Four weeks before the European Cross-Country Championships return to home ground for only the second time, Irish athletics coach Feidhlim Kelly has called for greater clarity and leadership in how teams and individuals will be selected, and where exactly medals are being targeted.
Set for the Sport Ireland campus at Abbotstown on December 12th, one year later than originally scheduled due to Covid-19, there will certainly be medal-winning expectations, particularly after Ireland brought home four from the last edition of the championships in Lisbon in 2019; two individual bronze medals, plus two team silver medals.
Kelly believes something similar can be repeated, only so far he feels his athletes aren't being incentivised or indeed energised in the way they should be. Among those he coaches at the Dublin Track Club, a training group not affiliated with Athletics Ireland, are Tokyo Olympians Andrew Coscoran, Mark English and Michelle Finn, plus national champions Seán Tobin, Hiko Tonosa and Iseult O'Donnell.
Coscoran, who made the 1,500m semi-final in Tokyo, has already stated his hopes of competing, the question being whether or not he races the individual or mixed relay, a recently added event. Kelly’s training group this week completed a warm-weather training camp in Portugal, partly funded by Athletics Ireland, and still he feels there’s a lack of urgency about the championships.
"We're hoping Andrew is going to run, we just don't know what the current state of play is with the mixed relay team," says Kelly. "In an ideal scenario, if all our best athletes run that, we could win the gold medal. Say with Andrew, Ciara Mageean, Sarah Healy and someone like Luke McCann. They'd be guaranteed a medal anyway, a hard team to beat.
“But there’s no clear pathway or plan here. It’s all too ad hoc. It’s a common trend of the last few years, a lack of someone to help pull everyone together. It’s a home championship, but so far there just isn’t the buzz there should be. We had a template from 2009 [when Santry hosted the event], but so far there’s no replicating of that.
“We are lacking leadership from somewhere, and someone, because the sport needs that. And just because you’re a top athlete doesn’t mean you need that leadership too, someone telling you have to run here. But my athletes have heard nothing.”
Athletics Ireland did produce a selection criteria document back in August, with the top three finishers at next weekend’s National inter-clubs at Santry gaining an automatic spot, along with three others per team at the discretion of the selection committee. Kelly also cited the lack of a single team training or squad session.
“The British team are having a trial for their relay, there’s no reason we shouldn’t do the same. We’re trying to be positive, but realistic too. A week out from the nationals, it’s not my job to be promoting the races. And I think that’s reflected in the landscape of Irish athletics that we see at the moment. You can stay out of trouble, say nothing, but there is apathy there, and I wouldn’t be feeling very positive about the event, in terms of the long-term picture and vision.
“I know with Covid last year, that knocked the wind out of the sails a little, but I just don’t get the sense everyone is pulling together on this. We need to pick the best teams, our best athletes, it shouldn’t be that hard to get that message out.
“It seems to me there’s no position in the association showing the leading on this, and that’s not just being critical, because if we are to move the sport forward, we need that leadership, that energy. Whether that’s the ceo, the president, someone in a coaching role. I’m looking around at other sports, moving on, and we’re falling behind.
“There needs to be clearer communication, either publicly or otherwise, between the all stakeholders, the athletes, the coaches and the spectators. Can we genuinely say we’re putting all hands on deck, putting all our energy behind this?”
The event in Lisbon in 2019, featured 602 athletes (336 men and 266 women) from 40 countries, with similar numbers expected at Abbotstown given the lifting of most travel restrictions around Europe.