The main indoor athletics season is picking up to a crunch on the home scene as hopefuls to pull on a British vest at the European Indoor Championships in Gothenburg enter a crucial eight-day spell up to the qualification deadline that is going to rule their fate, starting off at the heavily weighing UK Trials traditionally held up in Sheffield.
Any or both of the top two markers past the post gain automatic selection provided they hold the qualifying standard set by British Athletics in any given championship event as far as the cut-off, with the rest of the make-up of the squad lying with the selectors when they meet on Monday 18 February.
That is, a day after the British GP in the arena of the NIA in Birmingham that will effectively serve as the second part of the Trials as concerns places on the team still at stake while many athletes will be also engaging in a relentless pursuing of standards and impressions on the international circuit.
‘City of Steel’ customary hostess Jessica Ennis, the heptathlon Olympic champion, is sitting out the indoor season while the likes of double Olympic champion Mo Farah and Dai Greene are also missing but there will be still plenty of quality strutting their stuff in the form of Robbie Grabarz, Christine Ohuruogu, Andrew Pozzi, Holly Bleasdale and Yamile Aldama as well as exciting contests looming on many corners of the arena.
So let’s have a look at how events look likely to shape up over the next two days in Sheffield, starting first with the men (qualifying standards in brackets).
60m (6.60 – 10.20 over 100m)
The late withdrawal of European record holder Dwain Chambers, nursing a back niggle, takes a big deal off the glow and glamour of the event but there will be still plenty of speed and talent on display down the infield straight of the 60m.
Reaping the benefits of a first full outdoor season last summer, James Dasaolu struck like lightning to a huge PB of 6.60 secs from the off at the Birmingham Games last weekend and will be taking up the mantle as leading contender for a berth in Gothenburg, looking likely to surge well inside the 6.5 secs region a week on.
Talent has never been an issue but rather enjoying a clear run for the London 100m semifinalist, brimming with speed, and even a runner-up spot will do the job handsomely for him, holding the additional edge of a qualifying mark.
A big question mark will be which version of 22-year-old season find Sean Safo-Antwi will turn up in the arena as he got off his season to a startling 6.61 secs, a straight massive PB, but couldn’t quite follow that up with a best of 6.69 secs on his next outing. If it is the first, then he ought to give Dasaolu a real run for his money.
Rion Pierre is coming on nicely on a recent PB of 6.63 secs and will fancy his chances of pulling off an upset as well as gaining a solid footing in qualifying territory while Ron Roddan’s protegee Greg Cackett looks dangerous having improved to 6.65 secs this season, very consistent as well.
Harry Aikines-Ayreety is the only other sprinter than Dasaolu to hold a qualifying standard on show, a 10.20 secs over 100m last summer, but hasn’t really sparkled yet (6.70 SB), where Mark Lewis-Francis faltered to a modest 6.78 secs opener in the heats of the ‘Russian Winter’ in Moscow and his best shot may like in Birmingham, with more races and time on his hands – both forces to always reckon with.
Last year’s runner-up Andy Robertson is slightly down on schedule with a SB of 6.68 secs this term but none should dismiss his chances, very consistent and an explosive starter, while Tremayne Gilling (6.68, ePB) and rising Kyle Carty (6.70, PB) are interesting charachers heading into the Championships.
200m (non-championship event)
Conrad Williams is the fastest among the field on his recent indoor best of 21.18 secs as he follows an identical build-up honing his speed to last season, rising as slight favourite, but season debutant Chris Clarke could turn the one to beat here with plenty of sheer speed in his legs.
With Dannish Walker-Khan scratching through illness late, it’s difficult to see where someone else that could mix it with them could come from.
The quarter-miler is working up nicely to a cracker following the fireworks led by Richard Strachan in an indoor PB of 46.22 (UKL) in the Brum last weekend in a battle royal where those much coveted two automatic berths on the British team could go anywhere between four or five contenders, despite the unfortunate withdrawal of Jack Green due to a recurrent shoulder injury.
Green will be hoping to haul in full fitness to mount an all-or-nothing last-gasp charge, just as Conrad Williams could be putting all his eggs in one basket, for what could be a remaining third spot up for grabs at the British GP in Birmingham as the two top markers at the Trials are anticipated most likely to draw huge inroads inside the standard (46.90) and even under 46 secs as well.
Lanes are going to be essential in the final which could see some fierce battles in the semifinals in the build-up so strength and endurance through rounds will weigh heavily into the eventual outcome.
The favourite, even slight but reliable, going into the affair that has got to be a resurgent Strachan as he remains unbeaten over the distance, has already run the two fastest times in the UK this season and is an aggressive performer that likes to run hard from the front at the same time, a substantial racing trait indoors.
On the other hand, Michael Bingham is a class act of flair and sub 45 secs pedigree outdoors that looks to have returned not only to his flowing best but even better and his strength and pace could tell in the later stages of the final, all things equal. He has raced sparingly so will be fresh into the bargain.
That said, Nigel Levine looks sharp and poses a major threat coming on the back of a sweeping outright PB of 20.93 secs over 200m last weekend as he also thrives on hard runs from the front, suggesting a cutthroat tussle for positioning coming off the lanes to the bell, while established indoor campaigner Richard Buck showed within himself opening up in 46.47 secs in Birmingham, his fastest ever opener, and will be right up there himself.
