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Mo Farah: How Britain's athletics hero escaped the chaos of Somalia

When Mo Farah arrived in Britain aged eight, his prospects seemed bleak. Now he is a European champion

Alan Watkinson knew he was dealing with more than an average schoolboy runner in 1996 when Mo Farah, a gawky teenager with little English and a nose for trouble who had recently arrived in west London from Somalia, streaked to second place in a cross-country championship. He had started the race by sprinting off in the wrong direction.

The PE teacher saw nearly 15 years of nurturing his protege's talent since that day pay off on Tuesday night, when he sat in his living room screaming at the television as a magisterial Mo won Britain's first-ever European gold medal at 10,000m. In so doing, Mo completed a journey from war-torn Mogadishu to the heights of sporting excellence.

Born in Somalia and raised in the country's capital as it sank into a ruinous civil war, Farah was brought to Britain as an eight-year-old by his father. Contrary to reports that he was a refugee, the young boy was able to enter the United Kingdom because of his father's long-term residence here. But his start to life in a strange country was none the easier for it.

Equipped with just three English phrases – "excuse me", "where is the toilet?" and unhelpfully, "c'mon then" – the young boy began his first day at a junior school in a rough west London suburb by trying out the last of those terms with the toughest kid in the playground. Mo went home that day with a black eye and the respect of his classmates for holding his own.

Mr Watkinson, 45, first came across the slight yet spritely schoolboy at Feltham Community College, when as a 14-year-old still struggling to master English and with little academic aptitude, Farah was still getting into trouble and his ambitions consisted largely of playing on the right wing for his beloved Arsenal.

Speaking to The Independent yesterday, Mr Watkinson said: "When I first met him, he was struggling academically and suffering from the language barrier. He needed focus and I sort of took him under my wing. His passion was football but it was his turn of speed on the pitch that showed his real talent. I took him to a schools cross-country championship. He literally didn't know what was going on and ran in the wrong direction. He had to follow the other kids around and he still managed to finish second. A few weeks later we went to a county championship and he came fourth despite having no spikes.

"He had something special. I took him aside and told him that if he stuck at running, he could one day compete for Britain. It isn't the sort of thing you say to a kid lightly – it can create unrealistic expectations. But I'm very glad to have been proved right. I'm incredibly proud of him."

For Farah, 27, who now speaks with the twang of his adopted west London, the winner's podium in Barcelona's Montjuic Stadium, where he triumphed alongside his friend and fellow Briton Chris Thompson on Tuesday night, is a long way from his upbringing in the Horn of Africa.

It would be wrong to depict Farah's early life as one of grinding poverty. His grandfather worked in a bank and the family home in Mogadishu was a substantial stone house shared by several generations where, according to the athlete, "we had a comfortable life, not easy but not hard".

But as the Somali capital became increasingly lawless, with murder and kidnapping commonplace, Mo escaped to neighbouring Djibouti as a young child before eventually moving to Europe to follow his grandmother, who had settled in Holland. Rather than head for Amsterdam, Mo decided to settle in London and was taken in by his extended family.

Mo said yesterday: "I was eight at the time when I came with my father and two younger brothers. My father was born and bred in Britain. We came to Britain to spend more time with dad. I was really close to my grandma and I was going to stay with her but it didn't quite happen. So I came to London, started school and started running."

Within a few years, the effusive if occasionally wayward migrant had racked up seven schoolboy cross country titles, paving the way via a disappointing Beijing Olympics to Tuesday night's triumph in which he left Europe's best distance runners trailing in his wake.

Farah's friends say Mr Watkinson became a sort of surrogate parent to the young boy, keeping him on the straight and narrow to the extent that when the teacher changed schools he persuaded the athlete, then 16, to follow him.

His agent, Ricky Simms, said: "Mo might have gone off the rails if it hadn't been for Alan's input. Athletics became Mo's family after he arrived here."

Mr Watkinson said: "Mo's family were struggling to make ends meet and they couldn't drive him around to all the meetings and training. When I came to change schools, I thought I had mentored him to that point and he still needed someone to keep an eye on him in full-time education. I just told him he was coming with me."

With Mo's prowess on the track began to blossom under Watkinson's strict regime of providing 30-minute kickabouts and the occasional football shirt as a quid pro quo for running races, one of the biggest headaches for the lithe-limbed teenager was not so much doing battle on the track as negotiating the red tape created by his immigration status to get there in the first place.

When, at the age of 14, Farah won a place on an English schools team running in Latvia, he had to abandon the trip after it became clear the Latvian authorities would not allow him into the country and it was possible the British would also refuse entry on his return to his adoptive homeland.

A 1999 trip to join an elite Olympic training camp for promising British athletes in Florida only went ahead at the last moment after a face-to-face plea with a senior Home Office official and the granting of visa by the American embassy in London en route to the airport. The camp proved a turning point. Farah said: "I thought it was great and decided then that I wanted to be an athlete. I knew I could do well at it."

After a brief period of working in a fast food restaurant and a sports shop to pay his way after leaving school, Farah won a £10,000 National Lottery grant to take up running full time and at the suggestion of Simms, moved into a house in Teddington shared with leading Kenyan runners, including the 5,000m world champion Benjamin Limo.

The ascetic existence of the African athletes convinced their new British housemate of the need to dedicate himself entirely to his sport. Last year, Farah said: "It took time to adjust to their way of thinking and training. The Kenyan runners are so humble and hard-working. They run, sleep, train and that's it. I'm living my life in that manner now. That's exactly what you have to do to be amongst the best in the world."

Since then, the personal circumstances of the man universally lauded as Britain's best distance runner since the golden generation of Sebastian Coe, Steve Ovett and Steve Cram (whose races Farah confesses to having watched obsessively on YouTube) have changed somewhat. In April, he married Tania, a former athlete and classmate at Feltham Community College, at a ceremony attended by Paula Radcliffe, a long-term financial supporter of Farah whose funding of his driving lessons allowed him to commute to training, and Cram, another friend. The best man was his old PE teacher, Alan Watkinson.

Mr Watkinson said: "Tania knows about the dedication that is required of Mo. He is very laid back and will be reluctant to spend too long thinking about his latest victory. In all the time I've known him, I don't think I've ever heard Mo dwell on his accomplishments. He's always thinking about his next race. In this case it will be the 5,000m on Saturday, which is my birthday. It would be a nice present if he wins."