Mo Farah could not help laughing at the impish, near-Baldrickian, naivety of the scenario. "Alright then, you're top of the rankings," the cunning plan had been put to him. "You've just got to turn up and take the medal... easy."
"I wish it was as easy as that, mate," Farah replied. "It's never as easy as that – even if you're half a minute ahead in the rankings. At major championships, it's not about fast times. It's about tactics and getting it right on the day. The Spanish guys are always dangerous. And home soil makes a big difference."
Those Spanish guys will be on home soil this coming week when the medals are on the line at the European Championships. The first of them up for grabs on the Montjuic track in Barcelona – in the arena where Linford Christie and Sally Gunnell struck Olympic gold for Britain in 1992 – will be in the men's 10,000m on Tuesday night. And Farah happens to be the fastest European at the 25-lap distance in 2010.
How fitting it would be if a Great British gold rush in Barcelona (and hopes of something maybe even in the vicinity of the all-time record haul of nine have been raised by a late run of injuries suffered by some major players from other nations) were to be launched by the Somali-born, London-raised latter-day leading light of the British distance-running scene.
For the first time in the European Championships, which date back to 1934, there were no individual British gold-medal winners last time round, in Gothenburg in 2006 (although the men's 4x100m relay quartet did manage a collective triumph on the final day). Farah could hardly have come much closer. In a ding-dong sprint finish to the 5,000m final, he was beaten by a tantalising 0.09sec by Jesus Espana.
The 27-year-old Briton will get the chance for revenge against Espana when the 5,000m comes around in Barcelona. Like him, the 31-year-old Spaniard is entered for the heats on Thursday. The final, the last event on the programme on Saturday night, could well have another dramatic sting in the tail. "I still think about that race four years ago," Farah said. "To come so close to the gold ... it gives me motivation for this time."
First, however, before the unfinished business for Farah in the 5,000m, comes his main priority in Barcelona. The 10,000m, a straight final, kicks off at 8.05pm British time on Tuesday.
Farah starts favourite, having moved up in distance this summer with impressive effect. In the European Cup race in Marseille in June, he was a class apart, winning by 43 seconds in 27min 28.86sec. In doing so, he moved to third on the UK all-time list, past such historical luminaries as Brendan Foster, Dave Bedford and Steve Jones. Jon Brown (27:18.14) and Eamonn Martin (27:23.06) are the only Britons who have run quicker at the distance.
For all of Britain's rich tradition in 10,000m running, nobody from these shores has ever won the men's 10,000m title at the European Championships. It is a historical anomaly that looks likely to be remedied on Tuesday. The closest foreigner to Farah in the European ranking list this year is 34.32sec slower. Ayad Lamdassem won the Spanish title in 28min 03.18sec.
He only occupies third place in the rankings, though. In second is Chris Thompson, Farah's British team-mate, long-time rival and close friend. Back in 2003, Thompson out-sprinted Farah to win the 5,000m title at the European Under 23 Championships in Bydgoszcz, Poland. Plagued by injuries in recent years, the Aldershot athlete clocked 27min 29.61sec in a 10,000m race at Stanford University in California in May. Like his partner, Jemma Simpson (a strong contender for an 800m medal in Barcelona after running a lifetime best of 1min 58.74sec at the Diamond League meeting in Monaco on Thursday) Thompson has prospered under the guidance of the British steeplechase record holder Mark Rowland at the Oregon Track Club at Eugene in the United States.
"I've been very impressed with Thommo," Farah said. "In the last few years he's been hampered by injuries. It's good to see him as part of the team. It'll be nice to be alongside him, going for medals. Me and him go way back – to the days when we were competing as teenagers, holding hands and stuff."
Holding hands coming down some finishing straight at the end of a race, one presumed. "Yeah," Farah said. "That was at the Reebok Challenge in Margate, the European cross- country trials – in 1999 or 2000. That doesn't happen any more. We're all grown up now. We're all getting on."
In every sense, it would seem. There was a time when Farah had a penchant for partying, jumping naked into the Thames off Kingston Bridge on one occasion he would like to forget. These days he follows a more sober approach, spending time in near-monastic fashion, training with a pack of world-leading Kenyan distance runners – at high altitude in Kenya and at sea level in south-west London. He turned 27 in March and was married in April, to his childhood sweetheart, Tania Nell.
On the European Championship stage, after the anguish of Gothenburg, Farah would prefer not to be sprinting down the home straight in Barcelona as another silver medal-winning bridesmaid. "I just want to get on that start line knowing I've covered every little angle that I needed to," he said. "You never know which athletes are going to emerge as threats on the day but, as I said, home soil makes a big difference. And the Spanish guys are always dangerous."
The mind drifted back to Valencia in 1998 and the 3,000m final at the European Indoor Championships. It was the last race of the championships and the locals had gathered in the Luis Puig arena, anticipating a Spanish 1-2-3. When it came to the finishing straight, the home trio, Manuel Pancorbo, Alberto Garcia and Isaac Vicosia, all charged for the line in formation. Happily, they were not alone.
Charging with them, in a bloody, limb-clashing denouement, was John Mayock, in the red, white and blue vest of Britain. The boy from Barnsley sank the Spanish Armada – to a deafening chorus of cat-calls. "Now I know how the bull feels," he said, blood dripping from the spike punctures to his left knee.
Might Farah be expecting a similarly bruising battle with the natives in Barcelona? "I remember watching that," he said. "That was a funny race. John crossed the line and all you could hear was booing. It's a long way in 10,000m. It won't be quite the same."
Magnificent seven: Britain's big hopes for gold in Barcelona
Mo Farah: 10,000m (Tuesday)and 5,000m (Saturday)
Beaten to the 5,000m gold by a whisker in Gothenburg four years ago, Farah starts the clear favourite for the 10,000m on the opening night. Team-mate Chris Thompson is ranked second in that event and the British pair could also be in the medal mix for the 5,000m.
Dwain Chambers: 100m (Wednesday)
Chambers won in Munich in 2002 but that result was annulled because of his drug-taking. Experience is on the side of the 32-year-old in what promises to be a classic duel with Christophe Lemaitre, who at 20 has become the first white sprinter to break 10 seconds.
Phillips Idowu: Triple jump (Thursday)
The world champion last year, Idowu has been overshadowed in 2010 by Teddy Tamgho, who broke the world indoor record in March. But the Frenchman has been struggling with a calf injury for the past 10 days so the balance would appear to be in the Briton's favour.
Martyn Rooney: 400m (Friday)
Belgian Jonathan Borlee has stormed to the top of the European rankings with a 44.77sec clocking and is favourite. But his emergence might draw the best out of Rooney, who looked like a gold medallist at last month's British trials.
William Sharman: 110m hurdles (Friday)
The former Gladiators timekeeper is ranked eighth but is a serious contender, having broken 13 seconds with wind assistance in Madrid two weeks ago – and shown an ability to rise to the occasion when finishing fourth in last year's World Championships. Sharman's big threat could be British team-mate Andy Turner, who took bronze in Gothenburg in 2006.
Jessica Ennis: Heptathlon (Friday and Saturday)
Anyone for Ennis? That would be just about everyone. Even the best of her rivals will go in to the two-day, seven-event competition suspecting that silver is the best they can get. The world champion indoors and out, Ennis beat all the other main contestants at Götzis in May. The big question is: can she beat Denise Lewis' British record?
Dai Greene: 400m hurdles (Saturday)
Greene has run the five fastest times in Europe in 2010 and is the only European to have ducked under 49sec this summer. The Swansea Harrier might not be the only Welshman on the rostrum, with Rhys Williams close to the form that won him bronze in 2006.Reuse content