Talking over for Fionnuala Britton as she hones in on European three-in-a-row
Injured Mary Cullen replaced by Maria McCambridge while Joe Sweeney is replaced by Mick Clohisey
Ireland team members Michael Mulhare left and David McCarthy (right) flank Athletics Ireland high performance director Kevin Ankrom (second left) and national endurance coach Chris Jones at a press conference ahead of the 20th European Cross Country Championships in Belgrade, Serbia, on Sunday. Photograph: sportsfile
Shyness can sometimes be mistaken for aloofness but neither was the reason for Fionnuala Britton failing to show at the Irish team announcement for the European Cross Country in Belgrade.
Britton had originally agreed to be there, but changed her mind – or rather her coach Chris Jones changed it for her: when you’re the two-time, defending champion, 10 days away from going for title number three, there’s not much to be gained from talking about the scale of the challenge.
Short of race fitness
No women had ever won two European cross country titles back to back, let alone three, and Britton – somewhat short of race fitness this season, finishing only seventh in France last Sunday – didn’t want or need any further distraction.
“I think with Fionnuala sometimes you have to manage the expectation a little bit,” said Jones, who this year also took up the position of endurance coach with Athletics Ireland. “And at times there is a point when you have to respect her training, and what it is she wants to do.
“She ran the Intercounties a couple of weeks ago and was like the Pied Piper afterwards, all these youngsters following her around.
“And of course she loves that. As a role model to younger athletes there’s no one better. She made a big decision to support that race, did all the press stuff afterwards. Then she was at the Athletics Awards last week.
“And I don’t mind saying it, and I’ve said it to Fionnuala herself, no one around thinks she can actually win this for a third time.
“That’s not being negative. It’s the size of the challenge. But all races are different, and as a competitor, she was relentless last year, and if she brings that again into this race, I know she’ll give it her absolute best.”
Katie Taylor always adopts the same approach before a major boxing tournament. And like Taylor, Britton now demonstrates a consistency that is rare is any sport.
“Motivation is never an issue with Fionnuala. She loves running, loves training. We’re there or thereabouts, and she’s very close to where she needs to be.
“Last Sunday’s race was a step back into the intensity, and I think she needed that, badly, after missing the summer period of racing. There’s the mental aspect too of getting in tune with a race like that.
“What these final 10 days are about is staying confident in what you’re doing, keep in simple, and not panic.
Britton’s challenge in Serbia has been lessened by the news the Ethiopina-turned Dutch Sifan Hassan is set to race the under-23 event.
There are also some changes to the Irish teams, with Mary Cullen’s hopes of running the senior women dashed through injury and she’s replaced by Maria McCambridge, while Joe Sweeney has also opted out of the men’s race, and will be replaced by Mick Clohisey.