As the build-up continues to one of the best ever Cork City Sports meets, we look back to 21 years to another great evening. If there is one thing that sends the Cork City Sports fans home happy, it is a local victory by ‘one of our own’ – and such a performance occurred 21 years ago, on the evening of Friday July 5, 1991.
It was a chilly summer’s evening at the Mardyke when the City Sports took place after a break of a couple of years due to lack of sponsorship. A new-look committee under Chairman Ray Shanahan had assembled a fine group of mainly British and Irish athletes for the various events.
The highlight of the meeting was to be Sonia O’Sullivan’s attempt on the Irish mile record of 4:30.4 shared by Mary Purcell and Monica Joyce. The previous Monday, the then 22-year-old Cobh athlete had come within two-tenths of that mark when finishing second to Doina Melinte of Romania at a meet in Lille.
The Irish record did go, as predicted – but not to O’Sullivan. After leading most of the way, she had to settle for second place as 800 metres specialist Aisling Molloy put in a driving finish to cross the line in a time of 4:27.90. O’Sullivan had the consolation of finishing inside the old mark, recording a time of 4:29.60.
As the meeting drew to a close, just one event remained – the 5,000 metres. This featured a number of top British distance runners along with most of the leading Irish talent, including 36-year-old Midleton man, Liam O’Brien.
The Midleton teacher had been a regular at the Sports since the mid-1970s and won both the second-string 800 metres and mile on a number of occasions. In actual fact, in 1975 he had finished first in the main 800m in a time of 1:55.8. In later years, in one of his rare appearances in the open mile, he finished a fraction outside the four-mile barrier with a time of 4:00.8.
Four years before that night in 1991, O’Brien had recorded his fastest 5000 metres time of 13:36.19 at the City Sports, but of course the flat track events werenever his speciality. In 1984 he had reached the semi-final of the 3000 metres steeplechase at the Los Angeles Olympics and that same year he set a national record of 8:27.24 for the distance which, 28 years on, still remains in second place on the Irish all-time list.
As the large field in the 5,000 metres were whittled down lap by lap, just three contenders remained – O’Brien, the US based Noel Berkeley, and Noel Richardson from Limerick. As the pace increased and the lap times came down from 67 to 64, O’Brien bided his time until the finishing straight before outsprinting Berkeley to cross the line to a tumultuous reception in a time of 13:52.72 for one of the most satisfying victories in a memorable career.
As the crowd filed out of the Mardyke that evening in the gathering dusk, they had much to saviour. An exciting women’s mile where the first and second broke the Irish record, a men’s mile which saw Niall Bruton become the youngest ever Irish athlete to break four minutes, and a junior 3,000 metres victory for Dromina’s John Murray in a personal best time of 8:19.2.
But most of all they marvelled at the 36-year-old in the East Cork vest who had once again delivered the goods and sent the fans home happy.
Now, 21 years later, Liam O’Brien will again be delivering the goods to both athletes and supporters alike in his demanding role as technical director of the Cork City Sports, a meeting he has certainly graced with distinction over the last four decades.