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UK Athletics

Norwich Union GB men on a mission

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The brilliant victory by European 5000m silver medallist Mo Farah (Newham and Essex Beagles) at the Cross de l’Acier international meeting at Dunkirk in France on Sunday has provided the Norwich Union Great Britain and Northern Ireland Men’s Team with the perfect psychological springboard towards the SPAR European Cross Country Championships at San Giorgio su Legnano, Italy, on Sunday 10 December.


The belief is that if Farah can defeat the world’s current fastest 10,000m runner in the world – which he did – then he, Mike Skinner (Blackheath and Bromley), Chris Thompson (Aldershot, Farnham and District), Gavin Thompson (Crawley AC), Frank Tickner (Wells City Harriers) and Steve Vernon (Stockport Harriers) will be in good heart as they seek a podium place in Italy.


They were the only GB team to miss out at last year’s Euro Cross in Tilburg: the junior women struck gold, and the senior women and junior men both won silver medals as the team topped the medals table.


Farah, Skinner, Vernon and Tickner were the scoring quartet as GB finished seventh in the senior men’s team competition with 129 points while the medals went to France (21), Spain (64) and Ukraine (71).


So they know the competition will be tough on an Italian course that has a tradition for favouring swift track runners, with Sergiy Lebid (Ukraine) seeking his seventh individual title.


But the Brits’ fresh confidence is summed-up by Vernon, who set out as one of the hot favourites to win Saturday’s trial during the UK Cross Challenge meeting at Liverpool but finished fourth behind Tickner, Skinner and Gavin Thompson.


“I shall go to the Europeans with a top 20 place in mind,” said Vernon, who was in the GB team along with Farah and Chris Thompson that won the junior men’s gold medals to the surprise of many at the 1999 European Cross Country Championships. “As I was fourth in the trial, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t come away with that medal!”


Vernon, who was the fastest individual in the recent English National Cross Country Relays, added: “I thought I had a very good chance of winning the trial but, to be fair to the boys, they ran very well.”


The powerful trial winner Tickner, who is studying English and French at Birmingham University, said: “It was tough in the mud. I led it for quite a long way – so long that I was expecting them all to come past. Luckily, apart from a break by Chris on lap two which got me worried, I felt pretty good all the way.”


Tickner, who finished 27th on his European senior debut 12 months ago, added: “It’s always been my big aim for this winter to reach the Europeans and improve on what I did last year.”


Trial runner-up Skinner said: “I trained hard early on this winter. This is the first race I’ve eased down for because it was the first one that really mattered. Job done! Qualification for Europe was always my pre-Christmas aim.


“Now I have to go out there and help get the senior men among the medals again. That would be really nice!”


Commonwealth 10,000m runner Gavin Thompson returned from his USA university base to earn third place in the trial with a strong, controlled run that demonstrated he is over the injury problems that wrecked his summer campaign.


“I took some weeks off and it took me months to get my fitness back,” reflected Thompson. “I probably got into running shape at the end of August but I didn’t get race sharp until three or four weeks ago. Each week with my training I’m getting stronger and stronger.


“Even so it was touch and go as to how I was going to perform in Liverpool. I knew I was strong and after the first lap I knew I was strong enough to deal with it. With 2km to go I mentally lost it and the two guys got away.


“But my prime aim for the last few weeks has been to run well in the Europeans, so I was content to make sure of my place in the team.”


Now after racing in Italy, he will stay home for Christmas and take in the next leg of the UK Cross Challenge at the Belfast International meeting on 6 January and the Great Edinburgh International cross country meeting on 13 January.


Chris Thompson, who shares with Farah the distinction of having won five European cross country medals already, was the other hot favourite at the trial but finished fifth, explaining: “Once I had hit the front, I realised it was too muddy to make a move.


“I just concentrated on doing enough to qualify. I realised I could have messed myself up if I’d tried too hard.”


Sensible precautions indeed for an athlete who struggled against injuries for the best part of 18 months before reaching last summer’s European Championships 5000m on the track against all odds.


He returned from a month’s altitude training in South Africa with Farah on Monday 20 November confident that both are shaping up well towards the Euro test.


Farah’s form on Sunday merely added confidence to Tommo’s theory. By defeating Micah Kogo (Kenya) in a sprint finish at the end of 9km, Farah became the first European since 1994 to win the high quality international race in Dunkirk.


The fact that the 1994 winner, Paulo Guerra (Portugal) went on to win four European cross country titles brought a short, sharp response from Farah: “Wow!”


Confident though he is after winning the 5000m silver medal at this summer’s European Championships in Gothenburg, 23-year-old Farah still does not see himself as one of the favourites for the senior individual title in Italy on 10 December, .


He explained: “I was 21st last year. I’m still young. Still learning.”


And he’s learning the hard way – by living in the same Twickenham house as speedy Kenyans like Kogo and dedication his life to training, healthy eating and sensible resting.


He added: ““I trained hard in South Africa. The Dunkirk race was to see where I am with my fitness. I was up there all the way through. I knew it would be hard, but I believed in myself. Micah pushed on the last lap but couldn’t get rid of me. Then when I saw the finish, I kicked.”


So what does he think are his chances of adding to the five medals he has won at Euro Cross Country Champs in the past? “I think we’ve got a very good team, though it’s a great pity that Peter Riley has had to pull out,” he said.


Riley – who was in the gold medal winning GB Junior Men’s team in 1999 – was pre-selected for next month’s race after winning the UK Cross Challenge in Birmingham. But he has had to withdraw to take a break from athletics after a below par 10km at the Chiba Ekiden Relay.


For the record, GB senior men’s teams in past European Cross Country Championships were placed fourth in 1994, third in 1995, fifth in 1996, sixth in 1997, fourth in 1998, first in 1999, sixth in 2000, fifth in 2001, fourth in 2002, seventh in 2003, third in 2004 and seventh in 2005.