The man who puts Sheffield’s Jess Ennis to the test

Sports fanatic: A self-confessed mediocre sportsman, Toni Minichiello has made his name as a top-class coach.     PICTURE: Barry Richardson
Sports fanatic: A self-confessed mediocre sportsman, Toni Minichiello has made his name as a top-class coach. PICTURE: Barry Richardson
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ALL eyes will be on Sheffield’s Jessica Ennis when the Olympic track and field events start in London on August 3.

But no one will be watching more intently, or expertly, than her coach Toni Minichiello.

And while Ennis will be trying to reach the pinnacle of athletic achievement, Minichiello, a self-confessed sport mediocrity, may take a moment to wonder how the man turned down for studying to be a PE teacher and the job of the city’s athletic development officer could have shaped and crafted a talent as prodigious as the golden girl.

It has been a long road for 46-year-old Minichiello.

Son of Italian immigrants, he is a former pupil at St Wilfrid’s primary school and All Saints secondary school. Time spent as an altar boy at Mother of God church on Abbeydale Road completed the Catholic upbringing.

And while religion gave him his ‘moral compass’ his coaching philosophy has been forged from a variety of sources going right back to his love of playing sport at school.

“I did as many sports as I could be picked for at school,” he said. “I was usually 12th man at cricket, substitute at football, the last man off the bench at basketball. Because I was the big kid they said I must be good at throwing so I did athletics.

“I played a lot of basketball and did athletics in the summer. Through the basketball I started doing some coaching when I was about 19.

“By the time I was 26, I’d been coached by a guy called Andy Barron who was studying at the University of Sheffield. But he was a foreign student so when he went back home it carried on from there.

“It ended up with me being the last man standing. If I didn’t coach the group then who would? And it progressed from there.

“This is about my 19th year of coaching athletics.”

Before Ennis, Minichiello’s first athlete to make a major breakthrough was Nicola Gautier. Later to become his wife - now divorced - Gautier helped develop his coaching style.

“The key thing was Nicola coming down to the track wanting to be a shot putter. My philosophy is to create all-round athletic ability in order to throw.

“So I said let’s do multi-events, which is more in keeping with England Athletics’ vision now. The problem was after a few years she didn’t want to go back to the shot putt!

“The group has changed over the years – Jess has come into it now and there’s about 14 I work with.”

Nicola Minichiello is now coach of the Dutch bobsleigh team after being a three-time Winter Olympian for Great Britain, while Toni is set to coach a Summer Olympics for the first time.

While coaching has been the dominant factor in Minichiello’s life it is only relatively recently that he has been employed full time to do it.

Roles with Sheffield for Health, Sheffield International Venues and the Employment Service, he says, have built his skills.

“I was a stadium assistant at Hillsborough Leisure Centre while at the University of Sheffield doing Law. I really enjoyed it.

“I worked at Woodbourn Road, Don Valley Stadium and then on to the job centre at Rockingham House dealing with the public as an adviser. It was very different being in a shirt and tie but I enjoyed that as well.

“Job Centre gave me quite a background because the training in the civil service is about questioning and getting to the root of the problem, the training to be an adviser and the methods I used cross over quite well to coaching.”

Minichiello’s big break came when he applied for, and got, and Elite Coach position for UK Athletics. The role was part-funded by UK Sport and it led to three years of intensive training.

He said: “We look at all sorts of things from management to presentation skills - it was a very deep programme.

“It was a rich environment because there were so many people from other sports. Tim Foster from rowing, Chris Boardman the cyclist, for example.

“We went to look at the Scottish Philharmonic Orchestra to see how they worked together. Had chats from people in the military on briefing and debriefing.

“The question always was, what makes a good coach, a good coach. It’s not just sporting knowledge it’s how you put a team around people.

“I always liken it to a suit. The first one you get is off the peg. That’s fine at that level but as you move on and get more successful you have one made to you, it’s measured for you.

“Sport in the same. When you come into it you do what everyone else is doing but the more you’re looking for that one percent difference the more you have to tailor-make a programme.

“Initially you coach the sport and eventually you coach the person in the sport. It changes.

“Having been through a lot coaching Nic I could see the things that I hadn’t done. I’m sure that after Jess that if I had an athlete with equal ability, with the third one I’d get it right.”

He hasn’t done badly with Ennis, though. Although she’s now without a major title to her name after choosing not to compete at last weekend’s European Championships, the Millhouses-based athlete is favourite to take gold in the heptathlon on August 4.

As much as Minichiello would like to treat it as just another event, he admits the pressure on Ennis is greater than other members of the British athletics team.

“Coaching gives you the chance to enrich someone’s life going forward. Can you help someone to be as good as they can?

“It’s seeing someone improve and achieve. If you’re helping someone be as good as they can be it’s quite a thing.

“With Jess it’s a bit more serious. It’s more business. The nice gentle side of it has gone a bit. With youngsters you can be a bit more positive.

“We can’t have the ‘never mind, you finished fourth at the Olympics, don’t worry about it’ chat. She’s probably the only athlete in the British track and field team who, if they didn’t win the gold, it would be seen as a loss.

“The home crowd will bring a very positive element though. And she performs better in those environments.”

Victory for Ennis would immediately make her a national treasure. For Minichiello it will raise the question of how he can be used to improve British athletics across the board.

The city has the facilities and Minichiello has a passion to teach - despite his earlier rejection.

“There were teachers at All Saints who I think recognised that I’d always be there for teams. Those guys and their encouragement got me into sport.

“I made a mature student application to Sheffield Hallam for a PE course. Couldn’t get on. I’d have loved to have done PE.”

Now is not the right time to consider what the legacy of Ennis and Minichiello to the city will be - let the gold medal be won first.

But there is definitely a conversation to be had post-Olympics of how Sheffield can build on one of its most successful double acts.

‘She’s the best British heptathlete ever’

UNSURPRISINGLY Toni Minichiello has nothing but praise for Jessica Ennis. He says her tenacity and will to win set her apart from other athletes.

“I see someone who will tough it out. Will do sessions when it hurts and will keep going and keep going. She never misses training and keeps pushing.

“Sometimes the tail wags the dog and athletes say they can’t do something and their coach says ‘okay’. I tell them to get up and get it done.

“I say the same thing to Jess, but she doesn’t really need it saying. She drives herself on.

“When you consider what she’s achieved she’s pretty rare. Pound-for-pound she’s the best British heptathlete ever.”