for Sonia. She came out and nailed the second race too.

The heat was wicked because the race was at midday, but Sonia just took Marrakesh in her stride. Her confidence was back, and with it the stardust also returned. She was just awesome at that time - a true icon.

Sonia, the oldest runner in the race, won silver in the Olympics in Sydney, but there was a certain disappointment. She ran a new personal best time, and her 14mins and 41.02secs was a new national record too.

There was a feeling around the midway point that the race was gone from her. She drifted back to 12th and the fear was that she wouldn't claw it back. But Sonia did.

Szabo put her two arms out and got over the line for her moment. Sonia looked to the Sydney sky as we waited for the reaction. She looked over and smiled.

Once I saw the satisfaction written on Sonia's face, my mind, scrambled as she crossed the line, changed. She got her medal, becoming the first Irish woman to medal in athletics at the Olympics, and did a lap of honour just as Cathy Freeman, Australia's heroine and by now Sonia's arch nemesis, was being paraded as the 400 metres champion.

Sonia darted down the home straight, draped in the Irish Tricolour and accepting the adulation of the Irish supporters.

Her father John was anxious to get to her. Nic Bideau, her coach and partner, and their daughter Ciara came over. So too Father Liam Kelleher, who saw her briefly.

They met under a street light with Sonia in the Olympic zone and they in a spectator area. The smiles from each side of the fence told the story. We had to get Sonia out of there.

There was a demand for a press conference, but we didn't do one. We only got out of the place after midnight.

Sonia had the 10,000 metres to do as well, and our minds quickly turned to that. She went away into the night with an Olympic silver medal around her neck and a furry wombat under her arm.

The Donegal team were a talented bunch but their lifestyle screwed them

Clones, a market town in County Monaghan, is the epicentre of summer for Gaelic football supporters. In athletics terms, Clones is Ulster’s Santry; St Tiernach’s Park, a claustrophobic arena at the top of the hill in the town, is their stage.

It is a monument to a previous generation, but in the heat of the sporting battle, it’s one of the most demanding places in the world.

Even at the Olympic Games, my mind wandered back a few years to a day spent in the Clones cauldron. It was one of those afternoons when it felt as though the world was going to end.

I was in the GAA trenches after being roped in to assist PJ McGowan, a Ballybofey man who was appointed as manager of the Donegal football team in 1994.

Those trenches were ferocious places. When Tom O’Riordan of the Irish Independent started questioning me about ‘pressure’, while in Sydney at the 2000 Olympics, my mind spun back five years, to 1995, when I was with PJ as we faced Down in the Ulster Championship.

Down were defending All-Ireland champs. We had beaten them in the league earlier that year, but they were still cock-a-hoop after winning the Sam Maguire Cup in 1994.

Down always had a bit of a swagger, but boy did we catch them that day. We beat them by 1-12 to 0-9 and Manus Boyle scored 1-5.

John Joe Doherty, an All-Ireland winner with Donegal in ’92, got injured in the second-half, but he wouldn’t come off. He was hardly able to walk.

John Joe could hardly move, but he was still so psyched up.

“F*** OFF... Patsy! I’m going... NOWHERE!”

I turned to the crowd and told them to encourage him to go off. Men like John Joe would have died for the county jersey, and it was a ‘live or die’ job in the Championship then.

There was no qualifier series in those days. No back door, no second chances.

It was tense at half-time, as I was trying to drive on a message about not letting the game drift away. There was just overwhelming frustration in the room. The space was tight and we had 30 or so brutes of men, all fit to be tied.

We were in front by a point, but it was as tight as you could imagine.

The half ended with a bit of a skirmish so the mercury was high anyway.

A whole shouting match quickly broke out. Manus fired a couple of bottles across the room and hit the far wall.

Manus, John Joe... those boys were absolute winners, and I loved that edge in them.

Donegal football was a bit fractious at the time. PJ had taken over from Brian McEniff, who was manager in 1992 when Donegal won that first epic All-Ireland.

There had been a clamour for Martin McHugh, one of the ’92 stars, to take the job, but he ended up managing Cavan and, as luck would have it, we ended up playing Cavan in the Championship in 1997.

Martin was a brilliant figure within the game, but there was a feeling that he had done the wrong thing by going to Cavan.

They beat us fair and square in ’97 and after the game I went to shake his hand, but the same rush wasn’t there from others.

There was a lot of resentment towards Martin from certain quarters, but I admired him. He put his head on the block and made what I’m sure was a difficult decision to go and manage Cavan.

Martin knows the game inside out and he was the best individual footballer I ever watched.

He controlled and contributed all the time. He was an absolute leader and was always planning the strategy for the team.

I have no doubt he would have been such a driving force in the dressing room if he had taken over Donegal. He lived for Donegal and his heart would have beaten a little quicker if he’d been the manager.

In the winter of 2002 PJ McGowan came to my door again. Donegal couldn’t find a manager so Brian McEniff, as he often did, was stepping in. He needed help and PJ had suggested my name. Like the old eejit I was, I jumped at the chance.

