Athletics: Hough prepares to hurdle the class barrier

Simon Turnbull meets the young athlete who has leapt on to the grand stage
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The Independent Online
Last Sunday morning Rob Hough was not sure whether he would get the chance to race on his adopted home track today in the Securicor Games. "My agent was still pushing to get me in," he recalled. The pushing stopped in Munich's Olympic Stadium on Sunday afternoon. When Hough left Alessandro Lambruschini a huffing and puffing also-ran off the final barrier in the European Cup 3,000m steeplechase he shoved himself into the in-crowd of British athletics. Britain's one grand prix meeting of the summer could hardly have gone ahead without the unheralded hero of the British men's continental conquest.

Thus, instead of training on the streets of the South Yorkshire capital that has been his home since he uprooted from Gillingham to study German at Sheffield University, Hough will take his place among the international cast at the Don Valley Stadium. Sadly, he will not have the opportunity to repeat the kind of splash he made in Munich, where he lined up as the sixth-fastest man and finished - after hurdling the water jump - with the scalp of Lambruschini, the European champion and Olympic bronze medallist. With no steeplechase on the programme this evening, Hough runs in the Emsley Carr Mile. "I want to get under four minutes," he said. " I ran 4min 00.42sec last year. It's a big barrier."

Not quite as big as the one he broke through in Bavaria, though. The scale of that could be measured by the expression on Lambruschini's face as the Briton swept past to become his first vanquisher in five European Cup races. The lingering look of astonishment betrayed the Italian's thoughts. "Who on earth is this ?" it clearly said. All save the aficionados of British track and field were asking the same question.

Hough is 25. He runs for Sheffield Athletics Club and works, on a casual basis, as a translator. Unlike Lambruschini, who finished third behind Joseph Keter and Moses Kiptanui in the Olympic final, he never made it to Atlanta last summer. He finished fifth in the British trial. He was Britain's fastest 3,000m steeplechaser in 1996 but 8min 26.33sec, which remains his personal best, ranked him a modest 46th at world level.

"No," he said, "I haven't been recognised on the streets this week. I've hardly stepped out of the house because the phone keeps ringing. I'm still getting used to it. One minute no one wants to know you; the next the phone never stops. It's been a big change.

"I'm still on cloud nine, to be honest, but I've got to get my feet on the ground. The World Championships are the aim now. I can't live off that one win forever. I'm trying to get into the steeplechase in Lausanne next Wednesday but the promoter says someone will have to drop out first. In world terms 8min 26min doesn't mean a lot."

"No, it doesn't," Mark Rowland agreed. "But when Rob gets into the grand prix races the quick times will come." Rowland is the quickest 3,000m steeplechaser Britain has ever had. His record has stood, at 8min 7.96sec, since he took the Olympic bronze medal behind Julius Kariuki and Peter Koech in Seoul nine years ago. Having claimed Britain's only Olympic medal in the event since 1964 with the kind of attacking verve Hough showed in Munich, the retired master probably saw something of his old self in the emerging apprentice last weekend. He was certainly impressed.

"I'm very jealous of him, in the nicest way," Rowland said. "I'd love to be in his position. He's come through at a good time. Hopefully, he's now in line for financial help. I never felt I fulfilled my potential because I was fighting to earn a living. I always looked upon that 8:07 as a stepping stone. I might not have broken the eight-minute barrier but I'm pretty sure I could have run faster. My time has been and gone and it's Rob's now. I think he'll break my record. I certainly hope he does."

At 34, Rowland is devoted to the athletic talent of the future. He coaches at Horsham Blue Star - the Sussex club made famous by the prolific record- breaker Alf Shrubb - and is setting up a charity foundation for young athletes, enabling them to combine their training and studies at Lewes Tertiary College. "I hope Rob gets all the help he needs," Rowland said. "But he's already got the most important thing: a coach with his head screwed on. Glen Grant knows what he's doing."

You need look no further than the prize for tonight's four-lap race for confirmation of that. The Emsley Carr Mile Trophy is a book bound in red Moroccan leather, listing the names and signatures of all those who have graced the event since its inception in 1953 (among them Rowland, who won in 1985). Grant's autograph appears with the class of '76, next to a teenager from Sheffield who broke four minutes for the first time in that year's race. Tonight the man who chased Sebastian Coe will be in the Don Valley stands, willing his Sheffield steeplechaser through a time- honoured barrier.