The Big Match Recreated; MACCL 2019 Finale Edition

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The last few weeks have seen a relatively sparse slate of races for St Helens Tri but the final match of the Manchester Cross Country League, also the second trip of the season to the Wythenshawe Playing Fields near Bagley, is always a highlight of the club calendar as the team strives to maintain position in the wider competition and club members scrap for those final few points that could see them crowned series champion. First off the starting blocks were the juniors led by Charlie Murphy who battled well to finishing the U13 Boys race in a not so unlucky 13:13, while his brother Oliver raced in the U15 event and made the top 35 in a time of 16:37. After lunch it was the run of the senior ladies to face the starting gun at 1:30pm with Claire Murphy being firm favourite to be first club counter home and take the series title. History shows that when Claire sees such an opportunity she will grasp it with both hands and sure enough she absolutely starred as she finished the two lap course in 33:21, top 15 in her age group and doing more than enough to wrap up the club championship with 75 points. Sheena Shearman has also had a remarkable season as she had never run with the club prior to 2018/19 but here she was in her element from the off, keeping the gap to Claire to around four minutes and deservedly secure second club counter and the runners up spot overall with a final points total of 61. Bethany Forber and Sarah Taktak have made huge improvements over the season particularly since their trip to the Liverpool Waterfront on New Year’s Eve and here they were third and fifth club counters with Bethany finishing in just over 38 minutes to take 4th in the club series and Sarah almost passing Christine Forber towards the end as she rolled home less than half a minute adrift. Rounding out the club’s entrants was Liz Spensley whose effort in beating the 48 minute mark was perhaps her best of the season.

While the ladies title had been well and truly up for grabs on Saturday morning, the men’s series appeared to be something of a foregone conclusion as Colin Dobbs, with a 20 point lead over Michael Forber, only needed a top-7 finish to seal the deal irrespective of where anyone else finished. After all, he had been in the top three of every round thus far, and it looked to be a formality before the gun sounded. But then everything changed. In a sequence even Hollywood could not have scripted, the pair took off from the line with Robert Chesters moving left to create some space. As they moved to overtake an unknown runner in blue nudged past on the right side, Colin had to take evasive action and rolled his ankle, eliminating him before the first corner and blowing the race for the title wide open! For the opening mini-lap around the football pitches Michael and Robert were joined by the traditionally fast-starting David Isaac who was really running with conviction and authority, however he would drop back and Michael led much of the first long lap as the runners made their way into the woods, with the steep descents being particularly favourable to the seasoned veteran. For his part Colin was sitting in the team gazebo barely able to believe his luck, convinced his chances of walking up the red carpet on awards night had vanished.

But in a year when the Premier League title race has captivated even the neutrals, an almost spooky repeat of “Blackburn Anfield 1995” was about to unfold. Those over the age of 30 will understand the play on words in the title (the Big Match Revisited being a popular series to this day on ITV4) and they will probably remember the unforgettable occasion when a last minute goal condemned Blackburn to defeat at Liverpool only to hear the news after the final whistle that a Manchester United failure to win at West Ham meant they had done enough to squeak home as champions. This season finale on the fields of South Manchester was eerily similar; while Robert Chesters could never have envisaged playing the “West Ham” role that was exactly how things would play out over the next 30 minutes, as a newly honed stride length enabled him to pull away on lap 2 despite still struggling to deal with some of the steeper gradients on the course, and he soaked up the atmosphere from the noisiest crowd on the XC circuit to put in one final push on the last lap and take the prize of first club counter home in a time of 38:06, good enough for 111th overall and handing the club series competition to Colin who had been cursing his luck while his teammates slogged round the testing course. Michael Forber rolled home 43 seconds adrift of Robert but was spirited in defeat and praised the efforts of the new series champion. Kevin Dunbar closed well on Michael over the final lap but ultimately had to settle for overtaking David Isaac to place third club member home on the day as he edged his teammate by just over 10 seconds. Rounding out the “40 minutes and under” club was Ian Orford who for once had further company just behind him in the form of Patrick Neill enjoying his best outing of the season, as he came home less than 40 seconds behind Ian and secured the club its series points, for which it is hoped will be sufficient to remain in Division 2 next winter. Lee Stinch doesn’t let something like a track session in 50mph winds the night before stop him for giving his best and as such it should have come as little surprise that he would easily beat the 45 minute mark (he even threw in a training duathlon at the Endurance Store the following morning for good measure!) while Mal Balmer rolled home around 90 seconds behind. Gary Birch and Azzam Taktak made a welcome return to the hills and mud as they both wanted to throw their hats in the ring before the window of opportunity closed for another year and both enjoyed their outing as Gary edged into the top 350 overall, around five minutes ahead of his teammate.

Here are the final standings, with the top 5 ladies on points:

Claire Murphy 75
Sheena Shearman 61
Cheryl Pace 58
Bethany Forber 55
Lynette Houghton 48

And the top 5 men:

Colin Dobbs 83
Michael Forber 81
Robert Chesters 61
David Isaac 59
Kevin Dunbar 57

And finally………A big thank you from the club committee and race reporter to everyone who participated in the winter cross country series, the sheer spirit of the team carried the club through the toughest league in the North West. It was a winter season marked by many memorable performances but also by the tragic passing of Aaron Reading five days after the first trip to Bagley in November, and as such it was fitting that some of the best stories, particularly the emergence of Bethany Forber and Sarah Taktak came in the matches that followed. Also thank you to those who contributed on the support crew including the setting up of the gazebo and the supply of tea, coffee and post race refreshments, they have been much appreciated. The next two weeks promise to make for equally riveting action as the ever popular Wrexham Half Marathon is followed by the first club duathlon at Pimbo, for which entries are still open at the time of writing.

Robert Chesters and Michael Forber passing the noisiest fan base of the season at Bagley (photo credit: Christine Forber)

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