If you are an aspiring 10-year-old athlete and your elder brother is already at 18 the AAA high-hurdles champion and an Olympic competitor, the temptation must surely be to try another event entirely. Having then become Northern junior discus title-holder eight years later, your destiny would seem to be decided. Yet Bob Birrell was also by then a very promising hurdler in his own right, placing 2nd in the 1956 English Schools’ Championships final, and he persevered with this track discipline to the extent that he was eventually to match brother Joe as an Olympic representative and beat his times by a full second.

Bob Birrell came into his own in the early 1960s and was a central figure in what was a highly volatile era of British high hurdling. This was a totally different era of athletics in which international matches against countries such as Germany and France were the high-spot of the domestic season, and such meetings as the Inter-Counties’ Championships and Northern, Midlands and Southern Championships were taken very seriously indeed.

The British record of 14.3 seconds set for the 120 yards (109.73 metres)/110 metres event by the double Olympic medallist, Don Finlay, in winning the 1938 European title was equalled by Jack Parker in 1955 and then on six occasions from 1957 to 1960 by Peter Hildreth. In the next four years 17 further records by four different athletes would be recognised – Birrell, Mike Parker, Laurie Taitt and Mike Hogan being those responsible. Thereby hangs a tale.

Birrell ran an historic 14 seconds flat on 9 September 1961 in a match between the AAA, the Universities’ Athletic Union and the Combined Services – a meeting which was then one of the highlights of the domestic season – at the Gosling Stadium, in Welwyn Garden City, in Hertfordshire. “Athletics Weekly” reported that there was no wind gauge, but the referee thought that any such assistance was inside the limit. The National Union of Track Statisticians, who published an annual handbook listing all the leading British performances (and still do more than 60 years later), chose to differ and decided that Birrell’s performance merited only a footnote in their list of progressive British records under the heading, “Questionable wind assistance”, but Birrell himself has the last word on the subject. Among the memorabilia at his home on the promenade in West Kirby, looking out across the Dee Estuary towards the North Wales coast, is an official British Amateur Athletic Board diploma recognising his 14.0 as a national record. Case settled.

Bob Birrell was born in Barrow-in-Furness, which was then in the very north of Lancashire (and is now in Cumbria), on 6 March 1938 and started sprinting at Barrow Grammar School before turning to the shot and discus at the age of 17. At that English Schools’ meeting of 1956 in Plymouth the discus was won by Mike Lindsay, who would become one of Britain’s outstanding exponents of the event, and the following week at the AAA Junior Championships Lindsay set a record of exactly 182ft (55.48m), with Birrell back in 6th place almost 50ft behind. Understandably, there did not seem to be much future in the event for any other teenager while such a prodigy as Lindsay was around, and so Birrell concentrated on the hurdles thereafter, though continuing to throw the discus as a side-line for many more years to come.

Unlike Lindsay, many of the young champions at those two meetings soon disappeared from the sport without trace, but there were some noteworthy other winners – John Young, David Jones, Robbie Brightwell, Malcolm Yardley, Barry Jackson, plus John Sheldrick, Derek Haith, Brian Hall and Robin Woodland. Birrell’s schools’ conqueror at 120 yards hurdles was Robin Brunyee, who eventually ran 14.5 for the senior hurdles but never quite made the top grade. Birrell was 5th in the AAA junior final in which the winner was Woodland, who would make a very respectable career for himself as a 400 metres hurdler (best of 51.28 in 1966). The Birrells were a sporting family as another brother, Jack, was outstanding at rugby union, association football and cricket and a sister played hockey for England.

Joe Birrell, still aged only 18, and having sensationally beaten the seasoned Australians, Peter Gardner and Charles Green, at the 1948 AAA Championships, went to the Olympic Games at Wembley with Don Finlay, by then a 39-year-old RAF officer, and Ray Barkway, of the Achilles Club, as his hurdling colleagues and a former Barrow Athletic Club member, Harry Askew, who would compete in the long jump, as a room-mate. Askew, commendably, got to his final, placing 9th, but none of the hurdlers had any such success – Barkway was 5th in heat one of the first round, more than a second behind the eventual gold-medallist from the USA, Bill Porter; Birrell was 4th in heat three, equally far adrift of the Argentinian, Alberto Triulzi, and Gardner, who would both reach the final; and Finlay fell over in heat five when on his way to qualifying.

