Farren: The Athletic Great Derry never knew it had!

“Get the f**k back. Nobody wins this race but Coghlan!”

Friday, 2nd April 2021, 5:00 pm
Bobby Farren is congratulated after winning his fourth successive Ulster Cross Country Championship in 1996

Eamonn Coghlan that is. It’s 1992. Almost 10,000 spectators have crammed themselves into Belfield in Dublin to watch the Irish athletic legend attempt a sub 4 minute mile at 40 years of age. The colourful warning came from another world title holder, two time indoor champion Frank O’Mara, and is recorded in Coghlan’s autobiography, ‘Chairman of the Boards, Master of the Mile’. According to Coghlan, it was aimed at a “cheeky young Northern runner’ who had the audacity to challenge the former World 5,000m champion on the final bend.

“I still think I could have won that one,” smiles that cheeky northern runner some 29 years later, “That’s how cocky I was. I firmly believed I could run sub four minutes in every race and just wanted to do it but I had to be respectful to a great, like Eamon Coghlan. However, the arrogance of me said, ‘If I can’t win this, I’m coming second’ and I did.

“I had a good laugh at it when I read Eamon’s book. I have some really great memories from my athletics career.”

Bobby Farren on his way to one of his six successive Ulster Cross Country titles, this time in 1996 at Templemore Sports Complex in Derry.

Bobby Farren doesn’t do 50 per cent. He’s either coming from a project completed, or heading to his next. If you want to see him, make an appointment. He doesn’t ‘drop in’.

The current Coaching officer for Derry GAA and recently appointed Chairperson of the High Performance Committee at Ulster GAA despises time wasted but after a career competing against some of the world’s best athletes, Farren knows how crucial every second can be.

“Bobby was very close to world class. He was European class but definitely had the potential to go even further,” reveals former Sparta and NI coach, Malcolm McCausland, who helped guide Farren’s career though the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, “He made huge progress while a student at Magee but he absolutely had world class potential.

“The only thing that stopped Bobby was he wasn’t able to go pro and eventually, like the rest of us, had to work 40 hours a week. You can’t do that and become a world class athlete. I always felt there was a lot more in Bobby that we never got.”

From left, Kate, Sonia, Lucy and Bobby Farren celebrate Limavady Ladies Junior Championship win in 2019.

What we did get was remarkable, if strangely unsung locally: Two European Cross Country Championships with Ireland, captaining the team at Newcastle in 1995; two World Student Games Cross Country Championship appearances (Limerick ‘91 & Dijon ‘93); 1 Junior World Cross Country Championship (Poland ‘87); Six successive Ulster Cross Country titles..... the list continues and that’s just on the grass.

On the track you have; Ranked No. 1 in UK and 3 in Europe at Under 16; Member of GB Under 18 team; Scottish 1,500m Championship winner; Scottish Indoor 1,500m Championship winner; Irish Indoor 1,500m champion, Northern Ireland 1,500m and 3,000m champion; Former British Milers’ Club record holder at 3,000m and 5,000m. Member of Irish European Cup team for Estonia in 1995 - Bobby Farren was the Irish athletic star we never realised we had!

Crystal Palace, 1995, the UK 5,000m Championship Final. Bobby takes up the story....

“I was representing Sparta and ended up sharing a room with Welsh runner Iwan Thomas. In those days you had to pay for everything yourself and this was before the likes of Ryanair so it was expensive and you had to finish in the top four or five to have your expenses covered. I was being financed by the ‘Bank of Mum and Dad’ so the further up the race I could finish, the more I could get back for them.

The lists of stadium record holders, including Colin Jackson and John Ngugi, in Wrexham where Bobby's 1991 Mile record still stands

“It was live on television. We were warming up and you do that individually so I wasn’t paying much attention to anyone around me. As we came up to the line to start, I glanced left, then right, and Steve Ovett and Steve Cram were either side of me.

“Your head melts for that split second but I started doing my visualisation, regained my focus and tried to concentrate on what my goal was which was to at least recover my expenses. You had all the top middle distance runners, everyone was in that 5,000m! You had John Brown, Eamon Martin, Ovett, Cram and I finished fifth.

“At the time, you’re cocky, arrogant and you’re thinking, ‘I should have won’. It’s not until you are sitting 25 years later that you think back, ‘Oh aye, I was there competing against those boys toe for toe.”

