The Irishmen behind the success of Linford Christie

Acton, London, 1979. A teenage Linford Christie is struggling to get out of bed at 7am on a Saturday morning as a van pulls up outside his house, horn sounding and yells bellowing.

He's due at a race meeting at the West London Stadium in Shepherd’s Bush, walking distance from Christie's family home, yet the 17-year-old has yet to conjure up enough motivation to snap out of his slumber.

Inside the van sit four boisterous Irishmen – John Dorgan, Mick Lyons, PJ Fagan and driver Pat Fitzgerald – all of whom were heavily involved in London Irish Athletics Club, Christie's first outfit.

Yet to understand his potential as a sprinter, Christie keeps his mentors waiting outside while he slowly and reluctantly pulls on LIAC's green and black vest.

Eventually, Fitzgerald gains entry to his house, before practically dragging him out the front door and throwing him in the back of the van.

Such a scenario came about on a regular basis during Christie's teens, but was he worth the hassle? No doubt about it. This month marks the 25th anniversary of his Olympic gold medal at Barcelona 1992 while next today is the anniversary of his World Championship success in Stuttgart 1993.

That stadium he once couldn't be bothered to walk to, meanwhile, is now named after him.

“I had a few friends from my school days who were members of London Irish already,” recalls Christie when pressed for a reason how he fell into the hands of such an unlikely bunch.

“I’m not sure how they became members in the first place, but they encouraged me to join. I was a member of the club for quite a few years. I’m not sure how many, but it was the late 70s and early 80s, that's for sure.”

Born in Saint Andrew, Jamaica, the only thing Christie had in common with his Irish mentors was his status as an immigrant in England’s capital, but it was enough to forge an unlikely relationship that lasts to this day.

“He actually came to see us about two months ago,” said Limerick native Mick Lyons, one of three Munster natives among the quartet of Irishmen who helped Christie on his way.

“I used to coach Linford when he was only 16 or 17. We’d take turns getting him up out of bed to come racing for us, but once he got his mind focussed he was very good. He was always very supportive of the group too, used to cheer all the other London Irish lads on.”

Now aged 74, Lyons – remarkably – is still coaching athletics in London having left his homeland in search of work 40 years ago. After specialising in sprinting in his younger days, he eventually settled on training long-distance runners, and his persistence paid off as he now earns a pretty penny at a prestigious private school in Hammersmith where the daughters of Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich are being educated.

“I still coach up at the Linford Christie Stadium too – the pole vault and the high jump – it keeps me busy, you know?” he adds, having lost none of his Limerick accent despite spending four decades outside of Ireland. 

Unfortunately, Mick (pictured above with Wombi Byansi and Gulaid Mohammed Adam) is one of only two surviving members of the four Irishmen, fellow Limerick descendent Pat Fitzgerald being the other. Meath man PJ Fagan passed away in his 50s after losing a short fight with cancer, while Corkonian John Dorgan – by all accounts the ‘main man’ at London Irish AC from start to finish – died in 2013 aged 76. The club died along with him. 

“He was a good man,” says Kevin John Dorgan, the son of London Irish’s founding father.

“He was a gentle giant, although he had a typical Irish temper on him, but a good egg really and quite an intelligent guy. If you didn't know him, you soon got to know him, he was just one of those characters.”

Meanwhile, PJ Fagan left behind a loving family – his wife from Knockainy, Limerick, and their children, who now run the successful construction company he set up long before cancer got the better of him.

Christie certainly hasn’t forgotten either of the deceased.

“PJ Fagan was a builder and even when I drive around London now I can see his company’s vans with that name on it and it takes me back,” he said.

“I really quite enjoyed working with the people at the club like PJ, John Dorgan (pictured below) and a guy called Pat McCarthy too. John Dorgan sure was a character. He was a good guy too, always made sure we got to the meetings, paid for us to enter out of his own pocket and everything else that went with it.”

When Christie joined LIAC, it was a marriage of convenience more than anything, but although the future Olympic gold medallist soon outgrew the club, he has always held a soft spot for his first love and recognises their role in his development.

“Because it was an Irish club, they of course had a lot of Irish folk, but they took in a lot of other immigrants. I seem to remember they had a lot of good distance runners. The friends of mine who had joined were mainly sprinters. At that time, they were based at the West London Stadium (now the Linford Christie Stadium) and the only other club there at that time was the Thames Valley Harriers, who I went on to join.

“Thames Valley was the more established club and had some of the bigger international sprinters. So as young men, if we didn’t have London Irish to join, to be honest, maybe we would have slipped through the net. London Irish gave us the competition that we needed at that age because we were able to pick and choose our events. If I’d have joined Thames Valley first, I wouldn’t have been given the opportunity to compete because I wasn’t at their level, they were international athletes.”

Representing London Irish took Linford from Belfast to Cork and plenty more places in between, but one particular memory stands out in his mind during one of his trips to the Rebel County.

“I remember going to a club championship once in Cork with the relay team. The four sprinters representing London Irish, including myself, were all black. On the PA system they called out London Irish, everybody started cheering, and up stepped four young black men; and I can still remember the look of amazement on the crowd, they were flabbergasted! But then this was the early 80s.

“The thing was, because Christie is an Irish name, people would see my name entered alongside London Irish and automatically think my name must actually be Christie Linford and that I was Irish, until they seen me of course,” he laughed. 

Pat Fitzgerald, meanwhile – one of the original members of London Irish AC when it was formed in 1969 – is now on the board at the British Milers’ Club. Born in England to Irish parents, he spent much of his Primary School years in Limerick before moving back to London as an adolescent, where he has remained ever since.

Married to the sister of PJ Fagan, he too was heavily involved with LIAC during their golden years, but – like Christie – he eventually moved on to bigger and better things at Thames Valley Harriers. 

“I remember one of those days we went around to collect Linford at his house and, on the way out the door, his father asked him ‘when are you going to give this up and get a real job?’ But Linford slowly began to understand his potential.

“When he was about 17 he was sat next to me on a bench at a schoolboys tournament having only been selected as a reserve. ‘I’ll beat all of them by the end of the year’ he said, and so he did. Sometimes all he needed was a little kick up the backside.”

Christie’s success as an Olympic and World Champion will always be synonymous with his famed coach Ron Roddan – who now coaches his niece Rachel Christie – but without the groundwork of these four persistent Irishman, he may never have realised his dreams.