Meet Minichiello: The big man behind Ennis's grand plan
Coach has a volatile father-daughter relationship with British heptathlete – but it's working perfectly. Simon Turnbull reports
Saturday 30 July 2011
It could be any given Saturday for Toni Minichiello – or any given Sunday, for that matter.
For the man behind the great British success story that is Jessica Ennis, what he is looking for from his charge as she goes through her paces in five events on the programme at the Aviva World Trials and National Championships at the Alexander Stadium in Birmingham (shot put, high jump and 100m hurdles today; long jump and javelin tomorrow) is a small gain here and there which might help to add up to another World Championship title in Daegu, South Korea, next month – or a big fat Olympic gold medal in London in 12 months' time.
"For me now, it's a bit like the Al Pacino speech in Any Given Sunday," the long-term coach of the world and European heptathlon champion says. "He talks about inches. And really, where Jess is now, it's about diminishing returns, so what you're looking for are those inches that are going to take her forward. You're looking for that small bit of something that's going to make a difference."
Al Pacino put it in much the same way in his role as Tony D'Amato, head coach of the Miami Sharks gridiron team. Like the New Yorker who also played Michael Corleone in The Godfather, the Sheffielder who guides the world's leading all-round female athlete happens to be of Italian extraction.
"My mum and dad are from just outside Naples – Avelino, which is the same area as Tony Soprano's family," Minichiello says, maintaining the Cosa nostra theme. "My parents both came over to Bedford to find work and they met and married there. They moved up to Sheffield and my dad worked in the steelworks. I was born in Sheffield, so I'm not a plastic Brit."
Minichiello was forged in South Yorkshire's Steel City in 1966, which was rather a good year for British – or, rather, English – sport. In contrast to the reserved, taciturn Alf Ramsey, the mastermind of England's World Cup-winning football boys of '66, the guru behind the likely star of next year's grand global sporting show in London is an affable bear of a man – always approachable, always ready with a witticism or an astute observation and always open to the opinions of others.
Not that Minichiello believes that Ennis sees him in quite that light. "We've been working together now for 14 years," he says, "and it's a bit like a father-daughter type thing, where she finds me slightly embarrassing – like a dad at a wedding who's dancing badly. It's that kind of relationship, if I'm honest.
"I think we can speak honestly to each other. There have been a few arguments here and there – but not particularly over big things, usually over quite small things. Having known her since she was nine, and having coached her since she was 11, I do forget from time to time that she's grown up, that this person that I'm dealing with is no longer 11 or 12. She's an adult, so she's got something to give back, whereas an 11-year-old just looks at a big, fat, ugly bloke and stands there pretty scared, taking in everything he says.
"Jess always complains that I treat her as a child but I explain that I only do that because she's 5ft 4in, about the same size as a child. I get a suitable response to that one, trust me."
At 25, the adult Ennis might be on the petite side but she is the big hope for a home gold in the track and field arena at the London Olympics. She is big enough to have a waxwork model of her standing in Madame Tussauds, and big enough to have an image of her plastered on the advertising hoardings next to her coach's local chip shop.
The latter sight made Minichiello stop and think just how far his long-term charge had come, and have his picture taken standing next to the giant Ennis poster. It was small wonder that he felt so beguiled. Few coaches, if any, have guided athletes from first year senior school age right through to global champion status.
Lloyd Cowan – like Minichiello, another of the excellent British coaches nurturing world-class talent under the UK Athletics regime overseen by Charles van Commenee – took Christine Ohuruogu from a novice to a world and Olympic champion, but in a much shorter space of time, which was quite an achievement in itself. Ohuruogu only turned to athletics, and the 400m, in her late teens. She was an age-group netball international until then.
Van Commenee himself guided Denise Lewis to Olympic gold in Sydney in 2000 but she was already an Olympic bronze medallist in the heptathlon when the Dutchman succeeded Darrell Bunn as her coach.
When Ennis first started running, jumping and throwing at the City of Sheffield Athletics Club, she was coached by Minichiello's former wife. You may well have heard of Nicola Minichiello. She was one half of Britain's world champion two-woman bobsleigh team at Lake Placid in 2009, partnered by Gillian Cooke.
In truth, the 44-year-old Toni Minchiello and the grown-up Ennis have a healthy and highly fruitful coach-athlete relationship. They could happily wind up one another all day long, while getting through the hard graft and the hard yards in training.
In Ennis' newspaper column in midweek, she wrote of Minichiello: "He drives me to distraction at times with his criticism and his cheese." She was quick to add, however: "He also gets the best performances out of me."
He does that. Since 2004, in every year bar one Ennis has registered a personal-best points tally in the heptathlon. In 2008 she suffered a triple fracture of the foot, which cruelly ruled her out of the Beijing Olympics.
It says much for the mettle of the golden girl from the Steel City that since that potentially career-threatening setback she has established herself as the clear world No 1 in the heptathlon, the seven-event test of all-round athletic excellence.
Ennis has a degree in psychology from the University of Sheffield, and while that might help as the pressure mounts and London 2012 approaches, her coach says: "She's naturally got a very straightforward, straight-line way of thinking about stuff anyway."
Minichiello adds: "We've done some sessions about personality traits with Pete Lindsay, the psychologist at the English Institute of Sport in Sheffield. Jess likes working to a structure, a set plan in training. I always used to be open and engaging when I coached, using language like, 'How does that feel? Tell me what that was like.' I remember doing a shot put session with Jess and asking her, 'How did that feel?' And she just turned round and went, 'Just tell me what to do. Just tell me what I'm doing wrong.' Nowadays, I do a lot of things in a very direct manner, because that's what Jess responds to best.
"She likes a structure and a plan, rather than something that's open."
All of which might just find the vital inches that add to something special on 3 and 4 August, 2012, the given Friday and Saturday on which Jessica Ennis' London Olympic destiny will be decided.
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