One of the most successful partnerships in athletics happens to be far from a straightforward one, writes John Wragg
Think of Clough and Taylor, Redgrave and Pinsent, Torvill and Dean, AP McCoy on any horse you like, Mourinho and his ego, Toni Minichiello and Jessica Ennis-Hill can trade medals with any of them.
Their partnership is worth one Olympic gold, two world outdoor, a world indoors and a European outdoor title plus world silvers, indoor and out, and a Commonwealth bronze in 16 years together.
“Jess has bought a house in Sheffield, so she’s stuck with me now. She’s never getting rid,” says Minichiello.
The world title in Beijing is the latest entry on the CV, something that Minichiello says wasn’t planned and is a by-product of their preparation for the Olympics, but what happens after Rio?
Minichiello has seen Ennis-Hill mature from a nine-year-old when they first met to a wife, a mother and a world star.
“When Jess had the baby it was up to her whether she wanted to come back to athletics,” he says.
“It was interesting. If you look at Lee McConnell, when her little lad arrived, she said ‘No, that’s it, I’m done’. Which you can totally understand and was something I was prepared for with Jess.
“She was 26 when she won gold in London and she was like, ‘I’m kinda too young to retire’. Then the next big thing was the wedding. And then there was Reggie.
“Jess has bought a house in Sheffield, so she’s stuck with me now. She’s never getting rid” – Minichiello on Ennis-Hill
“It all might have gone out of the window like Lee McConnell. She was going to do the Commonwealth Games, but then the little one arrived and that changes the perspective totally. That’s something women understand. I don’t think blokes do.
“Jess might have turned round and said, ‘This little package is absolutely precious to me, no one can look after him like me, I’m finished.’
“Critically, it’s the family around Jess that has allowed her to go on. A family can help you get back in the sport or stop you because if they go, ‘Oh, you should be at home looking after the little one’ then that influences you.
“But Jess’s family has been so incredibly supportive and helpful beyond belief – her husband’s parents, her parents, her sister, a family network.
“Reggie has been down to training a few times, but when she brings him down there is somebody else with them to look after him. I tried bringing my daughter down and coach with just me and her and, while they are in the pram and asleep it works a treat, but as soon as they wake up, forget about it.”
Although a strong partnership in athletics, the pair are not close away from work.
“We get on but we don’t socialise together, we don’t discuss world politics and say, come round for a cup of tea and have a chat,” he says.
“At a holding camp I’ll get, ‘Where have you been?’, if we’ve agreed to meet up for dinner and I’m late. But I’ll then read a book in my room, she’ll do what she’s doing, but you know what? She needs her own space.
“But I can’t see us staying in touch a great deal when this is all over.”
Ennis-Hill is 30 in January. What happens next for the partnership, particularly if she wins a second Olympic gold in Rio, will be a conversation they will have.
There’s the temptation of a World Championships in London in 2017 and of completing the big medal set with a Commonwealth title on the Gold Coast the year after.
“I’ve never been to Australia. Come on Jess, keep going,” smiles Minichiello.
Their relationship is akin to husband and wife, dad and daughter, sometimes spikey, sometimes fun.
“We get on but we don’t socialise together, we don’t discuss world politics and say, come round for a cup of tea and have a chat” – Minichiello on Ennis-Hill
In Gotzis the year “fatgate” was at its height after Charles van Commenee indicated Ennis could be a bit more toned, Minichiello gave his version of events to us as forcefully and irreverently as he often does. As we then moved over to talk to Jess she sighed, very nearly rolled her eyes, and said in a resigned voice: “What’s he said now?”
Minichiello says Ennis-Hill is not hard to coach. She demands crisp, sharp, no-frills instruction and then follows it to the letter until it’s perfected.
“I decided I’d change once and become a more ‘open’ coach, having been told that’s the way of advanced coaching,” he says. “Asking the athlete what they think, you know.
“She looked at me and said ‘Are you for real?’ You are not open. You are the most stubborn person, you never listen to me or hear anything I say. When have you asked me anything?’
“So I thought for a minute and I said, ‘Long jump. How do you feel, what do you think about your foot?’ And she went, ‘Oh. I get it now. Every time you did that I just thought you don’t know what you are talking about and you are asking me for the answers.’”
Now they have a routine. Minichiello tells her what to do and she takes care of it.
So if she reigns in Rio, then what?
“There will be an assessment on the landscape ,” he says. “I think you take it one year at a time.
“When you are a kid and striving towards something, it’s about four-year blocks. When you’ve won the medals, the perspective changes to: what do I want to achieve now?
“Heaven forbid Jess doesn’t go to Rio, we might make very different decisions than if we go there and win. How old am I? What am I doing? What have I achieved? Do I need to do it all again?
“If somebody took the time and put us both on a sofa, and let the banter start, then we’d be a hit” – Minichiello
“When you consider it’s been 16 years of my dulcet tones, it’s like, ‘Do you want to do another winter? Do you want to go again? Do you want to go round the block once more?’ I don’t know is the short answer to that.
“But if Jess did win another Olympic gold I think it would be hard for her to continue. She would have to make the right decision for her. Or does she change event and go hurdling? But that is no less work.
“After Rio I’m going to have to make decisions for me as well, about what I’m doing, how I pay the bills. It will be one of those sit-down things when we decide.”
There’s something we haven’t mentioned: another double act, Morecambe and Wise.
“If somebody took the time and put us both on a sofa, and let the banter start, then we’d be a hit,” says Minichiello (Morecambe). People have seen us, you’ve seen us. It’s just me. I wind her up. She says, ‘Stop embarrassing me.’
“It’s a bit like your dad dancing at a wedding. And she says I’m cheesy. We should go on a talking circuit.”
What’s Graham Norton’s number?