Young Bob, no doubt with mixed feelings, watched all this on a neighbour’s television set, which in itself was something of a privilege because there were then only 80,000 licence-holders in the whole of the country. The experience had a lifelong effect, as Bob was to say more than 60 years later, “When you’ve seen your brother go to the Olympics, you have big wide dreams”.

Regrettably, Joe’s hurdling career never really developed after that. He went into the Army for National Service the next year and then returned to Barrow Grammar School as physical education teacher, with Bob among his charges, but a cartilage operation that went wrong had its effect and he had to settle for 3rd in the AAA Championships of 1949 and 5th in 1952 and a best time of 15.0 in 1951. Even so, he continued to produce performances at the same sort of level through to the end of the 1950s.

By 1955, and at 17 growing into a big lad – he would eventually scale 6ft 3½in (1.92m) in height and weigh 14st 4lb (90kg) during the summer season – Bob played rugby union and basketball for the county schools’ teams and won the Lancashire schools’ intermediate discus. He moved on to the senior title the next year, when in addition to his English schools’ showing he won the Northern junior 120 yards hurdles (championship best of 14.9), 200 yards hurdles and discus. Then came the decision to opt for the hurdles, and it was no light undertaking because Bob later recalled: “Training for the hurdles in Barrow wasn’t easy. The track wasn’t level and so one side of each hurdle was lower than the other”.

Making the transition from junior to senior ranks

Yet by 1957, and now studying chemistry at Manchester University, he was already almost as fast over the senior 3ft 6in hurdles as he had been over the 3ft 3in junior hurdles, and his best of 15.1 ranked him equal 11th in Britain. He was living in digs at Fallowfield near to the track and training with a cosmopolitan group coached by Les Mitchell which included Betty Moore, Jack Sumich and Victor Manning – Mrs Moore was an Australian who settled in England and became one of the World’s leading 80 metres hurdlers and Women’s AAA champion in 1961 and 1962; Sumich was also Australian and a very capable decathlete who won the AAA title in 1962 and 1963; and Manning was a Polish sprinter who eventually returned home and assumed his real name of Wieslaw Maniak, surprising all his former British opponents by running 100 metres in 10.1sec.

Heading the 120 yards hurdles event in Britain, inevitably, was the durable Peter Hildreth with one of his numerous 14.3 clockings, and four of the other top 10 were also products of Oxford or Cambridge Universities – David Carrington, Bob Shaw, Ian Malcolm and Paul Vine. One of the non-Oxbridge types was Bob’s brother, Joe, now a member of Birchfield Harriers and making a welcome comeback – beating Bob for the Lancashire title and equalling a six-year-old personal best in the process. Bob levelled the score by easily resisting Joe in the Northern final.

Bob Birrell was also competing for the university at 100 yards, 220 yards and 220 yards hurdles and in the long jump, triple jump and discus, but one of his fondest memories is of a basketball match against the inmates of the local Strangeways prison. “They only played home games”, Bob recalled with a smile, “and we did wonder what they were in for ! Afterwards they would say, ‘Thanks for the game – see you again next year’ ”. Basketball would continue to provide an enjoyable diversion for Bob from athletics competition and training for several more years to come.

1958 provided the lure of a Commonwealth Games place at Cardiff. As it happens, Bob improved only marginally to 15.0 before the Games – equalling the family record – in winning the Northern title at the not-too-helpful Manchester White City track. At the AAA Championships he was 3rd in his heat, but Hildreth was the only British finalist, and in Cardiff Bob ran very spiritedly, equalling his best of 15.0 in the first round and then improving to 14.8 in the semi-finals; both these marks were deemed wind-assisted, though that is not always a benefit to hurdlers. The 14.8 was in 6th place, but the standard of Commonwealth high hurdling that year was exceptional – Hildreth was only 5th in the final in 14.4w, and the winner, Keith Gardner, of Jamaica, had a best of 13.8 during the season for equal 5th ranking in the World.