If anyone could break up those firmly leading four from behind, that should be Luke Lennon-Ford as there is a lot more to his SB of 47.77 secs than meets the eye.
Olympic finalist Andie Osagie is missing and Michael Rimmer has been a surprise late withdrawal after an encouraging solo 1:17.90 over 600m (debut) at the Sportscity on Sunday turning the event into a two-horse race between returning from injury Joe Thomas and Guy Learmonth, as well as a potential complicated selection issue into the longer run.
Holding a qualifier of a 1:47.94 set in Vienna, Learmonth needs now just to finish inside the top two to clinch an outright place and have the rest engage in a late selection scrimmage, although Osagie should feel safe in that regard; therefore, Thomas’s tactics will carry a substantial bearing on his fortunes.
Will he take a more tactical approach and rely on his trademark kick at the end or hit the front from the gun and go for the qualifying standard, which he narrowly missed out on on his return in 1:48.04? He looked a little heavy-legged in Karlsruhe but he should have shaken off some cobwebs to turn up much sharper now.
1500m (3:42.00i/3:57.00i mile or 3:35.00/3:52.00 mile)
Chris Warburton heads into the race as slight favourite following a UK-leading 3:41.62, doubling as a qualifier, but this is an affair of fine balance that can shift any way easily riding on the shape it takes on along the way.
James Brewer has enjoyed good training in Kenya but hasn’t managed to translate it onto the track yet and this could be the place where he clicks into gear, a shrewd tactician and strong finisher, while both should be well aware of the menace and searing pace of burgeoning Matt McLaughlin, who obliterated David Sharpe‘s long-standing UK U20 indoor record into 3:42.87 off a frantic last 200m.
Furthermore, Lee Emanuel looks back strong again, as indicated by an opening 7:52.42 over 3000m, to weigh into the contest and young Charlie Grice has got more in his legs than his recent indoor PB of 3:44.37 suggests.
Frank Baddick (3:43.85) should not be discounted and Ross Matheson might turn a little surprise.
3000m (7:50.00i/7:45.00 or 13:20.00 5000m)
Following the late withrdrawals of Andy Baddeley and Andy Vernon, there is none within shouting distance of the qualifying standard involved in the race unless Jonny Mellor or David Bishop can come up with ideas of their own.
The trend in recent championships dictates a swift pace shared by the leading competitors towards a flurry of PBs and so could turn the case this time round if the likes of Mellor, Bishop, Jamie Wilkinson, Tom Humphries, Rob Mullett and Mark Draper pool their resources together.
60m hurdles (7.65/13.55)
Andy Pozzi underlined his menacing intentions from the off storming to a straight EL’ing 7.58 secs in Birmingham last weekend, an equal second fastest ever, and therefore should romp to an easy victory and an automatic berth, with a time even in the 7.4 region looking on the cards.
Only world record holder Colin Jackson and Tony Jarrett have ever ventured into that territory among Britons before so Pozzi could make a little history unless a bout of illness leading up to the championships can affect his chances.
Behind him, there could be a pitched battle for the remaining two places on offer between a resurgent Gianni Frankis, fresh from a PB of 7.67 secs, Nick Gayle (7.72, PB) and returning Alan Scott (7.73) – the latter having ranged on the fringes of world class with a PB of 7.52 secs in the past.
Jack Meredith, Richard Alleyne and Joseph Hylton will be aiming for times inside 7.8 secs which would bolster up a good depth in the event.
High Jump (2.29)
Robbie Grabarz has virtually booked his place on the plane to Gothenburg and the actual point will be how high he wishes to climb on the day although he could opt to save for more demanding contests ahead – he simply has got too much for anyone else.
He could get some decent competition, though, mainly from Italian Marco Fassinotti who jumped 2.27m in London recently whereas Tom Parsons and Samson Oni have been well below their best so far – hopefully this weekend will see them spring into form.
Allan Smith cleared a total PB of 2.23m in Glasgow recently and will be looking to adding to that.
Pole Vault (5.70)
In a similar light as Grabarz, Steve Lewis will be mostly concerned about how high he can reach as he is lying head and shoulders above anyone else, and in his case he could be particularly keen to get that elusive qualifier for Moscow out of the way since his UK record of 5.82m last summer doesn’t count for that purpose.
Luke Cutts, Max Eaves and surprise last year winner Andrew Sutcliffe are the likelier to fight it out for the minor podium slots.
Long Jump (8.15)
UK record holder Chris Tomlinson hasn’t got into his stride down the runway yet but will have identify this occasion as the place where he should start slipping through the gears into the season.
Either way, he ought to win convincingly at the very least. For good measure, he is also down for the 60m in a rare outing over the dash.
Julian Reid, the former outdoor UK champion, should be nosing ahead to get second place against Matthew Burton (7.82, iPB), James Groocock and Dan Bramble.
Triple Jump (17.00)
With none of the big guns around on various grounds, namely Phillips Idowu and Nathan Douglas, is it going to be up to Tosin Oke, representing Nigeria now, to strike a similar note as the rest could struggle to beat the 16m marker – Michael Puplampu and Kola Adedoying the closest hopefuls.
Shot Put (20.00)
This could come an interesting close contest between last summer’s revelation Zane Duquemin, Greg Beard (18.59, PB), Jamie Williamson (18.29, PB), Scott Rider and Lithuanian Rimantas Martisauskas that could come within 30 to 40cm of each other, with hopefully someone beating or closing down the 19m line.