Athletics: Collins faces up to Britain's relegation

As so often in recent years, Britain's men won the climactic European Cup event, the 400 metres relay, in fine style. But the quality of their effort, and that of Christian Malcolm in winning the 200m earlier in the day, was in dismal contrast to the overall British performance here as the team lost its Super League status for the first time since the event took its current form in 1985.

As so often in recent years, Britain's men won the climactic European Cup event, the 400 metres relay, in fine style. But the quality of their effort, and that of Christian Malcolm in winning the 200m earlier in the day, was in dismal contrast to the overall British performance here as the team lost its Super League status for the first time since the event took its current form in 1985.

Britain's women - relegated last year - regained their place after victory in Portugal. Whether the men can similarly demonstrate what Iain Dowie is pleased to call "bouncebackability" next year remains open to question after three days of competition which revealed alarming weaknesses.

The plain truth was that many of Britain's selections did no better than could be expected, and others were lamentably short of their best. One or two didn't appear to care very much, either.

Poor performances on the opening two days had reduced Britain's hopes of avoiding relegation to little more than the mathematical. What followed failed to change matters.

"It was too little, too late," said a grim-faced Dave Collins, the ex-Marine who took over as UK Athletics' performance director in March. "Our performance here is really a symptom of something we've always known. We are lacking in strength in depth. We know we are weak in some events, and some individuals did not perform to expectation. We need to be focusing on each individual performance to come up with action points to improve it. But I'm not in wrist-slitting mood just yet."

Britain had been offered a glimmer of hope before the final day's competition by a European Athletic Association decision that Spain - who must stay in the Super League as next year's hosts - could utilise an extra place in the stadium currently being built in Malaga because the track has nine lanes. That meant that Spain would not have to leapfrog over the sixth qualifier in the event of finishing in one of the two relegation places.

In the event, Spain qualified by right in sixth, behind the winners, Germany. Collins did not even want to contemplate asking for the extra place. "That would be like going 'oh mum, please let us'. I wouldn't want to do that. We lost fair and square and we have to deal with it."

It soon became clear yesterday that there was to be no miraculous escape for Britain. David Hughes, a 21-year-old student drafted into the 110m hurdles at two weeks' notice, fell at the fourth barrier.

By the time Jimmy Watkins, another late call-up in the 800m, had finished seventh out of seven in a season's best of 1min 48.50sec, Britain were 19 points off safety. Within minutes, Nick Buckfield had failed for a third time in the pole vault at 5.40m - a height he has beaten twice this year - and finished last.

Christian Malcolm stopped the rot by winning the 200m in 20.15sec, and amid the gathering gloom it was good to see the glow of happiness emanating from an athlete who endured such trauma last summer, when his Olympics were undermined by a potentially fatal kidney failure.

Having contributed to the only previous maximum-points haul as a member of Saturday's sprint relay team, the 26-year-old Welshman confirmed that he is in his best form for four years.

"I'm normally running 20.4 at this stage of the year, so to do 20.1 is a great feeling," he said. "All I need to fulfil my potential is to be injury-free and healthy.'

Mo Farah also performed well to take second place in the 3000m, but Nathan Douglas, who has triple jumped 17.11m this year, was fifth in 16.54m.

With Nick Nieland only managing seventh in the javelin, throwing 73.97m, Britain arrived at the final event already relegated. The 400m relay time of 3min 00.51sec was the fastest in the European Cup since 1997. What a waste.

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