Toni Minichiello: Rejuvenated coach ready to clear the next hurdle with Jessica Ennis
Coach of star of the Games tells Matt Majendie how after a post-Olympic slump the duo are raring to go again and how he's open to a return to working with UK Athletics
Wednesday 24 April 2013
You could be forgiven for expecting the life of Toni Minichiello to have been one of champagne and caviar since last summer's Olympic Games, when his charge Jessica Ennis kicked off that Super Saturday in the Stadium by securing gold in the heptathlon. In fact, there has been one major down – his very public falling-out with UK Athletics – to accompany the ups.
But now Minichiello, who accused UKA of a lack of respect following a "take it or leave it" offer to continue being paid under the auspices of the governing body, is in notably more diplomatic mood and, for the first time, has offered an olive branch in an attempt to repair frayed relations. As things stand, Minichiello is no longer employed by UKA.
"People don't cuddle enough, that's the problem," he says when we meet at a StreetGames charity event, in an attempt to make light of the situation before adding in a more serious tone: "I don't think it's a dead issue. My door's always open and that's the way it is. Obviously, there's a working relationship in terms of discussions concerning Jess's domestic fixtures. But I'm open to further discussions."
Whether that admission proves the start of a changing relationship with the governing body remains to be seen.
In the meantime his relationship with Ennis, who defied massive pressure to beat the world's best by more than 300 points last summer, goes from strength to strength despite the impending closure of their place of training, the Don Valley Stadium in Sheffield. Ennis took a lengthy break after London and the pair eventually sat down to discuss the future.
"The relationship with Jess is a private one and always has been," he says. "After London, I felt a bit flat, I crashed a little bit. Part of that was down to the fact I had just four hours' sleep over the two days of the competition and the sleep deprivation was kicking in. But Jess and I sat down and I said: 'Are you going to carry on?' We talked about Rio and decided 'OK, it's on'. But before that, I hadn't looked much past London."
Minichiello likes to pride himself on keeping one step ahead of his athletes but says with Ennis that has not always been possible. "With the hurdles in London, I saw that and her time and I was like, 'S***, how did she do that?'" he says.
It even led to suggestions that his athlete could turn to hurdles full-time but he says that is nonsense. "It's a bit like Michael Jordan with that switch from basketball to baseball," he says. "Why change? She can still improve in the heptathlon, she has not had any major injuries since 2008 and she can win the top medals for five to even eight years in this."
Despite the post-Olympic dip, Minichiello, much to the displeasure of his girlfriend, has not yet taken a holiday since the Games – in fact, his last holiday was four years ago – and has instead thrown himself into coaching the other 12 athletes he looks after, who range in age from 12 to 26.
Slowly, however, he is adjusting his schedule in an attempt to adapt to life as a parent, having become a father to Bella Maria just nine weeks ago. "Being a bachelor as a coach was easier as I'd be at the track every day at 9am and leave at 8pm, get Pizza Hut and a Coke on the way home and job done," he says. "Now I'm beginning to adapt and my athletes are aware of that."
The doting dad produces pictures of his daughter on his iPad, talks of the power of holding her in his hands for the first time – "so small and fragile with her little head bobbing all over the place" – and even revels in changing nappies.
The loving father part shows one half of Minichiello – the cuddly character; his current choice of biographies – those of Brian Clough and Richard Burton – perhaps attests to the other, in which he is sufficiently aggressive as a coach when the need arises.
"If something's rubbish, I'll say it's rubbish," he admits. "But at the same time, I just want to make an athlete be the very best they can be. With Jess, I've tried to do that since she was 11 and she's now this international businesswoman. But she's still very harsh on herself."
Minichiello is also always looking to improve, hence the brainstorming sessions with other leading British coaches. He has shared ideas with, among others, Stuart Lancaster, the England rugby union coach, and some of the players thanks to the Rugby Football Union.
"Stuart Lancaster, I like that guy," he says. "He's my benchmark for coaching. I liked working with the rugby guys. There was one guy who was a beast with a Mohican [Joe Marler] and you have this pre-conceived idea these guys will just be monsters but then they open their mouths and sound Oxbridge-educated.
"I've learnt a lot from that, from speaking to [the England coaches] Andy Farrell and Mike Catt. Another one is Stuart Pearce [the England football Under-21s coach]. He just gets it. I remember him saying, 'It's not about you as a coach but the people that you help and support.' As a coach, it's hard to understand that at the start."