The Cardiff experience was a memorable one for Birrell, as he has fondly recalled: “There was no pressure on me as regards my races. I was seeing life that was all new to me in the athletes’ village, and I particularly remember watching in training Milka Singh, the quarter-miler from India, as he went round and round the track like clockwork”.

The 1959 season brought another win over brother Joe in the Lancashire championships at the Pilkington Glass Factory track at St Helens and a third successive Northern title. It was the AAA Championship final that could be thought of in hindsight as a sort of coming-of-age for the younger Birrell because he took 4th place in 14.7 behind Vic Matthews; Ghulam Raziq (Pakistan) and Laurie Taitt and ahead of the schools’ winner of three years before, Robin Brunyee, and Hildreth. Back at St Helens later in July for his first GB selection – in the “B” team against Holland – Bob won and set “a promising new personal best” (as reported by “Athletics Weekly”) of 14.6. Another 14.6, albeit wind-aided, followed a week later for the full GB side against West Germany at the White City (London version) and it left him 4th a long way behind the European record-holder, Martin Lauer, but then so, too, were Matthews, 2nd, and Bert Steines, 3rd – Lauer 13.7, Matthews 14.3, Steines 14.5.

More international calls quickly followed, with 3rd against Poland at the White City and the USSR in Moscow and then a highly satisfying 2nd place in 14.6 to complete maximum points against Finland in Helsinki as Matthews won in 14.5. Birrell already had good friends among his team-mates and so enjoyed the visit, but it was something of a culture shock to see the extensive indoor training facilities at the disposal of the Finnish athletes. The British rankings at year’s end had Bob in 4th place behind Hildreth (14.3, naturally, for the metric hurdles), Brunyee (14.5m) and Matthews (14.5y), and he had now slipped into the all-time top 10 for the 120 yards and 110 metres events: Finlay, Parker and Hildreth 14.3; Carrington and Matthews 14.4; Lord Burghley, John Thornton, Des Price and Brunyee 14.5.

The airmen provide a sanctuary from the snow

The Olympic year of 1960 set the most demanding challenge yet and as part of his preparation Birrell ventured into the enterprising indoor events organised by RAF Stanmore, in Middlesex, in the days before another RAF station, at Cosford, in Shropshire, became the established centre for indoor athletics in Britain. Getting to Stanmore involved a hectic schedule of a train journey from Didsbury, Manchester, starting at 7 a.m. and an underground ride from central London out to Stanmore to arrive at the hall at about lunchtime for a race at 1.30 p.m. “The 60 yards hurdles races just fitted into the building, and after we came off the last hurdle we’d dash through a dropped curtain and often find there was snow on the ground outside”, Bob remembered. “I’d have a couple of races and then be back on the 3 p.m. underground train on my way home. All that for 15 seconds or so of racing”.

In a series of these improvised races in January, February and April, he had a win over Matthews and 2nd places to Brunyee and Laurie Taitt, and the efforts paid dividends. He started the outdoor season in startling fashion, beating Matthews 14.4 to 14.5 at the opening of the Harlow track in Essex on 30 April. Numerous stars of British athletics were on show that day answering the call of duty for a team raised by the two leading officials in British athletics, Harold Abrahams and Jack Crump, including European champions John Wrighton, Brian Hewson and Arthur Rowe, and Stan Eldon won the Southern six miles championship held in conjunction, but “AW” enthused in characteristically expressive fashion that “one of the best performances of the afternoon was that of Bob Birrell, who ‘went like a bomb’ and really looked the part in edging Vic Matthews out”.

The Harlow hurdles race was ruled to be wind-assisted, but Bob got the Olympic qualifying time of 14.4 anyway three weeks later in beating Mike Parker, of Cambridge University, for the UAU title at Nottingham, also winning the 220 hurdles in 24.4, and then set championship bests of 14.8 for another Lancashire title at Huyton and 14.5 in beating Matthews and Parker at the Inter-Counties’ meeting at the White City. For England against Italy at the White City in mid-June he took 2nd place to Hildreth, 14.5 to 14.6, and ahead of a highly competent visiting pair, Mazza and Svara.

