Neil Black: The mentor who knew how to find winning line


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The Independent Online

Jim Alder was the man who got Neil Black into athletics and who guided him, as his coach, to victories over Steve Cram and Sebastian Coe. The 72-year-old has long been an inspirational figure in the North-east, the trailblazer who paved the way for Brendan Foster, Mike McLeod, Charlie Spedding and Cram – all Olympic medal winners.

An orphan from the Glasgow Gorbals who settled at Morpeth in Northumberland, he was one of Britain's distance-running greats of the 1960s – a hard-school marathon man who could have been drawn from the same pen as Alf Tupper, the celebrated comic book hero who would put in a full day's shift as a welder in the northern town of Greystones before hitching a lift down to London and beating the southern toffs in a big race at the White City.

Alder worked as a bricklayer and would cry out "Geronimo" whenever he crossed the line first – as he did in the incredible Commonwealth Games marathon in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1966, when he regained the lead on the track after being misdirected at the entrance to the stadium just before the finish. Remarkably, he has held a world record for 48 years.

After being overlooked for selection for the Tokyo Olympics (he made the team in Mexico in 1968), Alder set a world two-hour best of 37.994km (23.608 miles) on an ash track at Walton-on-Thames on 17 October, 1964. It still stands in the world record section of the International Track and Field Annual. "It's great to see Neil doing so well," Alder says." I never for one minute doubted his ability to do well in whatever channel he decided to take.

"I remember when I first met him. He came into my sports shop in Ashington and asked to buy a pair of running shorts because he was competing in the East Northumberland Schools' Championships.

"We got chatting. He said he was 16 and his main interest was rugby as he played fly-half for the county. I told him athletics and rugby didn't mix because of the injury factor but, if he fancied giving athletics a go, why not come along to Morpeth Harriers?

"He must have listened to my advice because, a few weeks later, there he was in the Morpeth clubhouse. And that was the start of what, sadly, was to turn out to be a relatively short competitive athletics career.

"Neil was unbelievably talented as an athlete but he started to pick up injuries. It's a shame injury forced his early retirement from competitive athletics, but it's great to see that he's still made it to the top in the sport."