Perusing the Minichiello CV, it is surprising that he became a coach at all, let alone achieved the status of UK Coach of the Year. His multitudinous past jobs perhaps acted as the perfect precursor to the jack-of-all-trades requirements of coaching an event as varied as the heptathlon. "I worked as a sports shop assistant manager then did sales – I was rubbish at that," he recalls. "I also worked at Woodburn Road athletics track as a one-man band doing everything. Emptying the bins on a hot day, now that wasn't fun.
"I was also probably the only pool lifeguard that couldn't swim – but was very good at saving people in a metre of water. I then worked in the Department of Work and Pensions for eight years. That was great fun.
"That opens your eyes a lot to relationships, which coaching is all about. There were people in really difficult situations and you try to help them. You'd interview women for the CSA [Child Support Agency] and there was some fun stuff there but a lot of very harrowing stories as well. After that, this job's pretty easy really."
He believes the past work has helped him in his current endeavour. "Life experiences like that have helped because coaching is simply about listening to people," he says and points out he is still evolving as a coach. That is also why he is happy to throw his weight behind StreetGames, a charity aimed at improving the opportunities and coaching for youngsters across the country.
His more immediate goal for this season is the World Championships in Moscow in August, when Ennis will try to win back her world title, which she lost to Russia's Tatyana Chernova in Daegu, South Korea, two years ago.
Of her hopes of winning gold, Minichiello jokes: "I insist she does," before adding, "she's going there to be successful. She won London by more than 300 points and she's in a good place but much of her London motivation was about missing the last Olympics injured. A lot of her rivals will have that motivation after what she did in London."
A raft of failed drugs tests by Russian athletes has acted as an unwanted precursor to the Championships. The majority of Ennis's leading rivals are Russian and, while there has been no finger-pointing, the subject has been raised by Ennis and Minichiello.
"We talk about drugs like we talk about Coronation Street," he says matter-of-factly. "There's nothing we can do about it. You can be incredibly cynical but it's out of our control. You just get on with it."
The issue of drugs has already affected Ennis. She was fourth at the 2007 Worlds in Osaka, Japan. Ukrainian Lyudmyla Blonska took the silver medal and then failed a drugs test the following year, for which she was given a lifetime ban. "You look at that and think, 'Did Jess finish third in Osaka then?'" says her coach. "Maybe, but she's not got the medal so you move on."
In the build-up, coach and athlete will continue to use Don Valley Stadium before its closure in September, after which they will turn to Minichiello's former workplace in a revamped Woodburn Road. Remaining in diplomatic mood, he says the closure of Ennis's training base is "not ideal" and jokes that "I've fallen short of cuffing myself to the gates in protest".
Life in the city of Britain's Olympic golden girl is far from the stuff of legacy, but the little and large (Ennis is prone to liken her coach to the rotund radio DJ Chris Moyles) of British athletics will continue ploughing their own furrow.
"Our motivation is pretty good," he says. "We'll just carry on doing what we do. It's not been too bad so far has it?"
Coach sees room for improvement in every event
Toni Minichiello has warned Jess Ennis's rivals that he expects her to improve in every event despite breaking Denise Lewis's British record en route to winning gold in London. He said: "I think she can even improve in the hurdles despite a good time in London. Her high jump certainly wasn't what it should be and her speed in all the running events is still improving.
"And there's definitely second-day improvements – the long jump and the javelin. I also don't think we've seen her best in the 800m yet. We're working on getting that better for Tallinn and Moscow."
Ennis will compete in one heptathlon before the World Championships in Moscow but her coach has questioned whether she needs to do that at all.
The Olympic champion will forgo her usual early-season warm-up event in Gotzis in May because of her lengthy post-London break and late return to training, and will instead compete in Tallinn, Estonia, from 29 to 30 June.
But such is the 26-year-old's experience, Minichiello said a pre-Moscow warm-up event was not necessary. "You get to a position where athletes want to do a heptathlon before a major championships and Jess is no different," he said. "From a coach's perspective, does she need to do it? She doesn't need it really but the fact is that she wants to do it and so this is a key test event for her.
"Normally we'd go to Gotzis but that's not possible with the later start to training, a break she needed to get herself ready."
Toni Minichiello was speaking on behalf of Coca-Cola GB at the StreetGames training academy, part of its legacy 365 campaign to deliver improved sporting experience to thousands of young people in the UK – www.coca-cola.co.uk/streetgames
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