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Minichiello situation highlights the need for a coaches' association

BEFORE he was coach to the Olympic heptathlon champion Jessica Ennis, Toni Minichiello worked in a Jobcentre.

Toni Minichiello has helped Jessica Ennis to medals in every global championship she has contested. Picture: Stu Forster/Getty Images

"I might well be back there shortly," he said yesterday, his voice heavy with irony. "I worked there full time when I first coached her."

Although Ennis set four UK records last year and Minichiello was named UK Coach of the Year by Sports Coach UK, he has no job. "UK Athletics made me redundant on Friday," he told Herald Sport in an exclusive interview. "My Olympic coach role no longer exists, but we are still talking."

A UK Athletics spokesperson confirmed they hoped to make an announcement soon. UKA are embroiled in coaching restructuring. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" is an oft-quoted maxim. Inevitably, an observation ascribed to Petronius comes to mind – that reorganisation is "a wonderful method . . . for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency, and demoralisation".

Minichiello and Michael Afalaka could be forgiven for being confused and demoralised. Afalaka is also redundant. He transformed teenager Adam Gemili from a footballer into world junior 100 metres champion and Olympic semi-finalist in less than a year.

Sport, its funding, and appointments operate in four-year cycles: think World Cups in football, Olympiads and Commonwealth Games. Following the departure of the UKA performance director Charles Van Commenee, it's clear that athletics faced upheaval. What is surprising is that when the Dutchman fell on his sword, having failed to match his medal target, he still had extensive input to key new appointments during a lengthy goodbye. This would have been inconceivable in football.

Van Commenee and Minichiello rarely saw eye-to-eye. The former once dismissed Ennis as too small to make it, and it may have grated that Minichiello repeatedly proved him wrong: world titles indoors and out, European champion.

Whatever, there was no role for Minichiello in the new team. A job was available at Loughborough, the UK high-performance centre, and Minichiello made an offer. "I hoped I could work there and support Jess, but that did not fit their plans. What they required was more than I could give, which is fair enough, so the opportunity now involves a number of consultancy roles.

"I am now taking advice on an offer that has been sent through, which would leave me free to do other things, speaking, and working with other sports, to maintain my salary. They wanted me to be in Loughborough five days a week. That's not in the best interests of Jessica Ennis: travelling up and down motorways. She is not leaving Sheffield. She has superb facilities here. The model shaped around Jess works incredibly well and, because of that, I can't commit to five days a week at Loughborough. I have promised I will continue to support Jess however I can, to ensure she continues to perform at the level she is at, whether that's from inside or outside UK Athletics.

"They may regard me as a one-trick pony, and I have to accept that, but that long-term development over time, pulling the team together, the added value year-on-year . . . I may be a one-trick pony but it's one hell of a trick. Four British records last year and she has medalled at every global championships. That's what I was employed to do."

Single centres work well for narrow-discipline sports such as cycling, sailing, rowing and canoeing, but centralising all elite performance in a broad multi-discipline sport like athletics is a high-risk strategy. It's not doomed to fail, but it goes against proven methods.

Loughborough has enjoyed great success, but Malcolm Arnold has been successful with the likes of Colin Jackson, Dai Greene, Rhys Williams, Laurence Clarke and Eilidh Child in Bath; Lloyd Cowan with Chrissy Ohuruogu in the Lee Valley and Mile End, Craig Winrow with Andrew Osagie in Sheffield. The list is lengthy. And, dare we say, it includes the double Olympic gold medallist Mo Farah, significantly bankrolled in the US by an American shoe company.

An even lengthier historical list of British successes travelled in search of the appropriate environment. It would include Paula Radcliffe, Liz McColgan, Linford Christie and Roger Black. One size has never fitted all, even if the current logic of centralising service support is self-evident. Minichiello would certainly agree with the latter.

If the Olympic athletics legacy is reinventing the wheel – replacing a system that has begun to work with one which can't cope with the kind of maverick talents who are often successful – then we have missed a trick.

Sheffield, faced with huge budget cuts, is considering the closure of Ennis's Don Valley training venue next autumn. "If it closes, we will find a way. In times of struggle, you eat grass." That, however, is what the lottery was supposed to eliminate. Britain's top Olympic athletics coach deserves better.

The Sheffield man reiterated a view which has long been a hobbyhorse of mine, one I have no shame in reiterating: "Coaching across all sport is incredibly undervalued in Britain," Minichiello said. "There is a desperate need for a coaches' association to address some of the issues and make coaching more professional: a model not too dissimilar from the league managers association in football, looking at the welfare of all coaches."

I would endorse that as overdue. And that really would be a legacy.

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