Not since the glory days of Sonia O’Sullivan have we witnessed an Irish woman attack a middle distance race like this, Ciara Mageean following in those unyielding strides too by winning her second European Championship medal over 1,500 metres.
This one came after the finest championship race of Mageean’s career, after years of built-up resilience too, a proper showdown and duel between the two very best European runners over the distance right now.
Because Britain’s Laura Muir needed to be her finest too as she defended the title won in Berlin four years ago. The old Olympic Stadium was suitably enthralled, witnessing a battle that was unfolding with increasing fascination: two women racing for gold, from two laps out, only one winner.
Mageean spoke boldly beforehand about her desire to win, held magnificently evident over the three and three-quarter laps — Mageean taking up the early running, before Muir made her move with exactly two laps to go.
“I watched back on my race at Commonwealths, and she got a slight jump on me then and I said to myself, ‘don’t leave that gap’,” said Mageean.
“Because that just leaves a little bit more work for me to do so whenever she moved out I was like, ‘right, ready, you’re ready to pounce’ and I think I did a great job and I won’t come away from that race with any regrets. I gave it everything I could, I stuck to her heels and she just had the better of me at the finish but I tip my hat to a phenomenal athlete.”
Between the two it was a case of hunt or be hunted, and stayed that way at the lap and right down the backstretch, Mageean’s effort as complete as her rival, before rounding into the homestretch Muir finally opened up some ground, winning in 4:01.08.
Then came the 30-year-old from Portaferry in a clear silver medal position, clocking a season best of 4:02.56, Poland’s Sofia Ennaoui, who won silver in 2018, third in 4:03.59.
“Laura is a 3:55 runner and I’m not there just yet,” said Mageean, “but I think I’m showing the world I certainly am coming close. I believe I’m in sub-four shape, but I have to get in the race to get out and do it. But the main thing is winning medals for Ireland.
“It’s been a fantastic season so far. To come out and win silver for Northern Ireland at the Commonwealth Games, it was always going to be pressure, I felt I needed to do it in an Irish vest and see the tricolour raised too. but I know I’m in great shape to bring a medal home for Ireland, it’s everything I want, to see that Irish flag raised.
“One of the scenarios I envisaged during my warm-up, when she went I said, I’ll do what I planned and stick to her like a shadow. I thought going up the home straight, maybe this would be my day, it’s what I wrote in my training diary today. My time will come, I sure as hell tried. I fell a little short of gold but I can’t be disappointed, I laid it all bare on the track.”
That she did, Friday’s showdown her third successive European final, after winning bronze in 2016 and finishing fourth in Berlin last time.
“Laura is an absolutely fantastic athlete, I always feel privileged to toe the line against. She knows I’ll battle every inch to beat her, it’s a friendship formed over many a battle. I want to win the gold, so all is fair in love and war, but we’re good friends afterwards.
“I just knew I had to be in a place to strike for whoever made a move and I thought that would be Laura. I feel like I’m really homing in some good knowledge of 1,500m running, getting my tactics right this season, putting myself in a competitive place.”
Mageean also joins an elite club, only the second Irish athlete in history to win a second medal in European Championships history, joining O’Sullivan, who won five, and Derval O’Rourke, who won two
“It’s good company, being in with those two fantastic ladies and to be honest, I felt a little bit emotional doing the lap around and seeing all the tricolours and just taking in this season with two big champs and doing so well in them.
“I see so many younger athletes coming through and it makes me realise that I’m getting older and you start to come to terms with the fact that your athletics career doesn’t last forever so.
“Because the seasons are short too and I have been unlucky enough to have a couple hindered with injuries. It’s also taken me a long time to figure that out and I know there are some other athletes learning to figure out nerves and all that stuff and it has taken me a long time to get to where I am.”
Mark English safely secured his place in the 800 final on Sunday. Racing in the second of two semi-finals, the first three in each and the next two fastest progressing, there was no room for error, and English ran another controlled race, taking third in 1:46.66 behind Jake Wightman, Britain’s recently crowned world 1,500m champion moving down a distance, the win there going to Mariano García from Spain.
English, the bronze medal winner from 2014, came to Munich very much on form and intent on making Sunday’s final: “I just wanted to be in contention,” he said, the heat substantially quicker that the first. “There was a lot of surging in the race. So I’m just happy to get through, to be honest.”
“I couldn’t really worry that much because you can’t surge that many times in an 800. You only get a limited amount of energy, maybe 25 seconds where you get those bursts on, so it’s just a relief to get through.”
“It was tough but I’d like to give those guys another shot in the final, it’s like I said before this race: you get past in to the final and whenever it lands on heads or tails everyone has a chance.”
That final is set for Sunday’s closing session (6.40pm Irish time).