A sprint down memory lane with mastermind of five New Year wins

JIM Bradley has a thing about understatement. There was the evening at Meadowbank when George McNeill, the most celebrated of the many sprinters he has coached, set several world records. "That was fine," the coach told his protege.

Then there was the morning in France - 67 years ago today - when he disembarked from a landing craft on to a Normandy beach. Five days on from D Day, the Edinburgh man had become part of the fight to liberate western Europe from the Nazis. His verdict on this desperate struggle? "It was pretty rough."

After the war, in which he also served in the north African desert, nothing could faze Bradley, least of all the criticism he received for his unorthodox coaching methods. His key to making sprinters go faster was to feed them steak and chips and have them do hours of gym work daily, strengthening their arms on the speedball. Pointless, his rivals said - until those methods gave him five victories in the New Year Sprint at Powderhall, the most famous event in British professional athletics.

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Of course, being unflappable and not making a fuss has its perils, as Bradley found last spring in Australia, which has been his home since 1972. A few weeks short of his 89th birthday, he was in a car crash that left him with life-threatening injuries. He had been on his way to a training session and, deciding not to let his athletes down, went to the track instead of going to the nearest hospital.

"A young motorist decided to rush through a red light and take me along with him, knocking me unconscious," he recalled. "It nearly killed me. My seatbelt strangled me and I couldn't move.

"I remember roaring like hell and the next thing I knew I was in an ambulance ready to take me to hospital. I refused, explaining I had athletes at the end of the road awaiting my arrival. A friend took me to the track, but I realised I had made a terrible mistake - I should have gone to hospital. I couldn't walk, I couldn't move my legs, I couldn't stand up. To cut a long story short I did end up in hospital and had open-heart surgery."

A year on from that near-fatal accident, Bradley, now 90, is still suffering some complications, principally a fracture in his back, which doctors say is inoperable. But that has not stopped him returning to his native Scotland, alone, to visit old friends.

On Thursday afternoon he was back at Meadowbank for the first time in more than three decades to meet McNeill, who has no doubt that his decision to join Bradley's school of runners was the crucial moment of his career. In 1969, as a young sprinter, McNeill saw David Deas win at Powderhall. Deas was one of Bradley's runners, all of whom looked more professional, more polished, more prepared than their rivals."I knew David looked class, and I saw Jim's other runners," McNeill explained. "They were in a different league. I asked how you got to train with Jim Bradley, and within days Jim explained I'd have to train seven days a week.

"I was like Deas the next year. I was prepared, and I won the sprint easily. There was no chance I could have won it without Jim. I didn't know anything about sprinting. Jim was about a lot of small things that made a big difference. There was a method that worked if you had the application and the guidance.

"If you were there seven nights a week, Jim would be there too. He wouldn't shout at you every night. He was a bit like Alex Ferguson or Jock Stein - there was an aura about him and he didn't have to shout at you."

After winning Powderhall in 1970, McNeill became a big draw. But even when he was showing just how good he was - as he did one night the following year by running the fastest time ever recorded for 120 yards - Bradley was there to ensure he came back down to earth. "That night at Meadowbank I beat the record three or four times - every race I ran I would go a wee bit faster. Jim was there, and at the end he said to me 'That was fine'. That was fine? I was pretty pleased with myself, but he said 'You're just a novice'.

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"Well, I'd only been training with him about 18 months. He said 'You've just started. You carry your arms too high. We'll go back in the gym and you'll improve'. I thought 'Improve on a record?' But he was right."

Bradley's contention that the upper body was the key to greater leg speed was controversial then, but is widely accepted now. To him, it is no more than common sense, something that occurred to him through simple observation of other people in the street.

"There were other trainers who were successful at Powderhall, but they emphasised strongly 'Forget about your arms. You run with your legs'," he explained. "I couldn't understand that. I thought 'No, no, the first thing you move is your arms, so they must direct your legs'. Think about when you're walking and you decide to go faster. The first thing you do is move your arms more quickly, and then your legs follow. It's common sense. Ninety-nine per cent of athletes won't do that work with your arms, because they say 'it's the legs'. But they're 100 per cent wrong."

At his age, and with those lingering injuries, Bradley knows it is risky for him to fly halfway round the world, but that is just one more thing that fails to faze him. He also knows he's mortal, and he expects to die happy.

"I haven't recovered fully from the crash yet, I've still got that fracture in my back, and they can't operate," he summed up with a wry smile. "But if that's all that's wrong with me . . . You've always got to remember the man who complained about having no shoes, until he saw the man with no feet."

Then, as he mused on his good fortune, for once he shrugged off his penchant for understatement."I don't want to die, but I could never complain," he said. "I've had a great life. Not a good life: a great life."