Belgrade in Serbia was the venue for this years Spar European Cross Country, not it must be said the most inspiring of choices. Despite the logistic difficulties in getting to the Serbian capital, choice of flights via Paris, Frankfurt or Luton there was a strong Irish presence supporting the Irish men and women’s teams. Indeed were it not for the foreign support, particularly from Ireland and the UK then the Championships would have been held in a virtually spectatorless environment. The little local interest that there was at the championships dissipated completely once their star athlete had medalled in the Men’s U/23 race.
The racing itself, as always with the Europeans was intense, the Senior Men’s race was won by the 2009 champion in Santry Alemayehu Bezabeh (Esp). Andy Vernon (GBR) who competed in the 3000m at this years Morton Games was an excellent 3rd with a stirring final 200 where he lifted himself from 7th into the bronze medal position behind another African European Polat Kemboi Arikan (TUR). From an Irish perspective the performance of the team was pretty impressive with a fine run in particular from Michael Mulhare (North Laois) who finished 15th with David McCarthy (West Waterford) 18th, Paul Pollock (Anadale) 26th and Dan Mulhare (North Laois) 31st making up the scoring four. Mick Clohissey (Raheny) was the 5th Irish athlete in 56th place with Clonliffe’s Stephen Scullion a further seven places behind in 63rd. On the team result Spain were 1st, Belgium 2nd, Great Britain 3rd with the Irish team in 6th place, considerable improvement on the 2012 performance.
Twice European Cross Country champion Fionnuala Britton battled exceptionally hard to try and retain her crown but clearly the interruption in her preparations meaning that she missed most of the Summer track season, took its toll as she placed 4th. The race winner was Sophie Durate (FRA). On the team front the victorious team was Great Britain with the Irish team of Britton, Sara Treacy, Ciara Durkin, Sarah Mulligan, Anne-Marie Larkin and Maria McCambridge matching their male counterparts and finishing 6th.
In the Men’s U/23 race the Irish team just came up short on the final lap, having been in a strong third place for most of the race they slipped behind to finish 4th over the final lap. There were, however, promising performances in this particularly from Paul Robinson who placed 9th, John Travers (Donore) 32nd, Kevin Dooney (Raheny) 38th and Shane Quinn, who undoubtedly will have better days finishing a distressed 41st. Of the other Irish Jake Byrne placed 60th with Ryan McDermott 71st.
There was Clonliffe interest in this race with Dmia Serjogins running for his native Latvia placing in 67th place.
Aaron Hanlon will have benefited enormously from the experience of his first major championships. Aaron put in a strong performance over the early part of the race and although he will be disappointed with losing ground on the final lap he will benefit enormously from the experience. Aaron was the third Irish scorer in 49th place. The team were led home after and excellent run by Sean Tobin (Clonmel) who finished 9th, Andrew Coscoran 40th, Aaron 47th and Ruairi Finnegan (Letterkenny) 61st. The other Irish were Kevin Mulcaire 85th and Con Doherty 95th. Again improvement in the team performance as the team placed 9th overall.
The Junior Women’s team were led home placed 15h with DSD`s Siofra Cleirigh-Buttner 37th.
In all a positive enough Irish performance, despite the team returning home without that elusive medal, however, once again the wisdom of these Championships being held in such remote areas must be questioned, the attendance is down year upon year and one shudders to think what the attendance will be like in Bulgaria in 2014, early indicators are that it is once again a two flight journey to Sofia followed by a 150 kilometre bus, train or car journey. Joe Cooper questions whether the sport of cross country running will still exist in 20 years time, whilst it may well survive if things continue as they are one wonders whether any spectator will retain the will to continue such arduous journeys.