Dispelling the 'Junior' Club Perception

December 21, 2023

With the year coming to a close, Run Republic thought it would be fitting to speak to clubs to get a recap of their year, highlighting clubs that shone throughout 2023, and today's clubs have certainly done that.

Lagan Valley AC and the Jim McKeown Running Group have both had great years on the track, and we spoke to people involved in the clubs to get their story from 2023. 

'2023 has been quite the year for the junior endurance runners from Lagan Valley AC and the Jim McKeown Running Group. The Ulster Schools Cross Championships held on 8 February in Mallusk provided some early indication of what lay ahead. That day produced 5 podium finishers, including individual wins for Grace Bennett (Inter Girls) and the prodigious talent that is Rory Armstrong (Minor Boys) – also that day, 14-year-old Noah Harper, who had literally just taken up the sport, finished an eye-catching 3rd in the Junior Boys event. The following evening, undeterred by their cross-country exploits, the squad delivered a plethora of PBs at the Armagh International Road Race event. Here, Lughaidh Mallon was quick to make amends for his 2nd place finish in Mallusk with an 8.27 victory in the Open 3k and a new course record. Lughaidh would go on to finish 7th at the Irish Senior Indoors later in February with 8.23.41 and had his sights firmly set on chasing down a qualification time for the upcoming European U20 Championships (Jerusalem. July).

'On the 10th of March, I then had the pleasure of attending the annual Belfast Sports Award ceremony in City Hall, an event to recognise the outstanding achievements the previous season by the Club’s U15 and U16 girls’ cross-country teams who won both provincial and national titles in their respective age categories. The Awards were hosted by the then Lord Mayor of Belfast, Councillor Christina Black, and they really help to shine a spotlight on the sporting achievements of local athletes from the very top of sporting competition to grassroots level. Jim explains it also offers an opportunity to recognise the dedication and commitment of coaches and volunteers who work tirelessly behind the scenes to provide a springboard for their athletes to achieve success.

Lagan Valley AC
Jim McKeown (on the right) accepting the award from Matthew Ferguson the Decathlon sponsor, along with Stephen Edgar and Jacqueline Murtagh from Lagan Valley AC.

'The next day, Jim explained how he made an early morning dash to Waterford to attend the Irish Schools Cross Country Championships, a journey made very worthwhile following an outstanding victory by Rory Armstrong; this was to be the 2nd individual National Schools Cross Country title for the Group in as many years following Lughaidh Mallon’s victory in 2022 in the Inter Boys event, another proud milestone for the Group. Also, emerging from the carnage in Waterford, there were fabulous runs from Aoife Magee and Katie Graham, who were rewarded with Schools International vests and later ran with distinction at Sefton Park, Liverpool. Further success then followed over the roads, most notably Noah Harper’s win at the Queens 3k in March, as he really began to thrive off the back of some structured training and the Group dynamic that operates with Lagan Valley and not forgetting Lughaidh Mallon’s runner-up spot at the prestigious London Mini Marathon, representing NI Schools.

'The focus then switched to track, where there was early season success for Lughaidh winning both Ulster and Irish Schools Senior Boys 1500m titles, and in doing so he joined a role of honour that includes some illustrious names over the years such as Eamonn Coghlan (1971), Gareth Turnbull (’96 & ’97) and not least Andrew Coscoran (2014 & 15). In an action-packed season, next up were the NI & Ulster Age Group Championships and once again the Group did not disappoint, with 12 podiums and 4 outright winners, including an 8.55.43 win in the U18 Boys 3000m for our new and exciting recruit, Charlie Jones (Charlie would go on to win the National Title in Tullamore several weeks later). Meanwhile at the Belfast BMC on 19 July, Lughaidh Mallon (17) ran a 6s PB in the 1500m (3.47.45) to book his place for the Euro U20s in Jerusalem and in doing so deliver one of the proudest moments of my relatively short coaching career!

'And it didn’t stop there for Lagan Valley AC and the Jim McKeown running Group as they carried this momentum through to the 2023 Provincial and National Cross-Country Championships. Again, there were multiple team and individual successes at the Even and Uneven Age Groups for both the girls and the boys. The most noteworthy, however, was the performance of the Junior Men. On Sunday 19 November, Lagan Valley AC ventured to Gowran Demesne (Co. Kilkenny) for the Irish National Cross-Country Championships, incorporating the Junior Men’s (U20) category, as well the even age group disciplines for juvenile runners.

'Underfoot it was extremely muddy and treacherous given the recent heavy rainfall, and it made for seriously challenging conditions for the near 2000 athletes toeing the line. Buoyed by earlier team and individual success in the underage races, my Junior Men assembled at the start line quietly confident, albeit somewhat nervous given the prize at stake. The National ‘Junior’ is steeped in history and was first contested 132 years ago. It has featured many illustrious team and individual winners over the years, including a few names that have gone on to compete at the Olympics and European Championships. Much of the pre-race hype was around the continued dominance of the big Dublin clubs such as Clonliffe and Donore Harriers, so I was more than happy for my lads to enter the proceedings under the radar, despite the fact we had athletes within our ranks who had competed at the recent European U20 Athletics Championships (Lughaidh Mallon) and at the European Youth Olympic Festival (Oisin McGloin).

'There was to be no shortage of drama on the day, including the individual race favorite, Nick Griggs, who bowed out with circa 500m to go, after taking a heavy fall when leading. Undeterred however, the Lagan Junior Men really stepped up to the plate and displayed great resilience and team spirit in overcoming the brutal conditions. A nervous wait ensued post-race to determine the final team positions and a collective roar of relief followed when Lagan Valley AC were announced as the National Junior Men’s Cross Country Champions for 2023. It is worth mentioning that in the preceding 60 years of this prestigious competition, only St Malachy’s (Belfast) in 2007 and 2008 have managed to prise the ‘Junior’ title north of the border; so, it truly was an historic day for Lagan’s Junior Men.

'The bonus for the team now is their selection to compete for Ireland at the European Cross Country Clubs Championships due to take place in Albufeira, Portugal on Sunday 25 February 2024. Thankfully, as one very proud coach, I will get the opportunity to accompany these young men as they continue their running journey at the top table of European Junior Athletics. A huge thank you to my Club, Lagan Valley AC, Athletics Ireland and other key sponsors, including mybaggage.com and the IFS Group (Antrim) for their generous support in helping to make this happen; sadly, we may have to cut down on the mince pies between now and February! Pictured are some members of the Junior winning team and me being interviewed for ‘The Back Straight Podcast’. Hopefully this provides another springboard for further success for Lagan Valley and the Junior Endurance Group as we move into 2024.

'Finally, I would just like to finish by thanking all the other coaches, assistants, and volunteers at Lagan Valley AC, without whom this success would not be possible. While we do have a fantastic pathway for junior athletes at the Club, I am determined to bring this current crop of exciting young Juniors through the ranks to compete for Lagan as senior athletes and to dispel the perception that we are viewed as a ‘Junior’ club. Merry Christmas everyone and a healthy and successful 2024!'

A massive thank you to Jim McKeown for his time and the effort he put into this piece. We will keep in touch and report any news from the clubs in 2024 and beyond, so stay tuned!

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