Donegal’s Under 15 boys made history when they lifted the coveted UK title at last weekend’s UK Sportshall Finals in Manchester. The seven boys, John Boyle, Lughan Devenney, Pauric Harrold, Liam Keane, Thomas Mullen, Aaron McGrath and Joe Sharkey claimed the title for a Donegal boys team for the first time in Sporshall’s 40 year history. The victory also bridged a nineteen year gap to the last time a Donegal team won the UK title, when the County’s Under 15 girls won back to back titles in 1996 and 1997.
While the Donegal Under 15 boys were making history, the County also had Under 13 girls and boys teams, in Manchester, with some excellent individual and team performances all round. At the Ulster Finals in Magherafelt in March, Donegal qualified three out of the four teams eligible to travel, with East Belfast making up the Ulster representation at the Finals.
The journey started out early on Friday morning with athletes coming together from across the county, some on the road from as early as 1am. The bus journey to Liverpool where the teams were staying incurred severe traffic delays which meant the teams did not arrive until 7pm, nearly 18 hours of travelling for the young athletes. For the Under 13’s, this preparation was less than ideal, however this didn’t deter the athletes from going out to give of their best to represent Donegal. Travelling with the teams were Louise Gillespie, Sharon Bradley, Gerry Davenport, Thomas Mullen, Sean Loughrey, Sean McGinley and Brendan O’Donnell.
In the Girls Under 13 competition, Donegal finished 5th overall with a total of 1065 points behind winners Norfolk. Leah McGarvey, Honour Okoroji and Emily Croke both won individual medals. McGarvey powered to the final of the 4 lap race and claimed an impressive silver medal. Emily Croke was making her second appearance at these Finals and was in fine form again this year, when she took silver in the Shot Putt event throwing 10.15m. Honour Okoroji had an excellent leap of 2.43m in the Standing Long Jump to also win a silver medal. The girls 4 x 2 lap relay team, made up of Amy McMenamin, Stephanie Okoh, Honour Okoroji and Mia Baikie took an excellent team silver while in the 8 Lap Paarlauf, Leah McGarvey and Connie Doherty took bronze, rounding off an impressive medal haul for the girls. The Girls Under 13 team was made up of Mia Baikie, Bethany Lecky, Leah McGarvey, Honour Okoroji, Connie Doherty, Amy McMenamin, Stephanie Okoh, Chloe McDaid, Precious Aduaka, Chloe Coyle, Laoise McGonagle and Emily Croke.
In the Boys Under 13 competition, Donegal finished 8th overall with 873 points behind winners Birmingham. Individually, James Loughrey took gold for the second year in a row, when he scored a brilliant 92 in the Speed Bounce. Johnston Bangora, in his first year at this event, scored a huge leap of 65 in the Vertical Jump to finish third. In the 4 lap race, Jude McCrossan was unlucky to be edged out of the medals, finishing in fourth place in the final. With over half this team still young enough to compete next year, their aim will be to anchor another Donegal Under 13 boys to next years Finals. The Under 13 boys team was Johnston Bangora, Conor Coyle, Jude McCrossan, Liam Hannigan, James Loughrey, Seamus Harley, John Gallagher, Cormac O’Donnell, Eoin McGonagle, Oran Kelly, Michael McGonagle and Ross Henderson.
On Day 2, it was the turn of the Under 15’s. Emma Brown travelled to Manchester as the sole Under 15 girl, her team unfortunately missing out on qualification at Ulster, but Emma deservedly qualifying in her own right as the best all round athlete from Ulster. Brown put in some exceptional performances on the day, finishing 2nd in the Speed Bounce and finishing 9th overall of 78 competitors.