The AAA Championships were maybe a shade below expectations for Birrell, with 3rd place in 14.9 behind the Pakistani, Raziq (14.6), and Parker (14.8), and this was followed by 4th for Great Britain against France, but there was an immensely encouraging performance to come at the White City British Games on 13 August, which provided the last run-out before the Olympics. There Bob “made sure of his Rome ticket” (“AW” wording again) with a brilliant 2nd place in 14.3 into a 0.5 metres per second head-wind to equal the British record only a yard behind the Commonwealth champion, Keith Gardner.

Any student of athletics in the 1960s will know that those Rome Games which followed were largely a disaster from the British point of view, and there seems not much doubt that a primary reason was the decision of the officials to send athletes out piecemeal only a couple of days before their event was due to take place, thus leaving them too little time to acclimatise to the searing Italian sunshine. The high hurdlers were no exception to the travel ruling, and in the quarter-finals Hildreth ran 14.6 (14.78 electronically), Matthews 15.0 (15.12) and Birrell also 14.6 (14.78) and all were eliminated. Having said that, it would have taken a British record to have made the final, in which Gardner was 5th.

On more familiar ground, at Welwyn Garden City in September, Hildreth and Birrell showed their true form with times of 14.3 and 14.4 respectively, and the two of them took maximum points for England against East Germany in Berlin in October. Other English “doubles” were gained that day by David Jones and Peter Radford at 100 and 200 metres, John Wrighton and Robbie Brightwell at 400 metres, and John Metcalf and Chris Goudge (a Manchester University colleague of Birrell’s) at 400 metres hurdles, and England won both the men’s and women’s matches. This was in the days before the East Germans were to become a major power in the sport.

Parker joins Hildreth and Birrell in the record-books

More visits to Stanmore in early 1961 included trading wins one afternoon with Mike Parker, and there was definitely a spring in the step of British hurdlers once the month of May came round. Parker had a field day at the Cambridge University-v-AAA match on 4 May, joining Finlay, Hildreth and Birrell as joint record-holders at 14.3 and equalling Paul Vine’s 220 yards hurdles record of 23.7. This latter is one of those events which has long since disappeared from the schedule but once provided entertaining competition between high hurdlers and low hurdlers.

Birrell won five events in an afternoon at a meeting in Liverpool on 13 May – 15.3, 24.0 and 58.5 for the three hurdles events, plus 44-6 (13.56) in the shot and 134-10 (41.10) in the discus. A week later, at the White City British Games, it was Laurie Taitt, an electronics technician by profession, who won the Inter-Counties’ title for Surrey in a meeting record 14.4, with Birrell (Lancashire) 2nd, also in 14.4, and Parker (Shropshire) 3rd in 14.5. On the last weekend of the month Birrell convincingly beat Parker again in the Universities’ Athletic Union Championships at Motspur Park, 14.4 to 14.8.

Into June and the largest crowd ever at Loughborough witnessed the colleges losing narrowly to the AAA 107-102, with Robbie Brightwell, Mike Bullivant, Maurice Herriott and Harry Kane among the winners, as was Birrell by all of 0.8sec from Vic Matthews. Even so, the British Guiana-born Taitt began to have the edge over the other British high hurdlers, winning the Surrey title in another 14.3, a full second ahead of jumper Ken Wilmshurst, and narrowly beating Birrell into a strong head-wind which was whipping up clouds of dust from Wolverhampton’s Aldersley Stadium track at the Midlands-v-South-v-North match, 14.9 for both. The following Saturday Taitt reeled off a couple more 14.3 timings in the heats and final of the Southern Championships at Motspur Park, winning by half-a-second, while in Manchester Birrell romped home for the Northern title once more in 14.4 with an even larger margin of 0.8sec to spare over his nearest “rival”.

