DONEGAL’S ALL CONQUERORING WOMEN: FINN VALLEY’S EIGHT YEAR DOMINATION OF THE NATIONAL SENIOR CROSS COUNTRY TEAM RACE.
In the Phoenix Park in Dublin in 1993 Finn Valley’s senior women’s cross country team made a bit of history. The Donegal club for the first time won the national cross country team title and in doing so they broke the stranglehold of one of Ireland great athletic dynasties, Dublin City Harriers who’s dominated the event for nearly two decades.
And what was to follow was quite exceptional. For the next seven years Finn Valley would hang-on to the crown, ending up with a remarkable accomplishment: 8 successive senior national team titles..
It was a sequence of national triumph that the north west of Ireland has scarcely encountered.
It’s always easier for the big population centres to dominate national team awards but even for them with their stronger economies and a wider population backdrop living cheek by jowl it still requires tremendous dedication, effort and ability. What then does it not demand of a small, rural Irish club, isolated geographically from mainstream Irish athletics scene both in terms of knowledge and competition? Against that background Finn Valley’s accomplishments take some beating. A scattered population and a less vibrant economy are only some of the obstacles facing athletes domiciled far from the sports’ heartlands of Dublin and Belfast.
Eight successive women’s national team titles between 1993 and 2000: no club from the north west of Ireland, competing in a major team sport, has before exerted such control over a senior national award. The achievement of Finn Valley’s exceptional women’s team will surely stand the test of time?
There’s more to this story of course than the mid-boggling run by the women’s team in national competition: it highlights an exceptionally well-run club; it points up the dedication, the hard work and the numbers needed at committee level; and it underlines how a driven man, with support can literally conquer the world.
Patsy McGonagle, Finn Valley’s driving inspiration once told me that his motto is: “ No one should put down a mark and say you can’t go beyond that.”
Finn Valley, founded in 1971, started from the most austere of beginnings. Early training was on a GAA field, then a disused factory was purchased and from there they’ve moved on to compete at national and international level. They also cater for the needs of the local community. The old decrepit factory is now at the centre of a facility that contains a 35m indoor multi-purpose hall, weights room, two football pitches, a warm–up area, four changing rooms, a social area, a 50 person ensuite accommodation block, a 1500 metre jogging trail, a 400 metre track, a meeting /function room, state of the art catering facilities and four synthetic ‘real grass’ pitches in a purpose built floodlit 5m high enclosure.
Is it any wonder that from that kind of drive and single-mindedness has come a group of women whose commitment and unflagging loyalty has sustained an attack, so powerful, on the senior cross country title that since 1993 the club has won the Irish title ten times, missing out only in 2001 and 2003.
The Finn Valley girls were silver medallists in the two years preceding the breakthrough.
It was inevitable – in the way that night follows day - that they would be the club to break Dublin City Harriers stranglehold on the event. When they lost narrowly in 1992 the emerging quality of their squad was evident – Belinda McArdle was the reigning Ulster senior champion and had run for Ireland at the world junior cross country championships as had Margaret Synott while Kay Byrne and Helena Crossan wore Irish vests at Mallusk that year. Patsy McGonagle coached the team for the first five national cross country team titles then Neil Martin took over as the unbeaten gold medal sequence stretched to eight.
“The first success is the one that stands out,” says Neil Martin. “It was history.”
And the team that rewrote Donegal and Irish athletics history at the Phoenix Park in 1993 was: Belinda Carlin, Kay Byrne, Dawn Hargan and Catriona McGranaghan.
Kay Byrne was in the scoring four on every one of the eight-on-the-trot victories. In fact her record of national team medals is phenomenal. She was also on the winning line-ups in 2002 and 2004 and she has also won three short course national cross country team titles with Finn Valley making it 13 gold senior team medals.
And when the Finn Valley girls retained their national title at Ballinlough, County Roscommon in 1994 – winning team Kay Byrne, Rosaleen Campbell, Rosemary Bogle and Margaret Synnott - it was to help launch Kay Byrne’s career onto another level.
