Legend is left to sweat it out as Foster comes in from cold

Redgrave and Pinsent's last race as a pair signals a turn of the tide
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All winter, Steve Redgrave has been telling anyone who cared to listen that he, just as much as the other candidates, had to earn his place in the Redgrave IV. No one really believed him because mostly he was telling himself. But then on Thursday evening, the four times Olympic gold medallist was handed a strange message. Jürgen Grobler, the head coach of the British rowing squad, wanted to see him at 7.30 the following morning. He knew a meeting for himself, Matthew Pinsent, James Cracknell, Tim Foster and Ed Coode, had been called to announce the final selection for the Olympic IV.

But that was at 8am, so why did he have to come at 7.30? "That was the first time I noticed how worried he actually was," Foster said. "He asked James and I whether we'd had the same message and neither of us had." Not at that timeanyway. They only picked up their messages later. So Redgrave was left to sweat on his own. Surely not even the inscrutable Grobler could be that ruthless?

Redgrave has not been at ease all week. Trials are a tribulation to him these days, no longer a chance to stamp his authority on the rest, more a duck-shoot targeted at his reputation. The decision to open the British squad trials to the media for the first time was not to his liking either, not least because he and Pinsent were struggling to match the speed of the younger generation, Foster and Cracknell, Greg Searle and Coode.

"It's only trials," he said. But the BBC chimed in anyway with regular sports bulletins - mostly inaccurate - documenting Redgrave's perceived discomfort. "In many ways," Searle said later, "there's more to lose in these races than in an international regatta. These are proud guys and there's a lot of rivalry between Steve and Matt and Tim and James and a lot at stake for everyone."

Just how competitive Searle had discovered three weeks before in a meeting at the Leander Club. Like birds, rowers pair up at this time of year in preparation for the race at the trials, the most significant piece in the selectorial jigsaw for the season. Olympic year adds an edge to the tension surrounding the annual scrap for bragging rights.

Searle, a refugee from the single scull, had been brought in to even up the numbers in the squad for the Olympic IV. He felt, he said, like the other woman in a love triangle which centred on the competitive relationship between Coode and Foster, both vying for the final spot in the boat. Searle's naturally ebullient and abrasive character added an extra competitiveness to the mix, but when he suggested at the Leander meeting that the three pairs work together for the trials, the response from Redgrave was resounding.

"Steve said, 'No, this is a race. We're three separate pairs'," Searle recalled. "From then on, Steve and Matt made a particular point of being the first on the water every day and of not being co-operative. Not in a nasty way. That's just the way it was. But actually it reminded me that I wasn't there to help them, I was rowing against them."

The only problem was that the Olympic champions, unbeaten for six years, had forgotten how to row together. It was like an overgrown garden, Pinsent said. "If you squinted a little you could see how glorious the garden once was, but you had to look hard." Ten days before the trials, the pair knew they had to find a second a day to be even remotely competitive. It was against this background that, coming into the final 250 metres of the 2,000m course on a dank evening in Nottingham, the greatest pair in the history of rowing were lying fifth in a field of six and about to end a glorious career together in an embarrassment verging on humiliation.

In the lane alongside them, Andrew Lindsay and Lewis Attrill were bickering quietly to themselves and beginning to think the unthinkable while,on the bank, the team manager David Tanner was on the verge of an anxiety attack wondering how he was going to explain such a lacklustre showing to a press already beginning to sense a story. He need not have worried.

At the 250m pole, a cry from Redgrave broke the spell. "Three tens," he called, which, in rowing parlance, means three lots of 10 strokes, each sequence faster and harder than the last. Within 15 seconds, Lindsay and Attrill were left contemplating fading whirlpools where oars had once been and Redgrave and Pinsent had disappeared into the distance. Or, at least, into a respectable and explicable third place behind Foster and Cracknell, Coode and Searle, all world champions. "It just didn't click any more," Pinsent reflected later. "But we could have finished fifth in that race which would have opened us up to attack from others in the squad. This makes Jürgen's job a lot easier."

For sheer pride and guts the farewell was utterly fitting. "It's a new thing for Steve to be beaten by his own countrymen in his own country, but I'm not worried about him. He's handing over to a new generation and it's good to do that now, not after he's finished."

In the committee room of the Leander Club just over a day later, Grobler was first to speak. Tim Foster had gone into the room 95 per cent sure that he would be selected ahead of Coode for the fourth place, but as the German coach rambled on, picking out each crew member for assessment one after the other, his doubts began to mount, his heart beat faster. "You know Jürgen," he said. "He might not use long words, but he uses a lot of short ones." Matt came first, then James and Steve; only when Grobler started to talk about Coode and his future did Foster know that the place - some would say, the gold medal - was his. When Grobler finished, Pinsent spoke next, emphasising Coode's strength and importance to the group. Then, touchingly, Coode himself spoke, thanking everyone for their support and wishing the crew well.

"It was strange," Foster said. "Ed and I had shared a room together for three weeks in Australia, been sitting alongside each other on rowing machines, eating together, rowing together, each of us wondering if the boat was going better with me in it or him. We've been virtually married to each other 24 hours a day and yet he was my biggest threat to a gold medal. I never wished him harm and I am sure he would say the same about me." Nothing worse than a strategically timed hamstring strain anyway.

By the time the press gathered for the official announcement, Coode had vanished and five had become four once more. Most likely, he and Searle, the jilted husband and the other woman, will form the pair charged with upholding the precious tradition of invincibility bequeathed by Redgrave. No coxless British pair have been beaten in the Olympics since 1984. In Nottingham, Redgrave and Pinsent's last race together was Searle and Coode's first. "No drama," said Grobler with a half-smile. Redgrave, for one, might disagree.