BY TAKING one breath at a time, putting one foot in front of the other and trying, despite all that has happened, to bloody well keep going, Christian Dailly will perform a task as trivial and yet as meaningful as life itself in today’s Virgin London Marathon.
Just six days after the bomb attack that killed three people and wounded more than a hundred at the finishing line of the Boston Marathon, some 36,000 competitors, Dailly among them, will set off from Greenwich Park this morning in a spectacular show of defiance.
The former Dundee United and Rangers footballer has never run a marathon before, but he has been a spectator at the London race, mostly to cheer on his wife, Kirsty. He is adamant that last week’s atrocity should not be allowed to spoil the unique atmosphere of an event that amounts to a celebration of the human spirit.
While some, including Paula Radcliffe, have admitted they would think twice about allowing their family to be at the finishing line, Dailly is not one of them. If anything, he is tempted to go the other way in a demonstration of support for the event and everything it stands for.
“I just can’t bear the thought of having to constrain the way that we live or the way we go to events like these just because of what happened. If everybody starts to avoid these things, they [the terrorists] win, don’t they?
“Some people might be put off going to watch because there are some complete nutters out there but, in some ways, it can have the opposite effect. My wife is saying she wants to go down and watch the start, which is where a lot of people will be. Before Boston, she probably wouldn’t have done that.
“I’ve been to the London Marathon numerous times. It’s a fantastic event, with a superb atmosphere, but I think there will be an even bigger sense of togetherness this time.”
In purely sporting terms, it is a big challenge for Dailly, who retired from football last summer to concentrate on athletics – as a coach and a competitor. By profession, he is more suited to shorter, sharper runs, such as the 800m – which he hopes to do on the Masters circuit after he turns 40 later this year – but his aim is to run the marathon in under three hours.
“It’s a tall ask to go from virtually no aerobic base to under three hours so I may well hit the wall. We’re in good nick, but there will be no blasting off. I mean, you’re talking about someone who has had 22 years of football training and seven knee operations. I’ve got to be very careful.”
It will be an emotional day, on a number of different levels. Dailly will wear a black armband in memory of the Boston victims. His chosen charity is the Maggie’s Centre in Dundee, which provides support for cancer sufferers and their families. “I haven’t pushed it,” he says. “I understand the money constraints people are under so it’s more of an awareness thing.”
He will also run in memory of his father, Dan, who died of bowel cancer in 2004. Dan Dailly, a popular figure in Dundee, was an athletic type from an academic family. A junior footballer who was frequently linked with professional clubs, he became a civil engineer and contented himself with running the football teams in which Christian played. In the process, he instilled in his eldest child what became a lifelong obsession with fitness. “In 1990, I went from boys’ football in May to my Dundee United debut in August,” says Christian. “That summer, we’d be down at the beach, and all of a sudden, I’d be running through the sea at St Andrews or up and down the sand dunes. When I got to pre-season at Dundee United, I was flying, running away from everyone.”
In later years, his father was no less supportive, driving up and down to see his son play for Derby County, Blackburn Rovers and West Ham United. “I was 30 or 31 when he died but, until then, he had guided me through my entire career, the whole process. It’s something that I’ve thought about more and more as I’ve got older: that environment – whether it’s created by your parents, your family or your household – where you desire to excel, you desire to be the best. That guidance is crucial in the development of children. It’s something I feel I provide for the athletes I work with.”
Dailly’s fitness fanaticism is rivalled these days by an obsession with coaching. Based in Essex, with his wife and four children, he is the lead coach for Chelmsford Athletics Club, where he has five teenagers under his wing. Among them is his 15-year-old daughter, Christy, an 800m runner who has been in the Scotland Futures squad. Earlier this month he took them all to Portugal for a warm-weather training camp organised by Scottish Athletics.
He has yearned for this opportunity. Dailly was fit enough to continue his football career, and, indeed, was offered an extension to his contract by Southend United last summer, but he wanted to find out more about the human body and how to condition it more effectively. He needed “thinking time”. Three years into a sports science degree at Manchester Metropolitan University, he has developed a radical approach to training that he says is different to anything he has seen elsewhere.
“I made the decision to come out of football because I wanted to be a bit more academic, a bit more ‘nerdy’, you might call it. I want to understand things. And, I can tell you, I’ve had a couple of real eureka moments in the last year. A couple of concepts have come up that I’m really excited about.”
By combining everything from physiology to biomechanics and sensory perception, Dailly believes that coaching can be tailored to the specific requirements of every individual, taking into account each athlete’s mind, muscles and growth rate. Too often, especially in football, a programme is designed with only the squad, and its forthcoming matches, in mind.
“Footballers obviously need to do training as a team, but they must, and I mean must, train individually as well,” says Dailly. “It just doesn’t make any sense having everybody do the same thing. You just get people turning up at the weekend not feeling right.
“That’s the exact opposite of what I am trying to do from a coaching perspective. I’ve been a victim of that for most of my career. I knew that most of the stuff I was doing from an athletic point of view was not what I should have been doing, but basically, you’ve no choice.”
Dailly says that he was allowed to train himself only when he joined Charlton Athletic, late in his career. In one season, the centre-half started 49 matches and was named player of the year. “And it’s quite interesting that I’ve not had a single niggle since I’ve been marathon training. That’s because I don’t do the same as everybody else anymore. I do exactly what my body requires.”
Dailly, who has always been his own man, doesn’t miss the social side of football, still less training regimes, but he still loves the game, still follows it, as a part-time pundit for Sky and as a parent of Bobby and Harvey in the park. What he does miss is playing for Scotland, which he did 67 times. He was brought up by his father to love the national side, more than any club.
If the Scottish Football Association were to ask one day about his work, about how it might improve the country’s young players, he would be honoured to help out. “I would love to,” he says. “Absolutely definitely, but I have to go and prove myself first. That’s basically what I’m in the process of doing. This country has massive improvements to make in technique, the way the grassroots game is played, the way players are conditioned and the way clubs set themselves up. I came out of football when I did because, if I ever got back into it in a performance-based way, I wanted to be the best. So that’s what I’m trying to do. I might not get there, but it won’t be for lack of effort.”