'Old man' the seer in Cragg's odyssey

 

ATHLETICS: It's easy to imagine John McDonnell sitting down with Alistair Cragg to work out tactics for tomorrow's European Championship 5,000-metre final. They have the classic coach-athlete relationship, just like an old boxing guru and a young prizefighter.

McDonnell leans over and slowly issues instructions into his ear. Cragg sits there silently, nodding regularly to indicate understanding and approval. The respect is mutual, and the trust absolute.

When Cragg speaks about that relationship ahead of tomorrow's final he refers to McDonnell as either "coach" or "the old man". That's because he doesn't just credit him with developing his athletic talent; McDonnell has also been a father figure for the past six years. And his presence trackside tomorrow evening can only increase the chances of Cragg winning the gold medal for Ireland he so craves.

"It's very important to me that I've got my mentor here," says Cragg, "because he's the brain behind my running. He may not know the other runners personally, but he knows their times and their championship strengths. And I'll do exactly what he says tomorrow. If he tells me to go from four kilometres out then I'll do it. If he tells me to wait until the last 200 then I'll do that as well. He knows my strengths, but he also has faith in my kick.

"And I've never run badly when he's around. He knows what I have to do, and he knows I'm ready. Whatever he says always gets my blood flowing. But he's not a man of many words; he just says the right thing."

Cragg is hoping to become Ireland's first male winner in the history of European championships. Though born in South Africa, he has a deep sense of pride in all things Irish (his great-grandparents on his mother's side were Irish), and the man who most helped instil that pride is McDonnell. He's been in Gothenburg for the past few days, having spent the previous week at the old family homestead in Mayo.

McDonnell's home for almost 40 years now has been Fayetteville, Arkansas - where since 1972 he's been track and field coach at the University. If Cragg wins tomorrow then it's fitting McDonnell will have played a role.

The first part of McDonnell's story would be familiar to many Irish emigrants from the west of Ireland in the late 1960s. He arrived in New York in 1964, but when a promised position as a cameraman with ABC fell through he tried various jobs.

His story then took a significant twist when he found an offer of a running scholarship at the little-known Southwestern Louisiana university. While there he developed a deep love of running, later winning an American 3,000-metre title.

Though recently turned 68, McDonnell continues to head the prestigious athletics programme at Arkansas. He is by far the most successful coach in American college history, winning 42 NCAA championships since 1984 (11 cross-country, 19 indoor track and 12 outdoor track), and personally coaching 54 individual champions and 23 Olympians.

Coaching is his life and his passion - though McDonnell also owns a 2,500-acre ranch in Pryor, Oklahoma, where he likes to herd horseback his 650 head of cattle. He's worked with several other elite Irish runners, including Frank O'Mara and Niall Bruton, but rates Cragg as the best distance runner he's encountered.

Their first meeting happened by chance. Six years ago, Cragg had followed his elder brother from his home in South Africa to Southern Methodist University, in Dallas, Texas. He had a hard time adjusting, but McDonnell had seen him run at a college meet and was impressed. He recommended a transfer to Arkansas - a move Cragg claims saved his running career and put his life back on track.

Within two years McDonnell had Cragg winning the first in a series of NCAA titles, and it's no exaggeration to say that by now he knows Cragg's strengths better than the athlete himself.

Cragg is the fastest of tomorrow's 15 finalists over 5,000 metres this season, with 13:08.97, and it seems obvious his best chance for gold is to ensure a fast race, or at least a long wind-up over the last two or three laps.

His biggest threat will come from the Spanish trio, led by this week's 1,500-metre bronze medallist, Juan Carlos Higuero - who definitely has the biggest kick of the entire field. Jesús España is also known for his fast finish, as is Pablo Villalobos.

Others that won't mind waiting for a fast finish are Britain's Mo Farah, who has run 13:09.40, and the Moroccan-born Frenchman Khalid Zoubaa, who is coached by a certain Khalid Skah and has run 13:11.97.

Whatever about times, the 26-year-old Cragg will have to produce his best race all year to win. The fact is he hasn't won outdoors this year, losing three times over 1,500 metres and dropping out of his only other 5,000 metres, at the Paris Golden League.

Incredibly, his third-place finish in Thursday's heats was only his second 5,000 metres since the Athens Olympics, where he was the only European to make the final, and finished 12th.

"You can look as deeply as you want into those previous races," he adds. "I did them for a reason. If I wanted to get an ego out of races I wouldn't have run them. It was nothing to do with my speed. It was more about getting comfortable at running 58 seconds continuously. If I can string 58 seconds together for the last four laps here, then that will be good going. And I think that's where I'm at right now.

"I also think those previous races were just there to frustrate me, and I really appreciate the 5,000 metres now. Once I got into my rhythm in my heat I realised this event is not a rush. I can sit in and enjoy it, and not panic whenever a move is made. In the 1,500 metres you feel like you're rushed, that you have to get to every corner quickly."

Obviously he's not giving it all away, yet Cragg's tactics will have to focus on taking the sting out of the Spanish kick. If it boils down to a true sprint it's hard to see how he can win.

"It could come down to a sprint," he suggests, before adding: "Only if I let it . . . but I don't mind waiting. For a 1,500 metre runner to kick at the end of a 5,000-metre race is not easy.

"The Spaniards are a strong bunch of runners, and I respect all three of them. But there are other runners too. You can't dismiss say Marius Bakken or the young Englishman. I know their strengths, but I've beaten these kind of runners before."

That much is true. And if McDonnell's tactical plan gets the best out of Cragg again together they can complete another chapter in Irish distance-running history.