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Euro challenge

European Cross Country Championships
Venue: Santry Park, Dublin Date: Sunday, 13 December Times: senior women start 1315 GMT, senior men start 1410 Coverage: BBC Red Button 1000-1310 and 1400-1500; BBC 2 1300-1400; All on BBC Sport website (UK only)

By John Haughey
BBC Northern Ireland

Athletics Ireland president and Event Director Liam Hennessy
Athletics Ireland president Liam Hennessy is Event Director

After its latest bout of internal wranglings earlier this year, Athletics Ireland (AAI) appears to have pulled together in time for Sunday's European Cross Country Championships in Dublin.

Irish athletics was making the news pages as opposed to the sports columns back in July after the sacking of AAI chief executive Mary Coghlan.

This had followed a bitter power struggle within the Irish federation and the issue has still not run its course with the deposed chief continuing to seek redress in the courts.

The internecine strife didn't appear to be the best preparations for a major athletics championship later in the year but five months on, and almost miraculously, all the indications suggests a smooth running of Sunday's European Cross Country event at Santry.

If the event does pass off successfully this weekend, Event Director and current Athletics Ireland President Liam Hennessy will deserve a medal of his own.

The quietly-spoken Hennessy found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time when he was delegated to explain Athletics Ireland's woes to a parliamentary committee back in June.

The Tipperary man didn't have a lot of ammunition to throw back at the well-briefed parliamentary vultures.

Six months on, Hennessy has no wish to portray himself as some kind of martyr but his comment that "it wasn't a very pleasant time for anybody involved" tells its own story.

Despite all the blood on the carpet, Ireland's first ever staging of the European Cross Country event still had to be prepared for and Hennessy got on with the job.

With less than week to go before Europe's best battle it out at Santry, Hennessy says that the local organising committee are as "far ahead as we can be".

We are in seriously difficult times as a country. This event would have to have been affected just as everything else has been as well

Event Director Liam Hennessy

"There are so many bits and pieces to be done and most of them can only be done fairly late in the day," added Hennessy as he spoke to BBC Sport on Monday.

"You're always concerned about the weather and that has been heightened by the dreadful way it has been over the last few weeks.

"It cleared up today and the forecast for the weekend is not too bad.

"But the course is a bit sloppy and it would have to be given the extraordinary amount of rain we have been having.

"If we have a dry day which is looking likely at this stage, that will help us but I would obviously like the underfoot conditions to be a bit drier at the moment."

The Celtic Tiger was still roaring loudly when the European Athletics Association awarded Ireland the Championships three years ago.

But it's a very different economic picture in December 2009 as Hennessy acknowledges.

"That wouldn't have been envisaged at the particular time when we bid for the Championships."

There were even suggestions back in the summer that the staging of the Championships could potentially bankrupt Athletics Ireland although Hennessy is now pleased to report a less bleak reality.

"It will be a difficulty for us but not to the extent that was loosely mentioned in some quarters earlier this year.

Mo Farah, Martin Fagan and Sergiy Lebid
Mo Farah, Martin Fagan and holder Sergiy Lebid will be in the men's field

"We are in seriously difficult times as a country. This event would have to have been affected just as everything else has been as well."

A good turnout of spectators on Sunday would do much to help the cash-strapped AAI, whose main partners in staging this weekend's event are the Irish Sports Council, Dublin City Council, Fingal County Council and national broadcaster RTE.

Around 2,000 tickets are already believed to have been sold and Hennessy is confident that a crowd in excess of 5,000 will be in attendance at the compact north Dublin venue.

"There's a lot of enthusiasm around the country. There are busloads of kids coming from all parts.

"There will be a couple of thousand coming from within the sport. Weather and other things will play a part on the wider attendance."

In contrast to the 2002 World Cross Country Championships staged at Leopardstown, spectators will be able to get close to the athletes on Sunday.

"It is a very compact venue and spectators will be able to get out on to the course. At Leopardstown (Racecourse), you saw nothing really from the stands," acknowledges Hennessy.

The possibility of Irish medals should help to swell the attendance with last year's fourth-placer Mary Cullen looking a very strong bet to challenge for the senior women's title - especially after the withdrawal of last year's champion Holland's Hilda Kibet.

Indeed, Cullen could pick up two medals if the Irish ladies pack well in the senior women's race while Martin Fagan (senior men) and Ciara Mageean (junior women) are among others capable of challenging for podium spots.

As any stressed organiser would vouch, home successes will be of secondary importance for Hennessy behind the smooth running of the day.

"All we want is to see a great event and great day for Irish sport on 13 December and hopefully a few medals too," he concludes.

see also
McKillop ready to face Europe's best
07 Dec 09 |  Athletics
Mageean gears up for Euro Cross Country
03 Dec 09 |  Athletics
Irish pick Euro Cross selection
28 Nov 09 |  Athletics
McKillop wins Irish junior title
22 Nov 09 |  Athletics
McKillop aims to match Smyth feat
17 Nov 09 |  Athletics
Sprinter Smyth claims Irish title
02 Aug 09 |  Athletics
Smyth claims second Beijing gold
16 Sep 08 |  Disability Sport
Smyth wins 100m gold in Beijing
13 Sep 08 |  Disability Sport
McKillop claims gold for Ireland
10 Sep 08 |  Disability Sport
McKillop mission
03 Sep 08 |  Disability Sport

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