Farren’s Gym, Ballykelly was an institution. Bobby’s father, the late Bobby Senior, was an athlete of some repute himself and represented Ulster over 880 yards as well as coaching Derry seniors alongside Mickey Moran in the early ‘80s. It meant as well as having an obvious genetic advantage, Bobby Junior was constantly surrounded by top level sportsmen to learn from, with Oak Leaf stars Mickey Lynch and Joe Irwin just two of the regulars at Ballykelly Gym.

“I was always at training and matches with daddy, watching all the sessions. I was 10 and loving it. I said to Eugene Young recently, ‘The reason I became such a good runner was because I was ball boy and you couldn’t hit the catch nets!! (laughs). I was always in the far field trying to bring your footballs back!’” (laughing)

By his own admittance, Bobby Junior was unlikely to cut it as a footballer, (“I wouldn’t have been great on the ball but what I could do was ruin a good man’s game.”). However, his own sporting talents soon announced themselves in spectacular fashion.

“I had a massive break through at 16. I went up to run in the Northern Ireland U16 Championships and I won it which was a complete shot from the dark. Within nine months I ran in a race in Belfast, a 1,500m, and that catapulted me to No. 1 in the UK and No. 3 in Europe over 1,500m. I also made the British U18 International team. The general consensus afterwards was, ‘Who’s this guy?’

“It was a massive shock. From nowhere, I ran 3:47 which catapulted me up into international standard. It wasn’t easy to cope with the change. If I’m being honest, physically I was there but psychologically I wasn’t ready for it. I never got back to that type of result for two or three years after it because I wasn’t coping with the stress of it all.

“I fell away for a period but got into university and started using sports science, with the testing and things like that, thanks to a bursary, and it eventually brought me through.”

What Farren describes as “falling away” many athletes would be delighted to call a career. He represented Northern Ireland 58 times at various levels but the ridiculously early selection of the 1994 Commonwealth Games team worked against the Derry athlete who was completing exams and unable to register the qualifying standard in time.

In typical style, Farren took his frustration out on the track, obliterating the Donegal 1,500m record at the Donegal Championships the day after the deadline, a performance which prompted Patsy McGonigle to invite Farren to run for Ireland.

“Patsy said, ‘Look, I know the story (with NI) but Cork sports are next week. Do you want to represent Ireland?’

“I said ‘Yeah’ because I’d lost my chance of running in the Commonwealth. So I went the next weekend to the Cork City sports and easily ran the Commonwealth qualifying standard but it was too late for the Victoria Games. I ran 13:47 for 5k but I’ve run 13:40 in the past on the roads. That’s 4:20 miles, around 14mph, which is good going.”

Farren was making a name for himself and had already come to the attention of the elite British Milers Club, set up in the ‘60s by British athletics legend Frank Horwill to improve British middle distance running. Members included the aforementioned Steve Cram, Steve Ovett, David Moorecroft and Sebastian Coe.

In 1991, the Derry runner was invited to the Wrexham Invitational International. He was supposed to be part of the supporting cast but Farren didn’t fancy a bit-part role.

“I was supposed to be the second string from Northern Ireland,” explains Bobby, who still lives in Ballykelly with his wife, Sonia, “I was only making up the numbers. The race was full of sub four minute milers but it was slow early on and with 200m to go, I just took off and won the thing. I just bolted.

“Around 1993 to 1995 was a real purple patch for me. Then I started to pick up niggles and injuries but in 1998 I got back and won the Scottish 1,500m Championship and won the Indoors Championships in Scotland that year too. I won the Irish indoors around that time as well. I think it was in ‘95 I was the Northern Ireland 1,500m champion as well and then the Irish 3,000m champion too.

“In 1995 I held the British Milers’ Club record for both 3,000m and 5,000m. That’s a very prestigious thing. I think it was Ovett’s 3,000m record I took in 1994.

“Myself and Malcolm (McCausland) went over the day before that race and I picked up the programme and the event was packed full of Kenyans. John Nuttall, who is now married to Liz McColgan, was just back from winning a bronze at the Commonwealth Game. It was steeped to the eyeballs.

“The English races are used to a big ‘burn up’ over the last 400m, so I thought, ‘Okay, I’ll try something different’. About 600m, I took off and the other runners were looking at me thinking, ‘This guy’s got it all wrong.’

