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Andy Vernon

09 December 2010

In a confidence boost ahead of this weekend’s SPAR European Cross Country Championships in Albufeira, Portugal (Sunday 12 December), Aviva Great Britain and Northern Ireland representatives Andy Vernon (coach: Nick Anderson) and Louise Damen (self-coached) have been shortlisted for European Athletics Athletes of the Month Awards for November.

The pair – both winners of the McCain Liverpool Cross Challenge incorporating the European Trials a fortnight ago – line up in a 36-strong Aviva GB & NI team in a bid to return home with a full complement of medals for the third successive year.

A joint-record 515 entries have been received from 33 European Athletics’ Member Federations for the Championships, but Great Britain’s athletes will lead the way once again, believes Vernon: “For me, it was quite surprising to find out I’d been included (in the shortlist for Athlete of the Month) because it was based on a domestic race, but I think that the fact we’ve got three athletes in there really shows that European Athletics see our Trial race and our performances as being of a really high standard, and that they see our country as one of the top countries in cross country running.

“I think we’ve got just as good a chance this year as we did last year of everyone coming home with a medal, although the junior boys have obviously got a lot to live up to after Wilko (James Wilkinson) and Nick Goolab finished second and third, but I’m sure they’ll do well. Wilko has stepped up an age group and has already showed his class.”

Vernon’s consistency in previous European Cross Country Championships has been rewarded with individual podium finishes as an under-23 in 2007 (third) and 2008 (second) and a 12th place senior finish in Dublin a year ago.

With yet another strong field likely in Portugal - including defending champion Alemayehu Bezabeh of Spain and Ukraine's eight-time winner Sergiy Lebid, third in Dublin - he's realistic, but also optimistic, about his chances. 

“I want to maintain that consistency and improve each year,” he added. “I’d be content with top ten but I’d like to finish inside the top six – that would be my aim. Obviously I’d like to win a medal but I need to go in and be realistic and there are a lot of talented guys in there.”

Spain are favourites to take the team title for the fourth successive year but the Aviva GB & NI men’s team will undoubtedly be strong contenders for a medal – which, perhaps surprisingly, would be only their fourth team medal in ten years - if they pack well.

Defending women’s champion Hayley Yelling-Higham (coach: Conrad Milton), in spite of a below-par seventh place finish in the UK Trials, has the opportunity to make European Athletics history this weekend: she is one of only two women – the other being Paula Radcliffe – to have won the senior women’s race twice, and is the first to target a third title.

When she lines up on Sunday she will equal the women’s record of 13 appearances at the SPAR European Cross Country Championships which is currently held by Belgium’s Anja Smolders, but she will come up against tough opposition including 2009 bronze medallist Adrienne Herzog (Netherlands) and Portugal’s Jessica Augusto – fourth in Dublin – who will lead an inevitably strong team likely to defend their team title in front of a home crowd.

The Aviva GB & NI women have won team gold on only one occasion, Edinburgh in 2003, but have won team silver in the last six editions of the event. With the addition of Trials winner Damen, former three-time European junior cross country champion Stephanie Twell (coach: Mick Woods), multiple European Cross Country Championships team medallist Helen Clitheroe (coach: John Nuttall) plus Hatti Dean (coach: Bud Baldaro), fourth in the European Championships 3000m steeplechase and Gemma Steel (coach: Roy Stowell), they will hope to finish on the podium once again.

At under-23 level, the Aviva GB & NI women have won the team title every year since the age group championship was introduced in 2006, a record they will want to maintain. The men’s team - gold medallists in 2007 and 2008 - won silver in Dublin, but spearheaded by Nick Goolab (coach: Steve Sharp) and James Wilkinson (coach: Phil Townsend), individual silver and bronze medallists respectively 12 months ago, they must be among the favourites to take gold alongside defending champions France.

Wilkinson in particular demonstrated his excellent current form with a second place finish overall in the combined senior/under-23 Trial race in the McCain Liverpool Cross Challenge.

