Athletics: Merry back on track to lift sagging expectations revival

European Cup: Britain's women escape relegation thanks to respectable performance in the relay as hurdler inspires men's renaissance
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Britain's European Cup campaign, which had begun to sag in temperatures exceeding 38C, was pulled back into respectable shape with a final flourish here in the newly-constructed Luigi Ridolfi Stadium. An unexpected win in the 400m relay helped the men's team secure the third place that had been forecast for them, while the women pulled themselves clear of relegation thanks to the second places earned by Jo Pavey in the 5,000m and a 400m relay team in which the Olympic bronze medallist, Katharine Merry, was running her first major one-lap race after an absence of two years.

Having lost five of the six individuals who had contributed maximum points to their European Cup victory in Annecy the previous year, the men's team appeared likely to struggle against the perennially strong Germans and a resurgent French team gearing up to play hosts at this summer's World Championships. Despite finishing the first day a point clear of the rest, thanks in part to victories by Chris Rawlinson in the 400m hurdles and Mark Lewis-Francis in the 100m, the British men entered the second day with no obvious winners and a number of events where points were likely to be scarce. The French eventually won with 109 points, eight-and-a-half points clear of Germany, while Britain scored 96.

Britain's women too, knew they could not afford to relax in any discipline if they were to maintain the position in the top flight of this competition that they have held since 1967, just two years after it began. Despite occupying one of the two relegation places with four events remaining, they recovered to finish fourth in an event won for the seventh successive time by Russia.

Britain's Performance Director, Max Jones used a golfing analogy in summing up the weekend's performance: "I would describe it as a par,'' he said. "It was Jo Pavey who tipped things the women's way at the end, and it was great to see Katharine back in action after being out so long.''

Merry's elation was palpable after a run in which she had moved from fourth to first place on the second leg. After shouting the men's relay team, which included three of her training partners, on to victory in the last action of the weekend, she gave full expression to her feelings of joy and relief.

"I was absolutely petrified,'' she said of her return after two injury-plagued years. "But it was a real mixture because I was so excited to be back running at this level. Doing a 52.2secs leg in the British League relay last weekend was a confidence boost for me, but this weekend was completely different because I was coming back for real in front of a lot of people and a TV audience. It was a different kind of pressure and I didn't want to run badly wearing a British vest.

"I don't run if I'm going to run crap, but these are not namby-pamby runners here. The Russian girl had a real pop at me after 200m. She cut me up - but that's the way it goes. You have to stop and then start again.''

Last-minute problems with a ligament in her foot meant that Merry required two pain-killing injections to compete - but she dismissed the idea that this might have put her return in jeopardy.

"Nothing was going to stop me running here,'' she said.

Whether she will take up Britain's offer to run her first individual 400m race since 2001 at next Sunday's international match in Glasgow is something she will decide upon later this week. Yesterday, it was enough that she was back in the running.

The women's relay team finished in 3mins 26.52secs, just half a second behind the Russians. The men's - anchored by the exuberant Welsh figure of Matt Elias, his hair dyed red and shaved into what looked like an outlandish Celtic design - recorded a time of 3mins 02.43sec despite losing the services of the previous day's individual event runner Iwan Thomas, through a combination of fatigue and a leg injury.

The afternoon also proved satisfactory for Christian Malcolm, who ran the world and Olympic champion Konstantinos Kederis close in the 200m, finishing 0.08sec behind the Greek in 20.45. "My form is coming together nicely,'' said Malcolm, who was unable to train at full capacity for five weeks earlier this year after suffering a strained knee ligament. "I wasn't fully fit last season, and that is not a nice feeling when you have major championships at home like the Commonwealth Games. But today I felt I was battling it out with Kederis. He knows if I'm in shape this year that it's going to be like that.''

With the British women in peril, Pavey responded once again just as she had in Annecy the previous year, running a controlled race and making up ground fast at the end on the winner, Russia's Yelena Zadorozhnaya, who recorded 15min 34.07sec to the Britain's 15.35.31.

"When the Russian went away with two laps to go I didn't want to risk going after her too fast in case I ended up getting fourth or fifth,'' Pavey said.

"I didn't know the exact position in the match, but I knew we needed all the points we could get.''

Helen Clitheroe also played her part in the 1500m earlier in the programme, only losing to a final burst of speed by Spain's Natalia Rodriguez.

Thus, the British team can relax in the clubhouse with a feeling of quiet satisfaction. The big hitters will be back for Paris in two months.