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Surprise hero Ross Murdoch, who timed his arrival to perfection at Tollcross, now seeks to make waves like Wilkie

THE cherubic features that framed the expression made it easy to misinterpret.

Ross Murdoch enjoys his 200m breaststroke triumph at the Commonwealth Games, which has changed his entire outlook. Picture: Nick Ponty
Ross Murdoch enjoys his 200m breaststroke triumph at the Commonwealth Games, which has changed his entire outlook. Picture: Nick Ponty

When Ross Murdoch beat Michael Jamieson on the opening night of the Commonwealth Games and reacted like he had seen something spectral under the water that he could not believe, far less understand, it was assumed that he had never imagined himself in that moment.

This disguised the reality that the poster boy of the Games, Jamieson, had fallen victim to a cunning plan.

Murdoch's emergence had been coming. His rise can be drawn neatly, almost from the moment Jamieson won his stunning Olympic silver medal in 2012, which was another case of a plot being hatched out of public view, beneath the radar of expectation, and ritually executed.

If Murdoch can maintain his rise for one more week, and go yet faster in the 200 metres breaststroke, he could break a world record. Whatever occurs he will be a very hard man to beat at the European Championships in Berlin, which begin on Monday, and no Scottish able-bodied male has won European gold in a full-sized pool since David Wilkie won a brace of titles in 1974.

Forty years adrift of his athletic peak, Wilkie was at Tollcross Park on July 24, an avid witness to what was arguably the greatest race to take place in any sport during those 11 diverting days. Had Jamieson not been there to set the pace, it is inconceivable that Murdoch would have produced the fourth-fastest 200m time in history, because the 20-year-old had studied his rival, hatched a plan in conjunction with coach Ben Higson at the University of Stirling and carried it out with a sublime level of detail.

And to think some people took one look at his bulging eyeballs in that pool and thought this was an innocent wee laddie who had no idea how good he was.

"After the heats that morning I knew I could put in a big swim and I knew I would be able to challenge Michael because the back end of my race was so strong," he recalls. "The plan for me was to let him do his thing on the first 100m because he likes to go out quite fast, but then reel him in on the third 50m and leave him on the last lap.

"I really wanted to nail that last 50m and I said to myself and my coach, Ben, that if I was beside him at 150m I was going to win. When I saw that I was right beside him at 150m I just revved my stroke up as much as I could while I was still catching the water, and went.

"To turn round and to see that I actually had won, that I had done what I said I was going to do, I just felt really happy I hadn't bottled it. I could have crumbled under the pressure but I was happy that didn't happen to me.

"I was never time-orientated. I never said to myself I was going to break the world record, or go under 2:08, I only ever talked about how I was going to get the outcome. To know that I kept that mindset throughout the race, knowing that it had all paid off, was an overwhelming feeling."

Jamieson was gracious in defeat, but he faked his smile on the podium. Used to being pipped to the wall at the biggest meets by a Hungarian, he had been shown up at his own party by a man on the same side. The Glaswegian will not be in Berlin to seek revenge, having put all of his eggs this summer into the one competitive basket, but this is perhaps no bad thing for his ego because Murdoch is swimming without a care. He knew he could beat Jamieson because of what he had done in training, and he already has a rough plan in place for Berlin.

Daniel Gyurta, the aforementioned Hungarian, will get a glimpse of Murdoch in the 100m on Monday and perhaps the 50m at the end of the meet. But he has forgone the chance to defend his 200m title, preferring to add variety to his life in a year when there is no world or Olympic gold to protect.

Murdoch admits he is "slightly disappointed" that neither Gyurta nor Jamieson will be in Wednesday's four-lap final, for obvious reasons, but it makes him a conspicuous favourite for reasons other than his simple presence at the top of the 2014 world rankings.

Marco Koch, Germany's world silver medallist, is a significant obstacle with a best time of 2:08.43. But to Murdoch, Koch is just another Jamieson, a man saddled with hope who is competing with an urgent need to impress. "If I'm honest, I'm slightly disappointed that I won't have the opportunity to race Daniel in the 200m. But there is still a really strong German boy who is going to have the home support. He is one who likes to go out really, really hard, so it's just about sticking to my race plan again."

Murdoch's life has changed since Tollcross. Not in the way Jamieson's did after London, with multinational companies clamouring for association, but in smaller, more local and more touching ways. Last week a young fan sent him a letter, addressed to "Ross Murdoch, Commonwealth champion, Balloch". Never mind that the Murdochs moved from Balloch to Balfron many years ago, Charlie Flynn's colleagues at the Royal Mail made sure the correspondence was delivered. The people of Balfron remain in pursuit of their postmasters, however, demanding that one of the town's pillar boxes be painted gold in the way that London 2012 gold medallists had their local amenity redecorated.

"That has been one of the most surreal things," says Murdoch. "I have also been in Tesco's and had people whispering behind me, 'that's that boy who won the gold medal'. It's still a bit weird being a sort of local celebrity around Stirling and my home town of Balfron.

"I've always wanted the reputation that the likes of Michael and Daniel have, the way people look at them and say 'I'm really going to have to watch them down the last 100m or they are going to eat me up'. Now I need to hold it."

Ross Murdoch, the man with the plan. How appropriate that his next races should be taking place in the capital of Germany.

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