THERE will be no rash predictions from Stephen Maguire. No putting his job on the line as a shock tactic.
Instead, his prognosis for the Commonwealth Games is based on realism tinged with optimism. And, after the first big athletics meeting of the year in Scotland, that optimism is looking… well, increasingly realistic.
In the run-up to the London Olympics, UK Athletics’ head coach Charles van Commenee set a target of at least eight medals for the Great Britain track-and-field team, and said he would step down if they fell short. They did, and he did. Never mind the success of Super Saturday, Britain ended up with six medals, so the Dutchman ended up out of work.
Perhaps Van Commenee settled on an improbably high target, and, feeling he had done everything he could in his job, was relieved to move on. That is an entirely different position from the one in which Maguire finds himself as Scottish Athletics’ director of coaching.
For him, the job to which he was appointed less than two years ago is still in its early stages. As we saw at the Sainsbury’s Glasgow International Match at the Emirates Arena on Saturday, there is a growing cast of credible contenders in Scottish track and field, but few as yet are world class.
Lynsey Sharp is European 800 metres champion, and at the weekend at last received the gold medal to accompany that achievement. Eilidh Child was fifth in the 400m hurdles at last year’s IAAF World Championships; Susan Partridge and Eilish McColgan were tenth in the marathon and the 3,000m steeplechase respectively. Beyond those four, we have a host of rapidly improving athletes, such as Chris O’Hare, Laura Muir and Guy Learmonth, all of whom won in the Emirates.
But those three, all middle-distance runners like Sharp, will face really stiff competition at Hampden this summer, so Maguire will certainly not presume they will have podium finishes.
Instead, his stated aim of two to five medals takes two separate factors into account.
First, Scotland only won two medals in each of the three previous Games – Child and 1,500m runner Steph Twell in Delhi; hurdlers Chris Baillie and Lee McConnell in Melbourne; and McConnell (in the flat 400) and decathlete Jamie Quarry in Manchester. However, secondly, we are now in an improving environment, as was shown by the fact that seven Scots made it into the British team at the world championships.
“Two to five medals I think, if you look back at history, is a tough target,” Maguire said after watching his team compete for the first time in the Glasgow International. “Is it a realistic target? Probably.
“Can we do better? If all the ducks are in a row and stay where they are? Absolutely.
“Laura Muir is in an incredibly tough event. Chris O’Hare – Kenyans – an incredibly difficult event. It’s not going to be plain sailing. Two to five medals is going to be difficult, but they have the calibre to do it.”
On Saturday the Scots athletes were inspired by each other and by a capacity audience. If they can get off to a good start to the Commonwealth Games, when the crowd will be roughly ten times as big, Maguire believes those ducks will be approaching alignment.
“That’s what we’re looking for,” he continued. “We’ve got the marathon on the first day with Freya [Ross] and Susan, and without putting anyone under too much pressure, if we can hit the ground running very early it’s all about an impetus and feelgood factor.
“You could see today that they all feed off each other; they are all friends. They are all very supportive. I’ve been around environments where there is bitchiness, but that’s not the case here.
“The athletes are seeing the positivity and people getting behind them. The negativity that maybe was around the sport a few years ago isn’t there, and this kicks things off. The sport as whole is in a nice place.”
Having said that, Maguire added a significant caveat: many of the athletes coming to prominence now are not close to the peaks of their careers. Muir is 20; Learmonth 21; O’Hare 23. Their best seasons, like those of 23-year-old Sharp and 24-year-old Jamie Bowie, may not even take place this decade.
“I will be honest,” he explained. “We will have a big majority of athletes on our team who will be really preparing for the next Commonwealth Games and we don’t expect much from them in Glasgow. The worst thing for me that could happen is people saying: ‘Ah, they did nothing, they went out in the first round, they are not going to do anything.’
“These are young developing athletes and it’s very difficult when you have a home Games, because the expectation from the public is heightened.
“But you can see today no matter from the youngest athlete to the most experienced, everyone got an equal welcome and everybody absolutely got behind them. It was tremendous.
“Talking to a couple of them, the biggest shock was when they went out into the arena and just their name being announced. That expectation and management of intensity is something the coaches will have to work with them on.
“There was 5,000 people in there today. Hampden is what, 48,000? That’s going to go through the roof, and the majority of them will be supporting Scottish athletes. Once you go in there representing Scotland you’re going to get a massive reception, and [the key is] dealing with that reception enough to be able to execute your performance.”
Even if every member of the team excels themselves, it will still be tough. Child is perhaps the only one who can honestly be expected to get a medal. Beyond that, much depends on variable factors: how strongly Sharp returns to the track after missing most of last season through injury, for example; how well the likes of Muir and O’Hare can sustain their progress over the next few months; or how many class athletes from other countries decide to give Glasgow a miss.
That is the reality. And the more closely you inspect it, the more you understand why Maguire, although heartened by what he saw on Saturday, has every intention of keeping his feet on terra firma.