Following an outstanding clean sweep of medals and complete domination for the Aviva GB & NI junior women in 2008, an individual bronze and team silver 12 months later should prove less of a tough act to follow. Kate Avery (coach: Bob Ashwood), the third place finisher in Dublin, will be hoping her period of altitude training at the UKA/London Marathon camp in Kenya has paid off, while ever-impressive Trials winner Charlotte Purdue (coach: Mick Woods) – who broke the UK Junior 10,000m record earlier this year – is undoubtedly a medal favourite following her silver medal as a 17-year-old two years ago, alongside her training partner and European Cross Country Championships debutant Emelia Gorecka (coach: Mick Woods).

With Aldershot, Farnham and District’s Jonny Hay (coach: Mick Woods) the only member of the Aviva GB & NI 2009 junior men's team to return to the event following a team gold medal-winning performance in Dublin, their first since 2001, it is an opportunity for him to lead his five team-mates - all of whom will earn their first international vests - with an individual podium finish.

The action kicks off with the junior women’s race at 11.15 GMT with the senior men’s race concluding the day’s action at 15.05 GMT.

At the time of writing the broadcast intention is for five hours of live coverage on BBC Red Button.

Follow the Aviva GB & NI team in Portugal on Twitter: http://twitter.com/UKA_athletics

To vote for Andy Vernon and Louise Damen – along with Scott Overall, winner of the Amora Cross in Lisbon – to win the European Athletics Athlete of the Month Award go to: http://www.european-athletics.org/athlete-of-the-month

AVIVA GB & NI TEAM

SENIOR MEN

Mark Draper (Andy Hobdell) – Bedford & County; Tom Humphries (Phil Champ) – Cannock & Staffs AC; Ryan McLeod (John Nuttall) – Tipton Harriers; Phil Nicholls (Bud Baldaro) – Tipton Harriers; Frank Tickner (Clive Thomas) – Wells AC; Andy Vernon (Nick Anderson) - AFD

SENIOR WOMEN

Helen Clitheroe (John Nuttall) – Preston Harriers; Louise Damen (self-coached) – Winchester & District; Hatti Dean (Bud Baldaro] – Hallamshire Harriers; Gemma Steel (Roy Stowell) – Charnwood AC; Stephanie Twell (Mick Woods) - AFD; Hayley Yelling-Higham (Conrad Milton) – Windsor, Slough, Eton & Hounslow

UNDER-23 MEN

Nick Goolab (Steve Sharp) – Belgrave Harriers; Mitch Goose (Tim/Pauline Ash) – City of Norwich; Ashley Harrell (Tim/Pauline Ash) – City of Norwich; Derek Hawkins (Lawrie Spence) – Kilbarchan AC; Ricky Stevenson (Steve Shaw) – New Marske Harriers; James Wilkinson (Phil Townsend) – Leeds City AC

UNDER-23 WOMEN

Imogen Ainsworth (Keith Brackstone) – Bristol & West AC; Elspeth Curran (Lawrie Spence) – Kilbarchan AC; Natalie Gray (Bill Foster/Joe Franklin) – Medway & Maidstone; Emma Pallant (Mick Woods) - AFD; Emily Pidgeon (Andy Hobdell) – Stroud & District; Sarah Waldron (Dave Sunderland) – Shaftesbury Barnet Harriers

JUNIOR MEN

Andy Combs (Mark Hookway/Mick Woods) – Tonbridge AC; Ben Connor (Jerry Hall) – Derby AC; Robbie Farnham-Rose (Mark Hookway) – Tonbridge AC; Jonny Hay (Mick Woods) - AFD; John McDonnell (John Stoker) – Luton AC; Ryan Saunders (Mick Woods) - Bournemouth

JUNIOR WOMEN

Kate Avery (Bob Ashwood) – Shildon AC; Emelia Gorceka (Mick Woods) - AFD; Annabel Gummow (Chris Wooldridge) – Bristol & West; Lily Partridge (Liz McColgan) - AFD; Georgia Peel (Mick Woods) - AFD; Charlotte Purdue (Mick Woods) - AFD