St Johnstone manager Tommy Wright has revealed his utmost admiration for Scotland’s track and field athletes – as Perthshire health club attendant Andrew Butchart prepares for his latest GB assignment.
Wright has his McDiarmid Park professionals back in training this week ahead of another European challenge in the mid-summer Europa League qualifying rounds.
And the former Northern Ireland goalkeeper has revealed how his own athletics background – he once raced at the World Cross Country Champs and turned down an American scholarship – causes him to sometimes remind his Saints players they are fortunate not to have to balance outside commitments with their sport.
Butchart, who works part-time at Gleneagles, raced at the World Cross himself this year and now joins six Scots in the GB team for the Euro Team Champs in Cheboksary in Russia this weekend. Among the other Scots involved are American uni student Jax Thoirs and Loughborough-based nursing care assistant, Kirsty Law.
‘I have, on occasion, reminded professional footballers that they are fortunate to earn a living from their sport,’ said Wright.
‘Everything is laid on for them and we don’t usually train to mid-morning. Swimmers and athletes may well have done an hour or so by then, getting in the pool or out for a run before breakfast.
‘Don’t get me wrong; footballers are committed and dedicated. I’ve great professionals here at St Johnstone.
‘But I am aware there are those in other sports who have to put in an enormous effort to get any success and sometimes do so while studying or working as well.
‘So, maybe after a defeat, you have to remind players they are still lucky one to be playing sport and being well paid for it. I’ve a lot of admiration for athletes.’
In an interview with the new edition of the scottishathletics magazine for members, PB, Wright recalled his own background in cross country and track and field in the early 1980s.
He has no regrets nowadays at his ‘talent transfer’ but there was a time, as a teenager, when competing alongside Peter McColgan at the Olympics seemed far more likely than keeping goal at Windsor Park.
And not just because he was a striker rather than a keeper back then.
‘I was a cross country runner and did 1500 and 3000m on the track,’ he recalled. ‘I played football at primary school but when I moved to secondary and it was a grammar school they didn’t have a football team and the sports on offer were cross country in the winter, track in the summer or rugby and cricket.
‘When I arrived, I set off on a mile and a half cross country run and that was me for about the next five or six years!
‘My uncle was involved with East Antrim Harriers and he wanted to train for the World Vets. So I became involved with them and trained with the adults.
‘It all kicked on from there. In my early teens, I was training a fair bit and probably doing between 60 and 80 miles a week. I certainly remember, at 13 or 14, doing a two-hour run on a Sunday – because that was what Brendan Foster had been talking about. And what Brendan suggested, people did.
‘I won school races, club races, district races and was Ulster XC champion for five years in a row – a record which I believe stands to this day. I won two All-Ireland titles at Junior and Intermediate level and I even went to Spain to run in the World Cross for Northern Ireland in Madrid.
‘Around that time, I ran at Meadowbank in a Home Countries Schools International and did my best time for the 1500m – 3.57.4. I think I finished fifth.
‘Peter McColgan was a contemporary and he was running steeplechase, as he did later on. I didn’t fancy that. Michael O’Neill (current Northern Ireland manager) had a brother who was another good athlete at the time (Sean O’Neill) but he was more of an 800m runner than me.
‘I could have pursued it all that bit further. When I finished school, I was planning to go to technical college and there was a chance to go to North Carolina on a scholarship with my athletics. It was a big chance for someone like me back then in Northern Ireland . . . and I guess it still is for folk now: to move to America and compete there.
‘For some reason, I didn’t go. After all these years, I still can’t put my finger on why exactly.
‘Maybe I didn’t want to leave home and move so far away or maybe at the back of my mind I sensed I would fall out of love with the sport.
‘I did – and it happened one day halfway through an eight-mile training run. I just stopped after four miles and decided I didn’t want to carry on.’
Wright went into football in Northern Ireland, switching from striker to keeper. But he was 25 before he moved to Newcastle United and a career which was to win him 31 international caps – to add to his vests – really took off.
‘I went on into football and made my name as a keeper,’ he said.
‘I didn’t regret not being an athlete when the Olympics came around on the TV and the truth is I think my athletics in my teens really helped me for my football.
‘There’s no hiding place as a goalkeeper and it is the same in athletics. You have to take responsibility for your own performance – nobody can help you out in a cross country race or out there on the track. You are exposed, and it is like that as a keeper – even in a team game.’
Butchart races 3000m for GB in Russia with the other Scots in the team being Eilidh Child (400m Hurdles and 4 x 400m relay), Guy Learmonth (800m), pole vaulter Jax Thoirs (pole vault), Lennie Waite (3000m steeplechase), and Kirsty Law (discus).
Inverness Caley Thistle fan Law’s call-up for a first Senior GB vest at the age of 28 completes the football-athletics circle. She was a Scotland U18 cap as a goalkeeper when playing for Inverness ladies in her hometown as a teenager.
‘It reached the stage where I was throwing well and high in the British rankings but then sometimes not able to as I had injured my thumb or wrist playing football,’ she said.
‘I had to make a decision and chose athletics although I remain a huge football fan. To win a Senior GB vest this weekend feels fantastic and I’m glad now that I decided to carry on after the Commonwealth Games – I was close to quitting in the countdown to that when it seemed I might not qualify.’
*Commonwealth Games bronze medallist Mark Dry features on the front of PB magazine following his recent Scottish National Record in the hammer at 76.93m.