One of those contrived midweek evening matches which the AAA and the British Amateur Athletic Board (the latter responsible for international competition) dreamed up for the cavernous White City Stadium on the site originally used for the 1908 Olympics was London-v-Rhineland, but it turned out to be a highly entertaining spectacle for the 11,000 spectators scattered round the gaunt terraces. Taitt at long last broke the 14.3 deadlock with a resounding 14.2 win from Hildreth, 14.7, and a Northern 4 x 1 mile team of Stan Taylor, Alan Simpson, Mike Berisford and Brian Hall came close to the World record, while New Zealand’s Olympic 800 metres champion, Peter Snell, competing as a guest, took the 880 yards (804.67 metres)..

The AAA Championships, bolstered by a £5,000 sponsorship from the Carborundum Company, promised more fast times in the high hurdles, but the White City track was flooded, and Parker hit a hurdle and fell, while Taitt faded towards the finish, and it was left to Birrell to give the Italian visitor who he had met before, Nereo Svara, a close race, 14.4 to 14.5. Other overseas athletes took the 100 yards, the 880, the mile, the six miles, the 220 hurdles, 440 hurdles, pole vault, long jump, discus, hammer and javelin, but there were some worthy British winners nonetheless, including David Jones at 220, Adrian Metcalfe at 440, Gordon Pirie at three miles, Maurice Herriott in the steeplechase, Crawford Fairbother with a pre-Fosbury British record 6ft 9⅛in (2.06) in the high jump, and the brawny Doncaster blacksmith, Arthur Rowe, in the shot.

The USA, having beaten the USSR 124-111 and West Germany 120-91 in their men’s matches during the previous few days, moved on to the White City the next weekend, and Birrell and Parker were among those numerous Britons faced with the toughest of tasks. At the US Championships Hayes Jones, who was the Olympic bronze-medallist the previous year, and Fran Washington had both run 13.6, which put them half-a-dozen yards or so to the good, but Birrell gave them a contest in the early stages before Jones went away to a win in 13.9 which equalled the British all-comers’ record. Washington was 2nd in 14.1 and Birrell just held off Parker, 14.4 for both. That same Friday evening others of the visiting team to set UK all-comers’ records were Ulis Williams at 440 yards, the 4 x 110 yards relay team and Willye White in the women’s long jump, but there were also British records for Pirie and Rowe.

A “nice, clean race”, and Birrell is back among the record-holders

On tour with the British team to West Germany and Poland in September, Birrell suffered wildly mixed fortunes. In Dortmund he was accidentally hit by his neighbouring opponent, struck a hurdle violently, and jogged in last in 18.8. It was an opportunity missed because the Germans, Pensberger and Nüske, ran 14.0 and 14.1 and Parker chased them home in 14.2 to tie Taitt’s record. Three days later in Warsaw Birrell led all the way, drew further and further ahead, and beat Parker by half-a-second to join the 14.2 club. The two races made for a perfect illustration of high hurdling’s vicissitudes, summarised vividly by Birrell; “If you’ve run a hurdles race and you can’t remember too much about it, it must have been a good one. If you don’t recall hitting anything or having to make a correction, then that was a nice, clean race. The thing about hurdling is that if you can stay whole and don’t get injured you will get better at it. You just get technically better”.

Not surprisingly, then, he has no graphic recollections of the 14.0 he ran at Welwyn three days later, though in responding to the question “Which performance gave you most satisfaction and why ?”, put to him by “AW” the following February, he wrote: “The 14.0 at Welwyn Garden City was the culmination of all my performances as four or five years ago I would have thought it impossible for me to return such a time”. He won the race from Taitt, 14.3, with the Nigerian, Alfred Belleh, who was serving in the Royal Navy, 3rd in 14.4, Parker 4th in 14.5, and a teacher who would become a future BBC television commentator, Stuart Storey, a distant last in 15.4.

