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Sense of modesty only masks the drive behind the new face of British Athletics

It is the kind of crisp winter's day that Neil Black would have surely relished back when he was – in his words – a "so-called athlete".

There is a sort of false modesty at work. The new performance director of what, following yesterday's post-2012 rebrand, we must now call British Athletics, was no slouch in his youth, regularly venturing north from his home in Northumberland to compete on the Scottish road and cross-country circuit in the colours of Morpeth Harriers.

Now 53, it all seems a long, long time ago. "Towards the end of my so-called running career, I joined Bellahouston as a member," he says. "I used to come up and run in the Edinburgh to Glasgow road relays, year after year. I ran on the track at Coatbridge. There's a whole series of memories that you're dredging back for me from running as a Scottish athlete."

Back then, he had long hair and a beard. There are no traces of either now although he retains the sleek look of one who has fastidiously heeded his own advice. In recent years his role has been to dispense sound guidance, initially as chief physiotherapist to the governing body and then as its head of sports science. Now, having been promoted in the wake of Charles van Commenee's departure, the man known affectionately as "The Wolf" shoulders the responsibility of delivering medals at Rio 2016 and beyond.

Black's previously low profile made him a surprise appointment. His style contrasts starkly with the ebullient Dutchman who left with as many enemies as friends, but he has not shied away from confrontation, pushing through a controversial reshuffle that will see the UK's high performance system focused squarely on Loughborough.

The change has cast adrift a number of prominent coaches, including Jessica Ennis' mentor Toni Minichiello, as Black tailors his staff to realise his own grand vision. However, he has long advocated the concept of a centre of excellence. It was inevitable it would become one of his manifesto pledges when he was campaigning for the job.

"I wanted us to do that four years ago," he says. "Perhaps understandably, I was persuaded it was too big a step at that point. But I never let go of that and therefore, what evolved over the last four years, was a greater understanding that the way to move forward is what we're doing now. Everyone agreed."

Everyone on the appointments committee, perhaps. Not Ennis, who will remain in Sheffield. Nor leading Scots, Lee McConnell included, who would rather remain close to home. Black is quick to clarify that it is not one size to fit all, while he has talked at length with Scottish Athletics director of coaching Stephen Maguire about his own plans to develop and nurture fresh talent.

"There's always going to be people out there who will perform better somewhere else, whose support systems, whose coaches, are absolutely perfect for them," Black says. Those who reject the switch to Loughborough will not, he insists, be left high and dry.

As with van Commenee, his handiwork will be assessed on medals, not theories. Tomorrow brings the first test of his reign, and that of new head coach Peter Eriksson, when the Great Britain and Northern Ireland team end their winter hibernation to compete at the annual International Match, now in its new home at Glasgow's Emirates Arena.

Black might have been a regular at such meetings if not for the injuries which brought a premature decline to his own track career. To suggest that his own unfulfilled ambitions have spurred him on would make for an easy psychological profile but it is one he refutes. "I've always been really cautious about relating to your own experiences," he says.

You suspect, though, it has driven him to ensure others do not squander their gifts. There is a world championship in home soil in 2017, and many more stops en route when Black will find his own performance under scrutiny. His biggest challenge, in the wake of the London Olympics, is to ensure there is no complacency on the way.

"We need to learn and develop and communicate, and become better at what we do," he says. "We really have to focus on helping athletes. That sounds simple. But it's really tough."

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