Brown and Haining skip through the Belgian mud

Jon Brown yesterday became the first British male to win a major cross- country title in 21 years as he won the European gold medal in Charleroi, Belgium. The 25-year-old from Sheffield simply ran away from a top-class field through heavy mud to emulate Ian Stewart's achievement in taking the world title in 1975.

Britain's women added to the medal count against the odds, taking the team bronze behind France and Romania despite the absence of their three best-established cross-country performers: Paula Radcliffe, Liz Talbot and Alison Wyeth.

Hayley Haining, the 24-year-old Scot returning after a five-year absence through injury, was the first Briton home in ninth place, Andrea Whitcombe took 15th place and Suzanne Rigg finished 18th.

Brown, who is based in Vancouver, won by more than half a minute from Portugal's Paulo Guerra. "It was easy," Brown said.

"You couldn't run through the mud, you had to stagger through it. I wasn't sure how to play it, whether to sit in there and bide my time. But I seemed to be moving away without putting too much effort in at all.

"I expected to do well after a good month's training in November consolidated my fitness from the summer."

Brown, who went down with a cold before the Olympic 10,000m in Atlanta where he finished 10th, added that his main target remained a top-six place at the World Championships in Turin in March.

Brown's cosmopolitan background - born in Wales, raised in Yorkshire, educated in the United States, married to a German and based in Canada - is reflected in his attitude to running.

In recent years he has moved easily around the world, excelling in road races, where he holds UK records at 10km and 15km, and adopting a professional, can-do attitude which is in contrast to some of his British middle-distance colleagues.

Brown's desire was evidenced by his performance in the World Cross-Country championships at Cape Town earlier this year, where he finished as the top European in 13th place. There were 12 Africans ahead of him; but an awful lot more behind.

He had emphasised his positive attitude the weekend before last in accounting for the current world cross-country champion Paul Tergat, of Kenya, in a race in Spain.

Britain's hopes of at least matching last year's team bronze went by the board when Andrew Pearson, who was third in the 1995 individual race, could do no better than 16th and Keith Cullen, handicapped by a recent bout of flu, failed to finish.

Haining's career - she is now a fully qualified veterinary surgeon - almost put an end to her running when, in the course of her studies, she was kicked above her knee by a cow.

Since then, the runner who finished seventh, and top European, in the 1991 world junior championships, has suffered a sequence of injuries which caused her to wonder whether retirement would be the sensible course.

Thankfully for British cross- country running, she has taken the compromise option of refusing to work with large animals. "I came here without any great expectations. I just hoped to finish high up in our team. A bronze medal is unbelievable."