FERMOY'S DECADE OF RACING GLORY... (John Walshe, Evening Echo 14/01/2016)
Forty years ago this Sunday, the sports pages featured Bobby Charlton in the colours of Waterford United who beat St Patrick’s Athletic 3-2 before a capacity crowd at Kilcohan Park.
But on that spring-like January day, an event was taking place in Fermoy which would play a significant role in Irish athletics for the following decade.
The Fermoy International Cross-Country was the brainchild of Tom Burke, then secretary of the Grange club (now known as Grange-Fermoy AC). Like a lot of great ideas – some which never come to fruition - it reputably came about in the early hours of the morning after the club’s annual dinner-dance.
That first race was fixed for Sunday January 18 on the grounds of Patrick Coughlan, situated just outside the town on the right-hand side of the old Dublin road. It was a flat grassland course with a few man-made jumps included for variety and ideal for spectator viewing. The distance was six miles and it was preceded by the Southern Region Junior Championships over four miles.
A number of British clubs had been invited and although Shaftsbury Harriers, Cardiff and Manchester & District Harriers sent teams, for various reasons they were without their star runners. The main attraction was the ginger haired Andy Holden of Tipton Harriers, who tragically passed away two years ago after a long illness.
Holden had competed in the steeplechase four years previously at the Munich Olympics, the same year he set a British record of 8:26.4 for the event. His main opposition was deemed to be Grenville Tuck, one of the famous Tuck twins (the other was Graham) who ran for Cambridge & Coleridge AC.
|Grenville Tuck, Neil Cusack & Donie Walsh|
The home challenge was led by Neil Cusack from Limerick and Leevale’s Donie Walsh. It was the latter who hammered out a blistering pace from the start, but he lost contact soon after as Holden moved up after a slow start.
Piling on the pressure, the Tipton man eventually crossed the line to a tumultuous reception from the estimated 3,000 crowd in a time of 28:21. Tuck finished runner-up, 10 seconds behind, with Cusack holding on for third in 28:43 and Walsh finishing fourth in 28:56.
Irish clubs dominated the team contest as Clonliffe took first with 62 points, five ahead of the Leevale squad of Walsh, Ray Treacy, Tony O’Leary and Pat Duggan. Donore Harriers finished third ahead of Manchester & District, Shaftesbury and St Finbarr’s.
After that first international, the quality of runners attracted to the Fermoy venue continued to spiral. The following year of 1977, despite a day of strong wind and heavy rain, Bernie Ford from Aldershot (he had finished eight in the 1976 Olympic 10,000m and would go on to run 27:43.74 for the distance later that year) maintained the British dominance when coming home 11 seconds clear of Waterford’s Gerry Deegan.
The 21-year-old Deegan would finish an impressive 21st that spring at the World Championships in Düsseldorf, improving to 14th the following year behind John Treacy’s historic victory in the mud of Glasgow.
Finishing fourth that day in Fermoy was Dutchman Jos Hermens, then holder of the world’s best track times for 10 miles (45:57.6), 20,000m and the one hour run. In later years he became one of the most influential athletes agents with the likes of Haile Gebrselassie and Kenenisa Bekele on his books.
Another former world record holder, Dave Bedford, had to settle for ninth that wet and windswept day, two places ahead of Donie Walsh as the previous year’s winner Holden could only manage 13th. A women’s two-mile race also appeared that year with victory going to Vera Duffy from Glasslough ahead of Ann Ford, wife of the men’s winner.
The following year of 1978, a full juvenile programme was added with the main attraction seeing another British star, Brendan Foster, taking the honours. Now BBC athletics commentator, Foster would later that summer run 27:30.3 for the 10,000m.
Another outstanding athlete who hailed from the same North-East athletics hotbed as Foster was Mike McLeod, the Fermoy winner of 1979. But the following year, the long awaited home success was finally achieved as Deegan took the title, beating Steve Binns and Dave Black from England.
Local star John Hartnett gave the crowd plenty to shout about when taking fourth ahead of Danny McDaid, one of the heroes of the Irish silver-medal winning team at the previous year’s World C-C in Limerick.
In 1981, Deegan had to settle for second behind Hans-Jurgen Orthmann from West Germany and the 1982 race saw McLeod back on the winner’s rostrum after a tremendous duel with Mohammed Kedir of Ethiopia, the winner of the world cross-country a couple of months later in Rome.
The 1983 race was a battle between the world champions with 1977 winner Leon Schots of Belgium defeating John Treacy (1978 and 1979 winner) while another two-time champion, Craig Virgin from the United States (1980 and 1981), could only manage sixth.
One place behind the American was Rob De Castella of Australia who went on later that year to take the marathon title at the inaugural World Championships in Helsinki as well as defeating Alberto Salazar and Carlos Lopes at the Rotterdam Marathon.
Another iconic world star was Henry Rono, the Kenyan who had set world records for 3000m, 5000m, 10,000m and 3000m steeplechase during the early summer of 1978. But by the time of his Irish appearance nine years later he was past his best, finishing well down the field as Limerick’s Frank O’Mara won the final Fermoy International Cross-Country.
Sadly, the decade that brought a galaxy of stars to the North Cork town was at an end, but it is an era that is fondly recalled by those who were fortunate enough to be part of what was truly an international feast of world-class athletics.