EILIDH CHILD, Scotland's European champion, contests the 400 metres hurdles tonight in Brussels, at the Diamond League Final.

The best she can do is finish second in the season-long quest to find the world's best one-lap female hurdler. Not even victory over her Commonwealth conqueror, Kaliese Spencer, can change that. The Jamaican has an insuperable lead, but the Scot will also be up against Ukraine's Anna Titimets, who claimed silver behind her in Zurich.

The last Briton to win the European title was Sally Gunnell, in 1994. Gunnell was already Olympic, world, and Commonwealth champion as well as world record-holder, so European gold completed the athletics grand slam.

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Gunnell still holds the British best with 52.74 (sixth best in the world, all-time). She was 27 when she set the world best, same as Child now. So who better to assess the Fifer's potential?

"This has been a real breakthrough year for her," says Gunnell. "It has given her confidence and has shown her character, that she can deliver when the pressure is on and expectation is high. She has grown in character and ability, and will take that into a good block of winter training.

"She has been really consistent over the years, and I think that is really important. You grow with that and train better."

Child has not set a lifetime best this season, but Gunnell dismisses any relevance. "It would be great to get a pb [personal best], but it's been a very long season and it will be hard now. I wouldn't be looking at that. This year is more about what she has achieved: how she has developed as an athlete, her attitude. It's not always about times. It's more about dealing with expectation and pressure, and that's what has been so positive this year. I wouldn't get too caught up in times. It's been a great learning pathway for the next couple of years, to try to medal in majors. That's what she needs to do."

Gunnell had years when she went backwards. "That's how you learn, and move on. You have to go through that to be at the top of your game. It's a learning curve."

Gunnell never improved on her world best at 27, though she believed with the perfect race, she could do so. But injury intervened. "I think Eilidh has developed her stride pattern, and with another winter's training I think she has got the ability to do 15 strides to the next hurdle. That will make a big difference."

Gunnell did 15 strides to hurdle seven in her pomp, leading with her better leg then alternating for the final three flights. The fewer strides, the quicker, but that means developing strength and speed.

"The next two years, with an Olympics coming up, is really exciting for Eilidh. I don't think age has anything to do with it now. A lot of it is around consistency, and with the great medical back-up that they have now. I think the self-confidence she will have gained this year will really push it on for the next two years.

"It will be lovely if she can get down to at least 53s. I definitely think she is capable of that, for sure. There is no reason why she should not stretch to something like that - 15 to seven. And if she is running 53s, that will get her medals at majors."

Child's coach, Malcolm Arnold, confides he is already working on that, and believes it could deliver a personal best tonight in Brussels or the Intercontinental cup into Marakesh. "I did not want to try this until after the two championships, with medals at stake," he said, "but in the Birmingham Diamond League we tried 15 strides to hurdle six instead of hurdle five, which she achieved. But she got on the wrong bloody leg at hurdle eight. So although there was a gain at hurdle six, there was a loss at hurdle eight, and at eight, nine and 10 there were 18 strides instead of 17. Two steps up the ladder and a couple down the snake.

"Yet if you compare last year in the World Championships with this year, it's a big improvement. Going one extra flight at 15s shaves 0.3 or 0.4 of a second off.

"At least we have stopped her slipping in extra strides on the back straight. In the world final last year she made a balls of it from hurdle three on, slipping extra strides in and losing momentum; two years of toil and my hair falling out!

"Sadly she can't pick up skills with the same speed that Colin Jackson [world 110m hurdles champion and record-holder] used to. You slipped something to Jackson and 30 seconds later he'd done it. With Eilidh, she has to do it in competition before she has convinced herself that she can do it. But we will get there. Long term I see decent improvement.

"Jon Bigg [Sally's husband and now a coach] said to me just a couple of weeks ago that Sally had also slipped in extra strides: 'If you look at it very carefully, she got it right twice in her career, and one of them was the world record,' Jon told me."

Child will have little time for respite. She and Lynsey Sharp, who runs the 800m in tonight's van Damme Memorial meeting, will rise soon after 4am tomorrow, catching a flight to Tyneside where they go head to head over 500m on the flat in the Great North CityGames on Gateshead Quayside.