Athletics: McIlroy follows in Coe's footsteps as a magical middle man

When Britain's athletes were busy taking on the rest of the world in Athens last summer, James McIlroy could not bear to watch them. "I actually went out on the golf course, for the first time in years," the former scratch golfer confessed. "I didn't want to watch the Olympics. All my family were out there and I didn't make the team."

When Britain's athletes were busy taking on the rest of the world in Athens last summer, James McIlroy could not bear to watch them. "I actually went out on the golf course, for the first time in years," the former scratch golfer confessed. "I didn't want to watch the Olympics. All my family were out there and I didn't make the team."

Having failed to achieve the selection standard for the 800m, McIlroy briefly considered hanging up his racing spikes but ultimately chose to give his athletics career another chance - wisely, as it has proven. This afternoon the Northern Irishman lines up as a contender for a medal, possibly even the gold, in the 800m final at the first major international track and field event since the Olympics, the European Indoor Championships. It might have been different had he not steeled himself and sneaked a peek at Kelly Holmes' two races for gold in Athens.

"I did see those races," McIlroy said. "Not live. But I just had to see them. Kelly's one of my heroes. No disrespect to the middle-distance guys who came before - the Coes, Ovetts and Crams - but they haven't had any direct influence on me, whereas Kelly Holmes... I know the girl; I like the girl. And to come through at the age she has come through..."

McIlroy is a student of middle-distance running who confesses to having painstakingly analysed footage of the great 800m races of all-time, yet he could not even bring himself to record any of the action from Athens. Seven months later, he has still seen nothing other than Holmes coming through to the top of the international tree at the grand age of 34. At 28, McIlroy himself has suddenly started to climb the branches again, after spending six years sliding down the bark.

The form he has shown on the indoor circuit this winter has been his most noteworthy since he burst on to the scene in 1998 and finished fourth in the 800m final at the outdoor European Championships. Just 12 months prior to that instant breakthrough - which he made in the emerald green of Ireland, before switching allegiance to Great Britain and Northern Ireland - the former Northern Ireland schools' left back was having trials as a prospective professional footballer with Darlington.

McIlroy's second coming as an 800m man has coincided with his decision to swap a high-mileage training regime for a radical new sprint-orientated approach under the guidance of Tony Lester, a one- time Royal Marines sergeant whose élite squad of athletes at the Thames Valley Athletics Centre in Eton includes Marlon Devonish, who was a member of Britain's Olympic champion 4 x 100m relay quartet.

"I train with the sprinters," McIlroy said. "I do starts and drills and plyometrics. It's basically attacking middle-distance running from a different direction, and it seems to be working for me. I have studied all of Sebastian Coe's key 800m races and you can see that he did a lot of sprint training.

"It's like being in a card game for so long and being dealt sixes and sevens all the time... I wouldn't say I've got an ace card yet, but it's coming."

The new, improved McIlroy happens to be the fastest British 800m runner indoors for 13 years, and the second fastest qualifier for this afternoon's final. If he were to play a trump card in Madrid, he would not be the first British 800m man to do so in the European Indoor Championships on Spanish soil. The trick was achieved in San Sebastian in 1977 by an international fledgling called Coe.

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