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The Harrier or The Wolf: Black hunts for progress

Neil Black was leaning against a barrier on the concourse at the Letzigrund Stadium, wracking his brains but smiling.

Neil Black has shifted focus to the challenges facing British Athletics. Picture: Getty Images
Neil Black has shifted focus to the challenges facing British Athletics. Picture: Getty Images

The 54-year-old from Ashington, the Northumberland mining town which produced Jackie Milburn, the World Cup-winning Charlton brothers and the England Ashes-winning cricketer Steve Harmison, was doing his best to recall whether he had helped the Bella boys to victory in the Edinburgh to Glasgow road relay.

"Do you know, I'd be lying if I said we won it," he confessed. "We might have done." In fact, in the two years he spent living and working in the Scottish capital, Black took Bellahouston Harriers into the lead on the mid-race stages he ran in the Edinburgh to Glasgow in 1982 and '83, only for his club-mates to fail to hold on for victory.

Still, the Northumbrian, who last week guided the British athletics squad to an all-time record European Championship medal haul of 12 gold, five silver and six bronze over the course of six glorious days in Zurich, has fond memories of his days on the Scottish harrier scene.

"It was just a fun time," he recalled. "Bellahouston were inviting and embracing and I had a great time. The only reason it ended was because I got a crazy injury and ended up having surgery on my Achilles tendon. I kind of stopped competing after that."

Not many of the relatively youthful squad which took the British team to the top of the medal table in Zurich would be aware of that fact since Black is a modest soul. However, the British Athletics performance director was once an emerging young middle-distance talent, good enough to beat Sebastian Coe in a cross country race at Gateshead and Steve Cram on more than one occasion on the club circuit in the north-east of England.

Black was also a fly-half in the Northumberland Colts' rugby union XV and a central defender who had trials with Middlesbrough Football Club, until he walked into Jim Alder's sports shop in Morpeth one day.

The genial, garrulous Alder is one of the all-time greats of Scottish athletics. He won the Commonwealth Games marathon in Kingston in 1966 and finished runner-up to Ron Hill in Edinburgh four years later. At 74, he still holds the world best time for two hours that he set in 1964.

An orphan from the Gorbals who was adopted by a Northumberland couple, Alder is a persuasive, inspirational soul. He talked Black into turning his sporting talent to running and became his coach at Morpeth Harriers.

As a 19-year-old, Black reached the 1500m final at the UK Championships at Meadowbank Stadium in Edinburgh in 1978, clocking 3min 44.40sec, but injury forced him into retirement in his early 20s. He became a physiotherapist with the British team and head of sports science and medicine with UK Athletics. Such was his reputation for fixing broken bodies, he was nicknamed "The Wolf" by the British team, after the fixer character in Pulp Fiction, played by Harvey Keitel.

Now that he has apparently fixed things for the current crop of British athletes, Black seems certain to be hailed as the saviour with the Midas touch. He laughed dismissively at the prospect, and at the suggestion that his public profile might now rise to the prominent level enjoyed by his predecessor, the no-nonsense Dutchman, Charles van Commenee.

"I'm completely different from Charles," he said. "I worked very closely with him and we had a fantastic relationship. He was here this week, working for the Dutch Olympic Committee, and it was great to see him. We caught up on old times and had a laugh and joke about lots of things."

Level-headed and unwaveringly sanguine, Black will enjoy the golden glow of European success, but not without keeping his eye on the bigger picture. "The phrase is, 'From here on, we go global'," he said. "That's the way to look at it. We have World Championships in Beijing next year, the Olympics in Rio in 2016 and World Championships in London in 2017.

"We take confidence from what we have achieved here: from Jo Pavey to Dina Asher-Smith, with Goldie Sayers leading as team captain. But we don't kid ourselves that we're on top of the world.

"We're on top of Europe at the moment and we're going to enjoy that for a few days. But then we are going to knuckle down and look to the next three years, which are probably the most important three years that there have ever been for British athletics, including 2012. We have a massive job to do now."

To assist him on that job, Black now has Stephen Maguire as a member of his coaching team. The Northern Irishman oversaw a marked rise in the fortunes of Scotland's top-level track and field performers as director of athletics with scottishathletics, a role he vacated after the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.

"It certainly feels to me that Scottish athletics has taken a massive step forward," said Black. "It's brilliant to see someone like Chris O'Hare win a medal and Elidh Child being able to perform at a level we know she could, with the ability to go on to better things. And the same with Lynsey Sharp.

"I've been impressed with the individual performances in Glasgow and Zurich. And I've been impressed with some of those people who didn't win medals, who performed well.

"I see Scottish athletics as part of the overall improved development and direction of British athletics. And we feel like one . . . it truly feels like one."

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