Charles van Commenee: Van the man guiding home nation's hopes

Charles van Commenee enters Olympic year with four world-class athletes in his charge – but, as he tells Simon Turnbull, he wishes he had more

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The Independent Online

Perhaps it was unwise to mention the World Cup final that had been featured on Sky Sports 1 the night before. After all, like any fiftysomething Dutchman, for Charles van Commenee the pain of Munich and 1974 remains sharply vivid. Still, like Helmut Schön, the West German coach back then, Van Commenee is preparing to lead the host nation into a showpiece global sporting contest.

The head coach of UK Athletics, the man who will be in charge of the British track and field team when the 2012 Olympic Games get under way in late July, gave a thinly ironic smile at the comparison. A native Amsterdammer and lifelong Ajax fan, he could never imagine himself in the shoes of the German who masterminded the downfall of the great Dutch team of Johan Cruyff, Johan Neeskens and Co, completed by Gerd Müller's shot on the turn in that 2-1 World Cup final win.

"Yes, Gerd Müller," Van Commenee pondered, as if considering the ghost of Jacob Marley. "Always in the right place at the right time ... unfortunately."

Fortunately for Van Commenee, a significant number of the British athletes in his charge have been showing timely form heading into home Olympic year. The British track and field team won seven medals at the World Championships in Daegu, South Korea, last August – the country's biggest haul since 1993. Then there are the 13 British outdoor records set during the summer, the most since 1980, when Sebastian Coe, Steve Ovett and Daley Thompson were in their golden prime.

And yet Van Commenee continued to wear a somewhat furrowed expression as he turned his mind from the ghost of Gerd Müller to the challenge of leading the host nation's runners, jumpers and throwers at the London Olympics.

Ever since he assumed the role of head coach of UK Athletics in February 2009, Van Commenee has been chasing a 2012 target of eight medals, including at least one gold. That would be a doubling of the British track and field tally from Beijing in 2008 and the most since 1988, when a squad featuring Thompson, Linford Christie, Colin Jackson and Steve Cram won eight medals but no golds.

Since Beijing, Mo Farah, Dai Greene, Jessica Ennis and Phillips Idowu have all shown a Midas touch at global level, winning titles at the last two World Championships. Van Commenee's concern is that not enough fringe contenders have graduated to medal-winning status behind his Four Tops.

"If the Olympics were to take place next month I would not be confident," he confided. "We need the next seven months in order to get better. We wish we had a few more successful athletes in that tier."

The four big British hopes all go into 2012 on the back of medal-winning performances at the 2011 World Championships: Farah took gold in the 5,000m and silver in the 10,000m; Greene won gold in the 400m hurdles; Ennis landed silver in the heptathlon; and Idowu won silver in the triple jump.

Still, worryingly for Van Commenee, only two other members of the team made the step up to the podium in Daegu, Hannah England snatching silver in the 1500m and Andy Turner bronze in the 110m hurdles. "There were a few athletes who didn't do well," the head coach said – "Jenny Meadows in the 800m; the men's 4x400m relay team. Those athletes will have to do better. And maybe one of the high jumpers will step up again."

Van Commenee is too pragmatic a soul to rely on the Wilkins Micawber principle of something turning up. From his own experience as a one-to-one coach, however, he knows that Olympic medals can emerge from the most unlikely sources.

In Beijing in 2008 the high jumper Germaine Mason and the 400m hurdler Tasha Danvers both earned medals that not even the most prescient track and field experts could have seen coming at the start of the Games, let alone at the end of the previous year. Similarly, in Athens in 2004 Kelly Sotherton won a bronze in the heptathlon 12 months after failing to qualify for the World Championships and being ranked 57th in the world.

The coach who effected Sotherton's transformation was Van Commenee. "I can't count on a medal like that," he said. "And I do not count on it. It would probably be as much of a surprise to you as it would be to me."

Indeed, few of the British media even knew who Sotherton was when she was presented to them for interview alongside Denise Lewis at a pre-Olympic training camp in Cyprus three months before the Athens Games. There followed an embarrassing half-hour, during which all save a couple of token questions were directed at Lewis, the reigning Olympic heptathlon champion at the time. "I remember," Van Commenee said, chuckling heartily. "I was there."

As freshly crowned world champions, Farah and Greene can expect no shortage of attention from the British media in the lead-up to the London Games – and no shortage of home pressure. The pair could hardly be better placed to deal with the spotlight and the expectation, though.

Farah has the in-built Teflon coating of a naturally easy-going nature, and in any case will be cocooned from much of the home 2012 hysteria at his training base on the west coast of the United States in Portland. Greene has an ultra-professional, ultra-pragmatic approach to his athletics and a keen sense of perspective. He also happens to be coached by Malcolm Arnold, the veteran hurdles guru who guided John Akii-Bua and Mark McKoy to Olympic gold and Colin Jackson to world record-breaking and World Championship-winning success.

In every respect, the two golden boys of British athletics could hardly be in better places, it would seem. Van Commenee nodded his head in concurrence. "Jessica, also," he said. "And Phillips. He is also with a great coach – in Birmingham , living next to the athletics centre there. All of those four athletes are in a good place. I was very pleased with what they did in Daegu."

Three of the four suffered some measure of disappointment in South Korea in August, Ennis and Idowu losing the world titles they had gained in Berlin two years previously and Farah being beaten by Ibrahim Jeilan of Ethiopia in the 10,000m before winning the 5,000m final. Having longrecited the mantra that it is better to train with the mindset of a No 2 than a No 1, Van Commenee appreciates the potential value of such silver medal linings.

"It is very easy to train when you have won a silver medal," said the Dutchman, whose first task of 2012 will be to take charge of a GB team featuring Farah at the Aviva International match at the Kelvin Hall in Glasgow on 28 January. "It is not so easy when you have won the gold. I think somebody like Jessica is more than ever aware that medals are not given out easily.

"For Mo, Daegu was not brilliant overall but I think it was the best possible result for him going into 2012. He's got confirmation that he's good enough to win but also he's got the warning that there are other guys who can do that as well.

"Medals are not given out before the actual competition. I think at one point just before the championships in Daegu there was an atmosphere, an expectation, that we might win four or five events. What we learnt in Daegu was that that is not realistic.

"I would be very, very pleased if we won one gold medal next year. Really, I would."

As a personal coach, of course, van Commenee already has one notable Olympic gold medal-winning success in his locker. In Sydney in 2000 he guided Lewis to victory through the seven events of the heptathlon. At the previous year's World Championships the Wolverhampton woman had been cut down by the razor-sharp Frenchwoman Eunice Barber in Seville – in even more decisive fashion than Ennis was put to the sword by the inspired Russian Tatyana Chernova in Daegu.

"Yes, there is a comparison there," Van Commenee acknowledged. "Hopefully, with the same outcome a year later. Whatever happens, it is going to be exciting, and the margins will be small. All Jessica can do with her coach and her support team is to use every day, which I know she is doing. And then, on the two days of the heptathlon next summer, we're going to sit there and see what happens.

"I can't wait... Can you?"

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