“I got round to the bell and just kept going and won the race by four seconds. It was steeped with internationals, Kenyans and I won by four seconds”

The week after that Farren was in Rieti, part of a World record attempt by Noureddine Morceli, and he has also ran alongside El Garouge when he made his World record attempt in 1995.

“I was having breakfast with El Garouge on the morning of the race and me and him got the taxi back to the airport after it. We had a bit of banter and a laugh. He was going out to break the World record and we’re laughing over breakfast.

“One part of you is terrified they are going to lap you, so I’m running terrified, trying to break 14 minutes for 5k while he’s trying to break 13 minutes so your eyeballs are out trying to make sure you are not lapped.”

The onset of asthma as he was attempting to qualify for the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta put the brakes on Farren’s prospects and with life catching up and the world of employment forcing his hand, Bobby wasn’t interested in being an also ran.

“Bobby was quite unlucky at times,” adds Malcolm McCausland, “He was so close to breaking four minutes for the mile, twice coming within one second of it but he never quite found the right race at the right time for himself. I honestly believe in the right race Bobby could have ran 3:54 or 3:55 for the mile which would have made him one of the best Irish athletes ever.”

For Farren, not competing at the top meant not competing at all. Now 50, and the principal of his own successful firm, Farren Consultancy, he approaches his life in the same manner he approached his athletics, preparation and excellence.

“I finished competitively at 28. The Scottish 1,500m was kind of my swansong because I started to break down in terms of my Achilles Tendon and my health wasn’t what I wanted. People keep saying, ‘You should go back and do veterans’ but I don’t want to go back as a shadow of the man I was.

“With my athletics career, I surrounded myself with what my daughter, Kate, who did sports physio and sports rehab at Bolton University, now calls a multi-disciplinary team. Kate always tells me, ‘Daddy, whether you knew it or not, you surrounded yourself with a multi-disciplinary team.

“If you look at all my mile races, and look at the history of mile races, I have equalled four minutes on four occasions and each one of them I won so had I got myself into a really fast race I probably could have recorded a sub four minute mile but I won those races.”

Athletics’ loss has been Gaelic Games’ gain with Farren doing superb work as Derry Development Officer for whom he’s written both the Derry City strategic plan and the County wide plan while also guiding Limavady Ladies to a first county title in 2019 (Derry Junior Championsip) as well as an Intermediate final in 2020.

A ringing endorsement from former Derry County Chairman, John Keenan outlines Farren’s influence in local GAA circles: “Since coming on to the county board as County Development Officer in 2012, Bobby has been involved in some of the most progressive initiatives in the recent history of Derry GAA. From the great year of 2013, when we hosted GAA Congress, to the present day where he leads the strategy to revitalise Gaelic Games in Derry City, Bobby had been at the forefront of our progress ‘off the pitch’.

“Our clubs and county have benefitted by almost £5 million in grants during that time, which is a tremendous legacy in its own right.”

Now Bobby has landed on familiar territory with his role as Chair of the Ulster GAA High Performance Committee and he’s relishing the role.

“I can’t wait to get going at it. I’m a 100mph sort of character but this is an area I’ve always been very interested in. I still do a 20 mile run most Saturday mornings, and it’s no problem. I can still kick along at six minute miles if I want to. Now, I just go out and run for the pleasure of it. I train at 6am every morning to clear my head. I’m a morning person.”

And Bobby laughs when he says he’s still struggling to get recognition for his athletics prowess from even his own family.

“I was over in Wrexham with my daughter visiting universities four years ago and of course my two girls, Kate and Lucy, don’t really understand the level daddy was at, it’s hard to get credit from your own kids,” he smiles.

“Anyway, we were over in Wrexham and I said I remembered the track I ran in ‘91 being down a certain street so I suggested taking a wee scoot down. Down we go and I didn’t recognise a thing because the whole place had been fixed up but on the way out we found a ‘Roll of Honour’ for the track on the wall.

“You had the likes of Colin Jackson (110m hurdles), John Ngugi (3,000m) and then, ‘Bobby Farren - Mile Record Holder, 4 mins’. It was class! My daughter was like, ‘Wow, dad, you were someone! That’s you!’”

Not bad for a cheeky northern nipper.....