Mike Rowbottom

One of the enduring bonuses of an airport - particularly if one has been enduring a long, shuffling, early morning queue with a growing sense of dismay over the previous night's alcoholic intake - or so people tell me - is the unexpected people you see.

It is more than 20 years now since I found myself on a plane standing on the runway at Munich Airport, vainly pleading the case of a passenger seated behind me to an increasingly agitated cabin steward. 

The passenger in question was The Prodigy front-man Keith Flint, who very sadly died this week.

The previous night the band had played in support at a David Bowie gig, and Flint was offering his fellow travellers a vocal tribute, singing, from time to time, a Bowie lyric - "he gave me a dangerous smile".

It didn't bother me. No other passenger objected. All around him, the band read on.

But the cabin crew clearly held strongly differing views and soon there were four extra people on board - policemen wearing combat fatigues and carrying what looked like Heckler and Koch machine guns.

More discussion, this time involving the band manager. And in the end Flint and manager exited the plane with their tooled-up escort service.

The late Keith Flint, front-man of The Prodigy, performing in Denmark in 2017 ©Getty Images
The late Keith Flint, front-man of The Prodigy, performing in Denmark in 2017 ©Getty Images  

I felt duty bound to report this turn of events to The Independent, for whom I was then working. It was maybe a diary piece. But for some reason the story got passed on to The Independent's then sister paper, the Daily Mirror.

And my tale of how a massive and faintly comic overreaction had taken place involving armed German policemen began changing shape into something different. It was out of my control.

The next day the Mirror featured the tale on, I think, page three, with a huge picture of a gurning Flint in full stage throttle, and a headline along the lines of "Wildman Flint thrown off plane by German machine gun cops".

For what it is worth, my insistence to the reporter who wrote the story up that the whole thing had been ridiculous and uncalled for found expression in a single paragraph at the end. It is not worth much.

One of the oddest things I have seen on my air travels was Ronnie O'Sullivan's snooker cue - the one with which, presumably, he had won the world title - circulating forlornly on a baggage carousel at Stansted Airport after a flight back from Dublin. Eventually "The Rocket" sauntered over and collected it. It is hard to believe there was not an airline version of recorded delivery he could have employed to safeguard such a vital item.

It was at Stansted, too, that I encountered another oddity - a sweaty delay that turned into a story. 

Having booked an afternoon flight to Newcastle in order to cover an evening athletics meeting at Gateshead, I found myself growing increasingly anxious over a wait that was stretching from minutes into hours. It was due, we were told, to "operational reasons". That is, there was no plane on the runway, and none expected until much, much later... 

Ronnie O'Sullivan and his prized cue ©Getty Images
Ronnie O'Sullivan and his prized cue ©Getty Images

First edition deadline approached, and I was several hundred miles from where I needed to be - until I saw Matthew Yates. At the time Yates, a bronze medallist at the 1990 Commonwealth Games over 800 metres, was hoping to produce a sufficiently good showing to make the team for the World Championships.

With the best will in the world, the Essex boy was not likely to impress the selectors from Gate 82. Thank you very much, and put me on to copy.

Passing through security at Glasgow Airport earlier this week I was momentarily delayed as two police officers were cursorily checked before going through themselves.

One of them - the one right next to me - was someone who had run in that same Commonwealth Games 800m race that had afforded Yates his medal. A man who had retired with European outdoor and indoor titles, as well as a world indoor gold. Scotland's own Tom McKean.

What made this more of a coincidence was the fact that I had also bumped into McKean, purely by chance, the previous evening as he had been among spectators streaming out of the Emirates Arena having just seen Laura Muir, poster girl for the weekend's European Athletics Indoor Championships in Glasgow, complete her golden 1,500/3,000m double.

Not entirely certain, I called out his name. What would it matter if it wasn't him? "Tom!" The head turned, and it was unmistakeably the man who, 29 years earlier, had won the 800m when these Championships were last in Glasgow - five miles up the road at Kelvin Hall.

McKean was just a face in the crowd. Which was, it turned out, exactly how he wanted it to be.

A significant face in the crowd - Tom McKean at the Emirates Arena in Glasgow on Sunday night ©Mike Rowbottom
A significant face in the crowd - Tom McKean at the Emirates Arena in Glasgow on Sunday night ©Mike Rowbottom

His Glasgow win had almost not happened - inexperienced on the boards, he had been bumped and barged on his way to qualification for the final.

While fellow spectators moved past him into the sharp night air, McKean - who has been a Glasgow policeman for the last 22 years - recalled how that hometown triumph had been engendered by a characteristically smart piece of motivation from the then British head coach, fellow Scot Frank Dick.

"After the semi-finals, Frank comes up to me and says 'Tom, I'm going to do a bit of reverse psychology on you. You be Frank Dick and I'll be you. Tell me how I run the race'.

"And I said, 'If I was you, I would say you're the fastest in Europe. Stay out of trouble'.

"And Frank said 'You've answered your own race plan. Now just go and execute it'. And that was it. That was the total of it. It was amazing, it was just a light bulb moment."

As he warmed to his theme, McKean turned to one of the other marquee events of the final night at the Emirates Arena - the men's 1,500m where Norway's 18-year-old Jakob Ingebrigtsen, unlike Muir, fell just short of completing his own double after an earlier 3,000m win.

Norway's boy wonder was undone by an electric final lap from that wily old Polish campaigner Marcin Lewandowski.

"Ingebrigtsen grabbed my attention," McKean said. "But you could see that he still hasn't got pure speed. It was just a wind up - it wasn't particularly fast. Lewandowski was with him at the end, in a slow race. Ingebrigtsen's learned a lesson today. Lewandowski got handed a dream ticket."

When I suggested he had come in under the radar, he responded: "I always do. It doesn't bother me. I'm just a pure athletics fan. I love the sport."

And with that, he was gone. Never to be seen again until around 8.30 the following morning…