Only one photograph seems to exist of the race, and that appeared in “AW” a fortnight later showing Birrell in characteristic style, driving his left lead leg down to complete his clearance of what was presumably the last flight of hurdles, with his head dipped almost to waist level. Behind his powerful figure, Taitt and Belleh are still rising towards the barriers and look positively sylph-like by comparison. Hildreth, too, was of slim and wiry build. Parker, an advertising executive by profession, was rangey at 6-1¾ (1.87) and broad-chested, but they all of them looked like fly-halves or wing-threequarters to Birrell’s burly second-row forward when the race was on.

Hayes Jones and Fran Washington remained the two fastest men in the World for the year at 13.6, compared with the existing World record of 13.2 shared by Martin Lauer and the USA’s Olympic champion, Lee Calhoun. The leading European was Anatoliy Mikhailov, of the USSR, at 13.7, and Parker, Birrell and Taitt were among those who shared 38th place in the World rankings with their 14.2 clockings. Of the men at 14.1 or better, 27 were from the USA, two each from Germany and the USSR, and one each from Brazil, Formosa, France, Italy (Svara at 14.0), Poland and South Africa. A truer guide to Birrell’s status was that when the Russian Federal Republic had come to the White City in September the high hurdles was desperately close: Mikhailov 14.1, Chistyakov 14.2, Birrell 14.3.

During that year Birrell’s training had varied according to whether he was at university or at home, based on whatever facilities were available. During each week in winter he had lifted weights three times and played a couple of games of basketball, plus a practice session, and on Sundays, Mondays and Fridays he had trained on the track – hurdle stepping for technique and 8 x 150 yards on the flat for speed. During the summer he aimed to race 20-to-25 times and had one weight-training session a week and three track outings of 8 x 150 yards or 10 x 60 yards, depending on competitive demands. He also ran the occasional time-trial over the full 120 yards hurdles on Sundays.

Birrell went on to Loughborough as a graduate student for one year, where his class-mates, athletic and academic, included Robbie Brightwell, John Cooper, Peter Warden, John Morbey and Roy Hollingsworth, but the demands of gymnasium work and others sports restricted his training during 1962 and his fastest time for the year was 14.5, though he had a wind-aided 14.3 win over Mike Parker in May. Even so, he won the Lancashire and Northern titles yet again and gave Loughborough sterling service with 1st places in matches against the AAA, Cornell & Pennsylvania Universities, the RAF and the Army, and in the UAU Championships, plus extra points-scoring in the shot and discus. At the AAA Championships, suffering injury problems, he was back in 5th place in 14.8 as an American at Cambridge University, Tom Blodgett, won in 14.2 from Taitt, Belleh and Hildreth. Birrell’s Loughborough colleague, Brightwell, was one of the other champions that year with a majestic British (and European) record of 45.9 for 440 yards despite the damp conditions.

European and Commonwealth challenges extend the season

The 1962 season was a very long one with the European Championships in Belgrade in September and then the Commonwealth Games in Perth, Western Australia, in November. In Belgrade Birrell missed out on a place in the final by inches and Mikhailov won the title in 13.8. Interestingly, Mikhailov was a very different type of hurdler to Birrell – the Russian was of slighter build at 1.82m tall and 78kg in weight and had much more basic speed (10.4 for 100 metres) than Birrell (10.1 for 100 yards). In Australia Birrell ran 14.6 in the heats but was last in the wind-hampered final in 15.2 as Ghulam Raziq won for Pakistan in 14.3 from Australia’s David Prince, 14.4, with Taitt a distant 3rd for England.
A back injury restricted Birrell to a single race in 14.7 during 1963, and this was a great pity because in his enforced absence Parker and Taitt produced a flurry of 14.1 times, six in all, from May to September, and then Parker broke the mould early in October with a history-making 13.9 to win against Hungary in Budapest. This record would remain unbeaten for five years, though David Hemery was to equal it three times and Alan Pascoe twice.

Birrell returned fit again in 1964 and was unfortunate not to be selected for the Olympic Games in Tokyo. After regaining the Northern title in 15.0 at Blackpool, he took a close 3rd place to Parker and Taitt at the AAA Championships (times of 14.2, 14.2, 14.3). Parker and Taitt were named for the Games in mid-August, with the promise of others to be added in the various events, and Birrell made out a good case for himself with another 3rd place at the London Fire Brigades’ meeting in 14.3 as Taitt this time beat Parker, both 14.2 again, but no seat was found for him on the Tokyo plane. Neither of the Britons made much of an impression at the Games as Taitt went out in the first round and Parker was last in his semi-final; Hayes Jones winning the gold and Mikhailov the bronze.