The big wake-up call was how the preparation of teams had changed since my previous encounter with a county dressing-room.

This period with the Donegal team was probably the most demoralising time of my whole sporting career. It was an absolute nightmare.

They were a talented bunch, but their lifestyle screwed them. They were very immature.

Some of them went on to achieve everything under Jim McGuinness, but it took them a long time to cop on.

The rest retired and never reached anywhere near their fullest potential. It was their own fault because they had talent. They just didn’t wise up early enough as a group.

All the time, I had people ringing me and telling me stories about players out drinking. They were up to all sorts of stupid antics. It made me mad as hell.

Eventually, I told Brian to drop nine of them.

“I have nine names here for you,” I told him.

“Drop them.”

I knew the team was wrecked without those nine men, but it couldn’t go on.

“We’ll get players from somewhere,” I assured Brian.

He took the decision to drop two of them, and I compromised. Seven of them survived.

I'm in intensive care getting stents in. I can still hear the laughs of him

The National Cross-Country Championships were held in Stranorlar in 1999. One of the reasons I brought the nationals to Stranorlar was motivation. You need something to keep a team motivated. ‘We’re on home territory. We have to win!’

A week out from the Nationals, I had to go to Dublin because I had serious pains in my chest.

I was in the Mater Hospital for an angiogram, but the doctor looked at me and didn’t seem too content.

“Mr McGonagle, you’ll have to come back another day so I can put a stent in.”

I was having none of this nonsense.

“Wait ’til I tell you, Mr McCann... I’ll not be back. The way it’ll be, whatever’s going to be is going to be done today.” I had a blocked artery but, sure, I didn’t have time to go back for surgery.

“You have no idea how busy a man I am, Mr McCann.”

The man probably wanted to refer me somewhere else. I was arrogant, passionate and driven to a point where nothing else mattered only the cross-country race. I got the stents put in. I had no clothes or anything with me, but all I could think of was the Nationals.

Charlie Collins rang me from Highland Radio to do an interview about us hosting the Nationals.

I wasn’t supposed to have the phone, but I had it hidden underneath the pillow. I had Nationals to organise.

There I was, walking about in one of those hospital gowns, my backside bare, figuring things out. I had a pillow in front of my face as I spoke to Charlie, who clearly knew that something wasn’t right.

“What the hell are you whispering about, Patsy?”

“I’m in intensive care here in the Mater Hospital. I’m after getting stents in.”

I can still hear the laughs of him yet. I got the interview done out in the corridor, but I needed out of there. PJ Sweeney, a national senior long jump champion from Drumkeen, worked in the Posts and Telegraphs in Dublin. It clicked with me that PJ would be going back to Donegal at the end of the week, so I rang him. That Friday, I was sitting on the steps at the Mater waiting on PJ. I didn’t mention to anyone that I was going home.

There was no way that they’d have let me.

I’ve had stents inserted again in more recent years and the procedure is much smoother now. But I got into the car with PJ and was sleeping before we got to the first set of traffic lights. I slept from there to Ballybofey.


The weather on the day of the race was the worst possible, but we had a massive day.

We won the junior men title, Gary Murray won the individual race, we won the senior women’s team and we got two boys – Simon Ward and Murray – on the team for the World Juniors in Belfast.

On top of all of that, we got Helena Crossan and Kay Byrne on the Irish team for the World Cross-Country Championships.

There was no stopping me that day. Everyone was telling me to calm down, but I neither listened to nor heard them. I settled myself when it was all over, but I was back at work the next day. I had to write the reports and get the photos done up.

The only concession I made was that I didn’t take a drink that night.

* * * * *

BELINDA McArdle was a class act all through her career. Belinda was the same age as Sonia O’Sullivan, and they went to the World Juniors in Canada together in 1988.

Temperament was the only thing that separated them. When they were in action, there was very little between them. In terms of moving on, Sonia was just able to go out into the big, bad world and embrace it. Belinda was invaluable to me, without ever really ‘getting’ it. She never had a deep desire, but I just forced it with her. I had her tortured and never let her off the hook.

I was in the McArdle house most days with her and I said to her mother, Linda, at one point, ‘You do realise, there’ll be no discos and she’ll have no friends around here. She will be in a different world completely’.

Belinda was a lead runner.

One Saturday, 24 hours prior to an Ulster Championships, Belinda was in hospital to have her appendix removed.

I was anxious. I needed Belinda for the race. “Have you not had the operation yet?”

“Naw, not yet.”

“Have you any pain today?”

“Naw, I’m not so bad.”

“F**k sake, Belinda. Get your clothes on you and meet me down stairs. You’ve been lying here three or four days... and they’ve done sweet damn all.” I saw the team going down the tubes without her. Away we went and we got the win. To this day, I don’t know if she’s ever had that appendix operation, but she has the Ulster medal.

Irish Independent

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