FOR your average lower-division footballer the chance to perform in front of a packed Hampden is often nothing more than a pipedream.
Playing in front of a few hundred against Queen’s Park is often as good as it is likely to get. However, the Hampden Roar is growing tantalisingly louder for former striker Grant Plenderleith, although his potential chance to shine will come in running spikes rather than football boots.
Two years ago, the then Stenhousemuir player won £2,500 for his club and £500 for himself with success in a Ramsdens “Dash For Cash” for lower division footballers over 60 metres on the pitch at Livingston.
Fast forward to this week and the prison officer from Falkirk finds himself in genuine contention for a place in Team Scotland’s 4x400m relay squad for the Commonwealth Games at Hampden in August.
Despite winning the Warriors some much-appreciated cash, he was released by the club just months later but there are no hard feelings on his part. Instead, there is gratitude that he was given the nudge needed to refocus on his athletics at just the right time to push for a part in one of the biggest sporting occasions to ever be held in Scotland.
Plenderleith is taking nothing for granted ahead of the final selection, although he was involved in the quartet who ran the qualifying time in Belgium last week and then clocked his own PB of 47.46 at Grangemouth on Saturday.
So, when was the seed planted that athletics may be a more fruitful sporting career than football?
“It would be the day I won that Ramsden’s Dash For Cash race at Livingston,” he said, recalling the event in March 2012, which took place just before Olympic fever swept Britain.
“They were looking for the fastest footballer in the SFL, as it was at the time. In many ways, my life changed that day. I didn’t start the race too well and had to catch the other guy after halfway. Then, afterwards, we were interviewed by a couple of journalists. I don’t know who it was, but someone asked me: ‘Have you ever thought about giving up football and taking up athletics and trying to qualify for the Commonwealth Games?’
“I answered that it had not crossed my mind and that was the truth but I went home and started to think about it. I went to Grangemouth a couple of months later to take part in an open athletics meeting – where you just turn up on the night and run.
“I recorded 22.25 for 200m that night and, when I checked the Scottish rankings, I realised that brought me in at about number five. I started to think: ‘Maybe there is a chance of Glasgow 2014 with a bit of effort and training’.”
It has been a long road since then for the 23-year-old. He continued to play football in 2012-13, combining two nights a week football training with athletics training. Almost a year ago, he was still turning out for Sauchie Juniors. But, coached by Dave Lothian and involved with Falkirk Victoria Harriers, Plenderleith’s track times improved, and five and six-mile runs through the winter helped build up his endurance.
He nonetheless missed out on a Scotland vest for the Glasgow International when he was sixth in what was effectively a “trial” at the National Open early in January – with the top four clinching places to face Team GB, the United States and a Commonwealth Select in front of a crowd of 5,000 at the Emirates.
“When I ran the 400m indoors at the National Open, with Scotland vests up for grabs, basically for the top four for the Glasgow International, I faded badly in the final 50 metres,” he explained. “I had only done endurance work then and no speed endurance. Now I feel a lot more able to cope with 400 and I’m bringing the time down.”
The switch to athletics has led to a few lifestyle changes. “I had a different diet as a footballer,” he smiled.
“It involved team nights out and a few jars after games! That was your bonding sessions. Alcohol is something I don’t even look at now. Nutrition, diet, preparation, rest – these are all things you have to think about and focus on as an athlete. I didn’t get to grips with nutrition last year but now I’m well aware there are things that I simply cannot eat.
“I’m in an environment where you see the sacrifices it takes. You soon realise talking to athletes what it may take. I think what you eat and when you eat is a major part of it – equally as important as your training.”
Plenderleith only actually played football once at Hampden, as a schoolboy. There will be more than 40,000 inside the stadium when the Scotland 4x400m men’s relay team competes at the Commonwealth Games for the first time since silver was won in 1990.
This weekend, the qualification period ends and full team announcements will be made next midweek by Commonwealth Games Scotland.
Plenderleith said: “I don’t want to get ahead of myself. I was part of the four who ran the standard in Belgium but you want to see it in black and white.”