While the Under 13 teams were competing on the Saturday, the Under 15 boys team had a rest day, and visited Goodison Park for the Everton game where they met up with yet another Donegal man, making his mark across the water, Seamus Coleman. The Killybegs man had some words of encouragement for the young Donegal Under 15 lads. Coleman specifically pointed out that while we face many challenges and obstacles coming from the shores of the Atlantic in Donegal, it is these challenges that drive us on, knowing that we can compete and win against anyone. With these words ringing in their ears, the Donegal lads set off into Sunday’s battle fired up from the off. Thomas Mullen, in his fifth year at Sportshall, made sure that in his last year in Manchester he was going to go out on a high and what a day he had. In the 4 lap race, Mullen powered to victory on the Final, while in the Shot Putt, the all rounder launched the steel ball out to a personal best 13.22m. Leading from the front, Mullen finished a fantastic third out of 80 athletes in the all rounder competition.
The performances of each and every athlete were critical to building up the points for the team. In the Standing Triple Jump, John Boyle jumped into 6th place with 8.06m, Liam Keane jumped 7.78m, and Lughan Devenney 7.59m. In the Standing Long Jump, Aaron McGrath and Thomas Mullen finished joint 6th with 2.69m with Pauric Harrold only 4cm adrift with 2.65m, building further valuable points for the team. Joe Sharkey ran an excellent 20.8 in the 2 lap race, just 0.2s behind team mate Liam Keane.
At the conclusion of the individual events, Donegal were nearly 60 points behind Birmingham going into the last two races of the day, the 8 Lap Paarlauf and 4x2 lap relays, where double points were on offer. While the Donegal lads were in the mix for a top three placing with Birmingham and Berkshire, the 60 point gap looked too big to bridge, considering the boys 4 x 2 relay team had only qualified as fifth fastest for the final. First up was the 8 lap Paarlauf, and again, Thomas Mullen and Lughan Devenney were simply outstanding to claim a narrow victory, giving Donegal maximum points. Birmingham could only manage fourth and Berkshire 6th, which meant going into the last race of the day, Donegal were on 1059 points in second, just ahead of Berkshire’s 1042, and 25 points adrift of leaders Birmingham.
With the last race of the day, Aaron McGrath, Pauric Harrold, Liam Keane and John Boyle lined up for the 4 x 2, aware that they needed a titan performance, but totally unaware of how close matters were at the top of the table. The final itself had to be the highlight of the weekend, with the 6 teams providing a near blanket finish at the end. Going into the final as 5th fastest, the Donegal lads were simply brilliant, showing grit, determination and a never say die attitude, to finish second behind Berkshire.
When the results were being announced, the teams were called out in reverse order, starting with 11th, slowly making its way to the top 3. The announcer now mentions that only seven points have separated the top 3. In third place, Berkshire was called out meaning these young Donegal lads were now Top 2. Could we actually do this? Everyone looked anxiously at each other holding their breaths. In second place, “the team from …….Birmingham”. We’ve done it! The noise is deafening. Everyone cheering, hugging, team managers crying and 32 young athletes from Donegal going wild with excitement. And the cheers weren’t confined to the Donegal teams and their travelling support network of family and friends. There was a genuine series of congratulations from the teams from across the UK, who are fully aware of Donegal’s participation over twenty years, the efforts they go to in order to just attend at these Finals, and of course, an appreciation for the sporting like behaviour of Donegal athletes down through the years.
The bus journey from Manchester rolled back into Donegal on Monday morning, another exhausting day and night of travelling for athletes and team managers. However, this was a journey that nobody minded, a UK title for the Under 15 boys, their first ever as well as countless individual performances from all the young athletes.
Gerry Davenport, clearly emotional after the event spoke about what this meant and his long time friend in the sport. “This is a long time coming but well worth the wait. This one is for is the big man, Neil Cullen”. Over twenty years ago, Eamon Harvey brought the founder of Sportshall, George Bunner to Donegal, an athletics discipline for young children that Neil Cullen fully embraced. Cullen went on to organise Sportshall competitions Trials in Donegal year after year, taking many teams to the UK Finals throughout Donegal’s twenty five year history of participation, which included the two early victories in 1996 and 1997. Unfortunately, Neil Cullen passed away last year and missed out on seeing yet another Donegal team taking a UK title, but no doubt was looking down on a bright day for Donegal athletes and a new crop of outstanding young performers.