A gripping batle for supremacy between three determined North West clubs, was the highlight of Saturday’s Provincial mens Junior/Intermediate cross country championships in Lurgan Park, as a delighted City of Derry Spartans squad just about held off the race long challange of rivals Finn Valley and Foyle Valley, to claim the coveted War Memorial trophy and the NI/Ulster team title.
A record entry and a large spectator input marked the return of top class championship cross country to Lurgan and on a grey, cold, but thankfully dry afternoon, the mens Junior 10k produced a fitting finale to the three race programme which also saw other North west clubs Inishowen, Springwell and Omagh Harriers claim podium places.
What a battle though in the mens Junior with the three NW clubs locked in battle from the gun. All three were fancied but the Spartans came in somewhat under the radar and when they lined up minus the injured Noel Logan, many would have written them off. At the gun the Finn Valley and Foyle Valley vests were prominent and as they came through after the first of the five full laps it looked like a straight duel between the Derry and Donegal ‘Valley’ boys. East Down’s Benny Teer, the Malcolm Cup winner ahead of Noel Logan back in late November,was already making his bid for the individual victory and indeed he went on to romp home over 40 seconds clear at the finish line.
The Finn Valley squad looked good for the first half of the race and were packing very well with Gerard Gallagher and James Speight pominent in the small group chasing Teer. Scott Rankin and Keith Shields for Foyle Valley were in there too, fronting the purple vests challange with Pius McIntyre and Chris McGuinness in close attendance.
The Spartans meantime were packing well but somewhat off the upfront pace and were definitely no better than bronze medallists as the race went towards half way.
At that stage two significant things happened. Firstly despite Gallagher and Speight going well upfront and they eventually finished third and fourth, the Finn Valley challange started running out of steam as their middle order started to slip back. Secondly the Spartans finally emerged as a serious gold medal threat with Nick Cassidy beginning a surge which brought him up and beyond James Brown and Brendan Murphy as Chris McPeake also pushed on to chase a top 20 slot. Teenager Connor Doherty
and Gary Slevin meantime were under pressure in the vital fifth and sixth scoring positions but kept plugging away and James Crampsey began to work his way through the field as insurance.
However it was still the two Valley clubs who seemed to have the advantage and the large crowd was enthralled as the race approached the closing lap with the pendulum just beginning to swing in the direction of the red vests. At the finish line Pius McIntyre had a brilliant run for 7th to lead Foyle Valley home, one place ahead of Keith Shields but with Scott Rankin 13th, losing out to a brilliant run from 10th placed Nick Cassidy and the impressive James Brown 12th, the advantage in the six to score race tipped towards the red vested Spartans. Brendan Murphy pitched in for 14th just behind Rankin and then it was McPeake in 18th and Chris McGuinness in 20th for the Foyle Valley boys.
On four to score it now was Foyle Valley by four points from Finn Valley and the City of Derry boys a further two behind.
It was now down to the next two finishers from each club and thats when the Spartans did the damage.Foyle Valley’s Adrian McGowan came home 30th, with a sprint finish holding off the battling Connor Doherty 31st, excellent efforts from both young lads. Then it was Gary Slevin in 35th for the Spartans, a gritty run for an athlete who just dos’nt fancy cross country but who overcame his demons to deliver when it mattered most.
With the final two Donegal club scorers back in 34th and 38th and the brave Stephen Connor rounding up the Foyle scorers in 48th, it was game, set and match to the Spartans on 120 points, Finn Valley on 124 and the unlucky Foyle boys third on 126 points.