By now a member of Liverpool Harriers, over the next three years Birrell had modest results, with best times in 1967 of 14.6w and 14.8, though keeping up his interest in discus-throwing with an effort of 138ft 9in (42.30m). In 1968 he was Northern high hurdles champion again and 4th in the Inter-Counties’ final behind Alan Pascoe, then a 20-year-old student at Borough Road College, who ran 14.4, with Mike Parker 2nd and Graham Gower 3rd. At the AAA Championships any hopes that Birrell had of Olympic selection evaporated when he was last in his heat in 14.8 and Pascoe won the title in 14.1 from Parker and Storey (both 14.2). These three were duly named in the team for Mexico City, but there was still another exploit to come from Birrell – and in the most unexpected circumstances.

He went off to East Africa to spend a holiday with his brother, Joe, who was teaching there and was persuaded to have a race in Kampala, in Uganda, on 3 August which he promptly won in 14.2 – his fastest time for seven years ! He repeated the visit the next year, raced again at the Ugandan championships, with King Freddie of Buganda among the spectators, and beat a promising local youngster, John Akii-Bua, in 14.6, which left the latter’s coach, Malcolm Arnold, somewhat disconcerted. Akii-Bua, then aged 19, would go on to win the Olympic 400 metres hurdles three years later in World-record time, while Arnold would return to Britain and continue to coach international athletes for many more years to come. Back in Europe during the 1969 season Pascoe improved the British record to 13.8, but it lasted only a month until Hemery ran 13.6.

That second African safari brought to an end a hurdling career of Birrell’s which had lasted 13 years, and he concentrated on his teaching and started coaching. By now a member of Liverpool Harriers he produced numerous fine hurdlers, of whom the most notable was Diane Allahgreen, and had his successes at every level, including guiding this writer’s own daughter to an English Schools’ 400 metres hurdles final. Affable as ever, into his 70s Birrell was feeling the aches of pains of an action-packed sporting past but was still travelling to Bebington Oval for coaching sessions. .

British All-Time Best Performers at 120 yards/110 metres hurdles As at the end of 1969 Note: 120 yards = 109.73 metres.


David Hemery (Hillingdon AC/OUAC)


Brno (CzevGB)

5. 7.69


Alan Pascoe (Polytechnic H/BRC)


Brno (CzevGB)

5. 7.69


Mike Parker (Achilles C)


Budapest (HunvGB)



Bob Birrell (Barrow AC/Lough Colls)


Welwyn Garden City

9. 9.61


Lawrie Taitt (HHH)


London WC (AAACh)

13. 7.63


Mike Hogan (OUAC)


Porto Alegre (WSG)

5. 9.63


Stuart Storey (Birchfield H)


Szczecin (PolvGB)

2. 8.67


Rodney Morrod (York Youth AC/Bham Un)



13. 6.64


Andy Todd (Brighton & Hove AC)





Don Finlay (RAF)


Colombes (ECh)

4. 9.38


Jack Parker (SLH)


London WC (GBvWG)

30. 7.55


Peter Hildreth (Polytechnic H)


Hanover (WGvGB)

15. 9.57


David Carrington (OUAC)


Hanover (WGvGB)

15. 9.57


Vic Matthews (LAC)





Rupert Legge (Chelmsford AC/Army)



6. 7.67


Anthony Hogarth (Octavians AC)



19. 8.67


Lord Burghley (Achilles C)


London SB

9. 6.30


Desmond Price (Queen’s Univ, Belfast)


Dublin (IrishCh)

28. 6.58


Robin Brunyee (Birchfield H)



23. 5.59


George Tymms (Surrey AC)



11. 6.66


Graham Gower (Blackheath H)


London CP

2. 6.68