The then 31 -year-old Ballybofey mother of two, and reigning Ulster senior champion, who first turned out for the Donegal club when she was eight, was called into the Irish team to replace Sonia O’Sullivan for the world cross country championships in Budapest at the end of March.
Her coach Patsy McGonagle said it was an extraordinary achievement by an athlete who has never possessed the kind of basic speed many consider necessary to achieve international recognition.
McGonagle explained at the time: “Kay hasn’t got a fast time over 3000 metres – but what a committed athlete. She has really made the best of what she’s got. Dogged determination and hard work has taken Kay to the top.” And McGonagle added: “We’ve had some great days at Finn Valley but this will be the first time a club member will run for Ireland in the World Senior Cross Country Championships.”
Kay Byrne put her selection down to doing more speed work. She also added: “I think I spend more time preparing mentally for races nowadays and that has also helped.”
In February 1995 Finn Valley’s women recorded their best ever performance at the European Clubs Cross Country Championships when they were 6th team home in Portugal: Catriona McGranaghan led the Donegal charge in 30th place with Dawn Hargan 31st AND Kay Byrne 37th..
In 1995 at Naas Finn Valley made it three national team titles in succession: The team was: Kay Byrne, Dawn Hargan, Catriona McGranaghan, and Belinda Carlin.
A year later Donegal’s top club made it four in a row at Santry in Dublin The team on this occasion was: Catriona McGranaghan, Kay Byrne, Rosemary Campbell and Ita Boyle..
Neil Martin puts the success of the club’s all conquering women’s squad down to single-mindedness. “They were out and out athletes; they had no other sport,” he says.
“There were no prima donnas. They were never going to get individual medals – so they worked hard as a squad. Kay Byrne was 4th at Ballinlough – that was our highest individual finish.
“There were a few years when the race was easy. Our success was due to the fact that we can keep our girls together. There’s great competition in the club because there’s a chance of an All Ireland gold medal.”
In 1997 in Cork Catriona McGranaghan led the way home backed up by Dawn Hargan, Kay Byrne and Helena Crossan.
Patsy McGonagle says they’ve used cross country to help focus attention on the club. “The cross country, winning the first senior national title provided a serious breakthrough,” he argues.
“We started out with youngsters, held them together and it was a squad with no stars. Energy levels were high. Obstacles were no problem. They grew up in an age when choices were limited. Our success put the team at the sharp end of media focus.”
In 1998 the defence of the title was at Bree in county Wexford.And the Stranorlar based club overcame difficult problems to cling onto their precious national crown. Late withdrawals due to illness and injuries left the twin town’s club starting with the minimum requirement of four runners. But undaunted the Donegal girls swept to victory by a margin of 25 points. Helena Crossan was first home for the blue vests with her best ever finish, 8th place. Rosaleen Campbell was two places behind, Kay Byrne was the third scorer in 13th spot and Ita Boyle came 18th. Incidentally another Donegal woman, Margaret Synott of Letterkenny was the highest north- west finisher in 6th place just missing selection for the World cross country in Morocco.
The year before the new millennium was special – the national cross country championships came to Donegal. And Finn Valley’s women delighted the home support by retaining their Irish senior title at Stranorlar. In the most dreadful conditions imaginable Helena Crossan led the victorious team home in 7th place to gain selection for the World Cross Country Championships in Belfast. Kay Byrne ran into 12th spot, the team captain, Catriona McGranaghan came 17th and the 4th scorer Ita Boyle was 19th.
“Initially trying to win it appeared an impossible task,” Patsy McGonagle recalls. “The squad has always been big enough to keep it fresh.There was never a walk on part for anybody.”
And that competitive edge, that refusal to give up took the Donegal girls to an 8th successive national team triumph in 2000 when the line up was Noeleen Porter, Rosaleen Cam,pbell, Kay Byrne and Catriona McGranaghan.
A year later the unbeaten run came to an end in Monghan when Dundrum South Dublin stormed to victory with Mayo AC second and Finn Valley third.
But what a phenomenal feat by an exceptionally single-minded club.