Athletics: Mayock's reign as bane of Spain

The Barnsley Boys: Simon Turnbull talks to the old school-mates pursuing glory for their town on field and track
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The Independent Online
FORGET the tales of those world-beating Kenyans learning to run on their way to and from school every day. John Mayock did it the hard way. "I used to run round my paper round," the new golden boy of British middle-distance running related. "It was a hard round, too. The Barnsley Chronicle weighed a ton." For five years Mayock pushed his local newspaper through the letterbox of the Eaden household in Hoyland. He never imagined that one day he and Nicky Eaden would be making the headlines.

Last Sunday night in Valencia, Mayock, as more than one newspaper put it, sank the Armada in the final race of the European Indoor Championships. He struck gold ahead of the three Spaniards in the bruising 3,000m final. This afternoon he will be in Germany, chasing his own British indoor 3,000m record in Sindelfingen. He will, though, be keeping an ear on events from St James' Park, where Eaden will be another Barnsley boy in the sporting news. "I went to the same school as Nicky," Mayock said. "He was in the year below me at Kirkbalk Comprehensive and at Barnsley VIth Form College too. I never knew he was any good at football until he left and joined Barnsley."

Watching television highlights of Eaden and his colleagues beating Wimbledon at Oakwell the previous day was a final comforting glimpse of home for Mayock before he left his room at the Expo Hotel, in Valencia, and stepped into bull-ring of the Luis Puig indoor track. The locals had gathered in expectation of a kill: to see Manuel Pancorbo, Alberto Garcia and Isaac Viciosa put the opposition to the sword in the 3,000m final. The three Spaniards duly charged to the finish line in formation. But Mayock - in the red, white and blue vest of Great Britain - crossed it ahead of them. He did so to a chorus of booing that reached a crescendo when he stood on the podium receiving his gold medal.

He had done nothing more criminal than poop the expected Spanish party with a textbook exhibition of how to prevail in the robust world of indoor middle-distance racing. He merely fought his ground, entirely within the rules, and made the decisive move that won him the first international title of his senior running career. It was the kind of golden run Peter Elliott, who acts as an adviser to Mayock and his coach Peter Watson, might have had in mind when he mused in these pages precisely a year ago: "John's biggest problem is he doesn't believe in himself enough. He's got to get up at the front and mix it."

Elliott, recently appointed British middle-distance coach, was on hand to offer his congratulations last Sunday. Mayock, though, left the stadium in the company of two bulkier figures than the former Commonwealth 1500m champion. Sean Pickering and Mark Proctor were not exactly men in black but a pair of shotputters in British tracksuits had the desired effect. "I needed protection," Mayock said. "I wasn't sure what was going to happen. A few people tried to have a go at me on the track but when I got back to the hotel I couldn't get into the lift for people shaking my hand."

There was even a congratulatory fax waiting on his desk in the recreation department at Staffordshire Borough Council on Wednesday morning. It read: "England 1 Spain 0. Congratulations from your friends in Italy." It had been sent by Gennaro Di Napoli, the rival who beat Mayock to the 3,000m gold in the 1992 European Indoor Championships.

The new champion is not, however, expecting any pats on the back - not of the friendly variety, at least - when he returns to Spain. He is not anxious to find out for sure. "I was planning to do some warm-weather training in Spain next month," Mayock said, "but I think I'd better leave it for a while before going back there."

Mayock has also decided to withdraw from the 4km middle- distance event in the World Cross Country Championships in Marrakesh on 21 March. From tomorrow, his efforts will be channelled towards the outdoor European Championships in Budapest in August - and the challenge of becoming the first British middle-distance man to win a major championship title outdoors since Elliott's winning 1500m run in the Commonwealth Games in Auckland eight years ago. First, though, Mayock toes the start line in Sindelfingen as the new indoor 3,000m champion of Europe.

He does so alongside Khalid Skah, the Moroccan who baulked Richard Chelimo and received dubious pacemaking assistance from a team-mate en route to the Olympic 10,000m title. Skah was jeered and pelted with paper cups by the Catalans on his lap of honour. It is just as well the bad boy of the Barcelona Games meets the vilified British hero of Valencia in Germany, not Spain.

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