Athletics: Facts must be faced in trial of Daley Thompson: Great names, new games: Two of the world's finest sportsmen face fresh challenges. Mervyn Brewer finds a double Olympic champion on trial at Reading FC

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The Independent Online
DEEP in rural Berkshire this week, the casual observer might have witnessed the almost poignant sight of a 35-year-old twice Olympic champion pitting his strength and fitness against a squad of professional footballers, many of them almost half his age.

Daley Thompson, who turns 36 today, could be seen throwing himself into tackles, joining in with the banter, and dribbling past defenders like a delighted schoolboy to lash in shots as Reading prepared for the new season at their leafy Coombe Park training ground near Pangbourne.

It is the latest odd move in the career of a man who seems to be searching for a purpose in life after his athletics career ended. Last year, it was motor racing - this year, professional football. Thompson has been training with Reading for the last three weeks while being filmed by Chrysalis Sport, which is planning a fly-on-the-wall documentary about him.

Thompson is almost dismissive of the project, saying: 'I'm just messing about, really. It's up to other people at the club whether anything permanent comes out of it. I had two dreams as a boy: to win Olympic gold and be a professional footballer.'

But the man who set new standards in the decathlon as he won Olympic gold medals in the 1980 Moscow and 1984 Los Angeles Games, must be one of the oldest trialists taken on by any club in this long, hot summer. A goal after coming on as a substitute in the recent friendly at the Diadora League club, Leatherhead, two weeks ago proved that the old competitive streak is still there. But Thompson looked to be feeling the pace at the end of a tough three-hour session in scorching heat, supervised by Reading's manager, Mark McGhee.

Thompson is not being paid by Reading, who won the Second Division championship last season, but could receive bonuses if he is eventually signed. McGhee said: 'Initially, I was sceptical. The last thing I wanted was someone interfering with our preparations. But he has shown great enthusiasm and the lads love him.'

McGhee, though, would not be drawn on whether Thompson would be offered a contract. It is surely unlikely but, whatever happens, the episode has earned Reading valuable publicity.

The last football programme Chrysalis made, and then sold to Channel 4, was the now-famous Graham Taylor: An Impossible Job, which created a storm and is now a best-selling video. Gary Double, the Chrysalis spokesman, said: 'We will be filming Daley as he progresses, and keeping an eye on him. If it develops into something that can be made into a programme, then that's what we'll do.'

Jimmy Quinn, Reading's Northern Ireland striker and himself a veteran at 35, put matters into perspective when he said: 'Daley admits that he could never realistically play at this level. He's very fit and he's a half-decent player and maybe if he had had the coaching 20 years ago it might have been different. But he has been great fun to have around.'

(Photograph omitted)