It was off the well-beaten European sporting track, in the provincial Portuguese backwater of Leiria, that Jose Mourinho took a step backwards in order to relaunch his career as a football head coach. After an unhappy start in management with Benfica, he accepted a cut in wages to take charge of Uniao de Leiria in the summer of 2001, guiding the Portuguese minnows to fourth place in the national Superliga before making a swift return to major club management with Porto. Kelly Sotherton and the rest of the Great Britain women's track-and-field team will be hoping for a quick promotion of their own when they follow the Mourinho revival path to Leiria next weekend.
Relegated from the Super League division of the annual European Cup after finishing bottom in the eight-nation competition at Bydgoszcz in Poland 12 months ago, the British women need to win the First League event in Leiria on Saturday and Sunday to return to the élite Continental level for 2006. Not that Sotherton, the multi-gifted Olympic heptathlon bronze-medallist, is getting greatly excited about treading in the footsteps of Chelsea's Chosen One. "It isn't going to make me jump any further, is it?" she said dismissively. "Sorry, I'm not really interested in Chelsea. I'm an Arsenal fan."
The Birchfield Harrier can only hope, then, that she fares better in the Estadio Dr Magalhaes Pessoa than Patrick Vieira and Thierry Henry did on their visit to Leiria's sporting arena a year ago. The Gallic Gooners played in the French team held to a 2-2 draw there by Croatia in the group stages of Euro 2004. Only victory will suffice for a British women's team minus the injured Kelly Holmes, who withdrew on Friday evening, but featuringPaula Radcliffe, holder of the marathon world record.
Sotherton herself is classed as one of the "big hitters" in the Great Britain squad, not just because of the bronze medal she won in the heptathlon in Athens last summer but also because of her rising profile in the long jump - the individual event she will contest in Leiria.
The native Isle of Wighter finished runner-up in the long jump in Bydgoszcz last year, with a personal best of 6.68 metres. It matched the highest-ever placing by a British women's long jumper in the European Cup. Back in 1970, Ann Wilson finished second to Heidi Rosendahl, Mary Peters' great German rival in the Olympic pentathlon of 1972. Mary Rand, the Olympic long jump champion in Tokyo in 1964, never fared better than third in the European Cup. Neither did Fiona May, in a British vest; as a naturalised Italian, though, the Derby girl won the European Cup three times, and the world title twice.
"Oh, it's looking hopeful for me as a long jumper, then," Sotherton said, when her place in the historical scheme of things was drawn to her attention.
Like Rosendahl, who took pentathlon silver in the Munich Olympics but who won gold as a long jumper, she wants to be a multi-event athlete also making a mark in the specialist long jump field. With Jade Johnson recovering from a prolapsed disk, Sotherton is the undisputed British No 1 in the event this summer. She stands 14th in the current world rankings, with the 6.67m she jumped when finishing runner-up to Carolina Kluft in the Gotzis heptathlon in Austria. Her intention is to compete in the long jump as well as the heptathlon at the World Championships in Helsinki in August.
"The heptathlon comes first in the programme," Sotherton said, "and after I've done my event I can go out and have fun trying to qualify for the long jump final. I imagine Carolina Kluft and Eunice Barber will be doing the same. There has been a long tradition of heptathletes doing well as long jumpers."
There has indeed. Jackie Joyner-Kersee won two world titles and two Olympic gold medals as a heptathlete and one world and one Olympic title as a long jumper. Her husband, Bob Kersee, coaches Barber, the French athlete who won World Championships gold medals in the heptathlon in 1999 and in the long jump in 2003 - and who last weekend made a stunning return to form after missing the 2004 Olympic season because of injury.
Competing on adopted home soil in Arles, Barber, a refugee from Sierra Leone, smashed her six-year-old French record with a score of 6,889 points. In the process, she wrested top spot in the world rankings from Kluft, the 22-year-old Swede who has completed a clear sweep of European, world and Olympic heptathlon titles. Barber's dramatic re-emergence has raised the prospect of an epic duel with Kluft for the world title in Helsinki, and left Sotherton facing the likely scenario of battling for the bronze. Not that the Briton is looking beyond the fight for individual and collective honour in central Portugal.
"Yes, I did well in the long jump in the European Cup last year," she said, "but the competition will be tough, even though we've dropped down a division. The Portuguese girl who won the European indoor title in March [Nadia Gomes] should be there, so I can't rest on my laurels.
"The most important thing is that we win as a team. We have to make sure we get promotion. We have got to get back in the Super League."
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