THE phoney war, Stephen Maguire gleefully acknowledges, is almost at its end. Live bullets will soon chase down Scotland’s leading athletes and they must either move swiftly to evade the crossfire or end up buried and forgotten once the smoke of the starter’s pistol has evaporated into the air.
The countdown starts in earnest this weekend in Birmingham where the UK Championships can offer some portents of what might lie ahead when the Commonwealth Games begins in less than four weeks’ time. For those with Hampden on their minds, it is a dress rehearsal in all but name. “It’s about making their plans stick,” the Northern Irishman says. “A little bit of a blip, positive or negative, this weekend and I won’t get too excited because it’s all about Glasgow. But they shouldn’t be that far away from where they need to be at.”
With the clock winding down on his tenure, director of coaching Maguire – somewhat under the weather when we sat down in Grangemouth yesterday – would surely feel a little alleviated if his Midlands-bound contingent give him no cause for additional concern. A handful among his 58-strong Commonwealth squad would benefit from a demonstration of form. Only Chris O’Hare, the world 1,500 metres finalist who has withdrawn from the three-day meeting, is presently under medical observation due to a problematic hamstring.
The grand plan will march on regardless. Track and field is all about the marginal achievable gains and the home straight into Glasgow has been designed to squeeze every gramme of home advantage attainable. Even with athletics’ position at the back of the Commonwealth programme, most entrants will remain at their personal bases, or at the holding camp in Kilmarnock, until 48 hours before their event. In tandem, there will be no compulsion to attend the opening ceremony at Hampden Park despite its obvious lure. “I can see the benefits,” Maguire confirms. “Having been at London and Beijing, you see how special it is for home athletes. It’s going to be very special. Any athlete who wants to do it, I’ll back, although I understand why some of the endurance athletes who are competing very early decide to stay away. Even if they just want to walk in and walk out, they can get a lot out of it.”
Ayrshire will be a safe haven for Maguire’s chosen crew, affording them room for manoeuvre while the arrivals from other visiting nations are forced to jostle for time and space at the designated training venues at Scotstoun and Lesser Hampden. With only a limited number of accreditation passes available in Glasgow for coaches, maximising that contact time may deliver another vital edge. More normality, less distraction, greater returns, he suspects. “They’re not there as tourists – and we’ve made that pretty clear.” For those who wish to indulge, there will be time to parade and seek out the A-List selfies when their work is done. “A lot of athletes can get sucked into the 24-hour opening of the restaurants, just that general buzz of being in a Games village. And a wee bit of talent spotting, as well. The razzmatazz doesn’t interest me at all, it’s about what happens on the track. And I’ve said it often enough. If our athletes can perform to their potential, that’s what we want. Wherever that takes them in the competition, they can’t do any more.”
For la crème de la crème, Birmingham this weekend is also a gateway to August’s European Championships, overlooked by many but with a stature within the sport that exceeds the jollity in Glasgow. By the time Zurich arrives in late-August, Maguire will have traded his Scottish tracksuit for a GB&NI uniform following an introductory cameo last weekend ahead of taking up his new position in charge of the UK’s sprinters.
For those competitors following his lead, including distance specialist Beth Potter, performing double duty will be an emotional and physical test, peaking for the Commonwealths, coping with euphoria or disappointment, then rising once again. “It’s a massive challenge – and I’m just pleased that the Commonwealths are first,” Maguire notes.
“If any of them win a gold medal, for example, there will be a lot of interest. But, in reality, one day after they win their gold, they’ll have to be getting ready for the European Championships.” There is, always, one more war to fight.
O’Hare’s withdrawal from the trials could see him miss the Europeans with the Scot, currently ranked second, yet to post the qualifying time. Sprinter James Dasaolu, whose 100m best of 9.91 seconds trails only Linford Christie, has also pulled out along with world 400m champion Christine Ohuruogu.