High-flying Dai goes from football flop to hurdle king

Greene couldn't cut it as a Swansea left-winger but is making giant strides over 400m and is a realistic medal hope at the worlds

It was not exactly when he crossed the finish line a clear winner of the 400 metres hurdles at the European Team Championships at Leiria in Portugal last weekend that Dai Greene realised he had arrived as a force to be reckoned with on the international track and field scene. No, that moment came as the Swansea Harrier prepared to get to his marks at an invitation meeting at Bydgoszcz in Poland on 10 June.

A one-time football wannabe in Swansea City's youth team set-up, Greene was a relative late starter in the athletics game, idolising Felix Sanchez when he turned his attention from the left-wing beat to the 400m hurdles. "I thought that he was fantastic," the young Welshman said of the New York-born Dominican Republic athlete who conquered all before him (the 2001 and 2003 World Championships and the 2004 Olympic Games) in the one-lap hurdles. "I was fortunate to race against him in Bydgoszcz and he came up to me beforehand and introduced himself.

"He said: 'Congratulations on your recent breakthrough, it's good to see someone from Britain running fast times again.' For him to come up and say that to me... I felt like saying: 'Wow, it's amazing that you're talking to me. I think that you're fantastic.' I was in two minds whether to ask him to sign his autograph."

Instead, Greene proceeded to beat him, finishing second in 48.71sec (the same time as winner LJ van Zyl of South Africa) with Sanchez a distant fourth in 49.27sec. It took a photo-finish to deny the Welshman victory over Van Zyl, who finished fifth in the Olympic final in Beijing last summer. Still, as well as Sanchez's, he took the scalps of two Beijing finalists, Jamaican Danny McFarlane and Marek Plawgo of Poland.

It confirmed that the 23-year-old's stunning win in Prague two days earlier, when he improved his personal best from a decent 49.53sec to a world-class 48.62sec, had been no one-lap flash for the young man whose progress had been hampered by injury since he won the European Under-23 title in 2007.

It was the same in Portugal last weekend. Carrying the burden of national expectation, Greene produced an assured, superbly judged performance, easing past Periklis Iakovakis of Greece – another Beijing Olympic finalist – in the home straight.

Charles van Commenee, Britain's tough taskmaster of a head coach, was suitably impressed. "This was the first time that Dai didn't run anonymously for a fast time somewhere, but with the eyes of the nation on him," the Dutchman said. "It was good to see him deliver. It's important that we have that calibre of athlete to step up."

Greene's calibre is such that he stands seventh in the world rankings – one of just four British athletes in the top 10 in events that will be contested at the World Championships in Berlin in August (and one of those, Mara Yamauchi, will not be in the German capital because of injury).

His aim, beyond the British trials in Birmingham from 10 to 12 July, will be to make the final in Berlin. Only two British men have got through the rounds in the 400m hurdles at the World Championships: Kriss Akabusi and Chris Rawlinson. Only Akabusi has made it all the way to the medal rostrum, claiming bronze in 1991.

On the strength of his recent form, Greene would have to be considered a contender for Berlin. It might well have been different, though. Football was his first love – surprisingly so given the fact that he happens to be a native of Llanelli, perhaps the hottest of all the hotbeds of Welsh rugby union. "I did play a little bit of sevens on the wing at school but that was pretty much as far as it went," Greene reflected. "Coming from a rugby town like Llanelli, it was a bit strange playing football but I used to love Ryan Giggs because I played on the left wing.

"I was with Swansea for about four years but I kept getting injured and when I came back and wasn't playing well the coach would shout at me all the time. I wasn't enjoying it so I walked away. I wasn't as strong mentally as I am today. To be honest, I like a coach who gives me a hard time. It's good to have someone who pushes you."

In Greene's case, that someone is not just anyone but Malcolm Arnold, the coach who guided Colin Jackson to world record-breaking heights in the 110m hurdles and who was the man behind Ugandan John Akii-Bua's world-record run in the 400m hurdles final at the Munich Olympics in 1972. Arnold's training group in Bath also includes Rhys Williams, the 2006 European Championship 400m hurdles bronze medallist who has been making a promising return after injury this summer, clocking 49.38sec to win the Welsh title a fortnight ago.

"Rhys is a great guy to train with," Greene said. "I know he'll be pushing on in his next few races and hopefully we'll have two Welshmen at the World Championships. I expect he'll be my closest opponent at the trials."

World beaters: Brits in top 10

JESSICA ENNIS

Ranked top in the heptathlon with 6,587 points, her winning score at the Multistars meet at Desenzano del Garda in Italy in May. The Sheffield athlete, 23, missed the Beijing Olympics because of injury. Last weekend she set personal bests in the 100m, shot and javelin at the Northern Championships.

MARA YAMAUCHI

Ranked second in the marathon with 2hr 23min 12sec, the time she clocked as runner-up behind Germany's Irina Mikitenko in London in April. Sadly, though, a foot injury means she will not be challenging for a World Championship medal in Berlin.

PHILLIPS IDOWU

Ranked fifth in the triple jump with 17.60m – 6cm behind global leader Nelson Evora of Portugal, who beat him by 5cm to win Olympic gold in Beijing. Idowu also finished runner-up to Evora at the European Team Championships last weekend. But he was unbeaten up to Beijing last year.

DAI GREENE

Ranked seventh in the 400m hurdles with 48.62sec. Was 41st in the world rankings in 2008 with 49.53sec. Struggling with injury, he failed to make the British Olympic team. Now stands just 0.30sec behind world leader Bershawn Jackson of the US, the Olympic bronze medallist.

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