Grass Roots: Toni Minichiello, Jessica Ennis-Hill’s coach, fears Sheffield is lagging behind other big cities with lack of athletics investment and facilities

Toni Minichiello

Toni Minichiello

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Olympic winning coach Toni Minichiello believes the city of Sheffield has taken a step backwards with its athletic strategy, whilst others are striding ahead.

Minichiello - the coach of 2012 heptathlon queen Jessica Ennis-Hill - had previously voiced concerns, after the former sports minister Richard Caborn announced proposals for £55million to be spent on the Olympic Legacy Park on the former Don Valley site - without any plans for athletic involvement.

Great Britain's Jessica Ennis receives instructions from her coach Tony Minichiello as she competes in the High Jump in the Women's Heptathlon at The Olympic Stadium, London. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Friday August 3, 2012. See PA story OLYMPICS Athletics. Photo credit should read: Martin Rickett/PA Wire. EDITORIAL USE ONLY

Great Britain's Jessica Ennis receives instructions from her coach Tony Minichiello as she competes in the High Jump in the Women's Heptathlon at The Olympic Stadium, London. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Friday August 3, 2012. See PA story OLYMPICS Athletics. Photo credit should read: Martin Rickett/PA Wire. EDITORIAL USE ONLY

Minichiello, the 2012 UK coach of the year, now mainly coaches at the England Institute of Sport and Woodbourn Road Stadium - but is disappointed that Sheffield has fallen behind other leading cities.

“I’m devastated that Sheffield hasn’t moved forward despite success within the city,” the former civil servant said.

“I see it falling behind the likes of Leeds, Manchester and Birmingham and that just isn’t right.

“We should be in a better place than when I did athletics. Granted, I used to train on a cinder track at Hillsborough but I saw progression because we moved to Woodbourn and then Don Valley. But now we have gone backwards and are back at Woodbourn - which just isn’t as good as Don Valley and everyone is completely in the dark about any ‘so called improvements’ that will be made. I have no clue about what’s happening.

The now flattened Don Valley Stadium in Sheffield

The now flattened Don Valley Stadium in Sheffield

“We should be striving ahead and embracing the ‘Olympic legacy’, but instead we are going backwards and I am disgusted by the total mis-management for athletics in this city.”

Around £325,000 has been spent on improvements at the Woodbourn Road facility, including installing new floodlights, extra seating and making improvements to the track.

But Minichiello believes the facilities are still inadequate compares to Don Valley, which he says was closed due to poor decision making.

“It is going to be very hard this winter and who knows how awful weather will affect athletes,” he added.

“But one thing is for sure - there is no cover at Woodbourn, and we don’t even have a toilet to use.

“Something has to be done. We all know it may take a lot of time, but no-one is saying or doing anything to help improve the site.

“I accept that Don Valley was shut because it couldn’t be sustained but whose fault was that? It goes back to the planning and the architect who designed it - it was all about appearance, and not practicalities.

“It was constructed to look like Lord’s cricket ground, which is ridiculous. They didn’t plan for a functional, 365-days-a-year stadium, which surely should have been a priority - there was no strategy behind it.”

The enigmatic coach most notably trains decathlete John Lane, who came fourth in this summer’s Commonwealth Games, and Olympic gold medallist Ennis-Hill, who he believes may be affected by Sheffield’s outdoor facilities in the run up to Rio 2016.

“The current situation is certainly not going to help before the next Olympics,” he added.

“But, we always find a way. Jess is just coming back from giving birth and is working hard, but obviously conditions will affect what we can do. For example, if we get a windswept track at Woodbourn then of course that’s hard to train on and there is no cover to protect the athletes.

“But we have to get on with things as there is nothing we can do. It is just sad that the council have never looked at things from a strategic point of view and about a future.

“People may have expectations for the likes of Jess, but there is no pressure on her. There is a target you set yourself as an athlete and you have to work towards it. You either make it or you fall short.”

Minichiello also champions many of the city’s other sports and while generally accepting proposals for the Don Valley Olympic Legacy Park are a “good use for the site”, he believes money should be spent on existing structures - such as the Sheffield Ski Village, which burnt down in 2012.

“The Ski Village had an opportunity to be great but it didn’t get that opportunity, due to poor thinking and decisions,” he said.

“And the people who made those decisions should be held accountable, but no-one is. It should be being improved and put right - but instead officials just seem to be running away to the House of Commons.

“The council are not looking at what’s best for the city and representing their people. They are just representing their party which to me is disgraceful.

“With facilities like the Ski Village and Don Valley there should be an inquiry for the public - why has this been allowed to happen? But instead everything is done behind closed doors.”

Minichiello now hopes that, in the future, more leading sports figures speak out in the city - or the future of athletics, and the next generation, will greatly suffer.

“The sad thing is people seem to not want to critise or be critised so they stay quiet,” he continued.

“It fits that old saying- ‘for evil to succeed, it takes good men to do nothing’.

“If I don’t put my hand up and say ‘excuse me, that is not right’, then who will?”

“It is devastating because it is the next generation that will suffer the most. They will turn to other sports because athletics can’t cater for their needs.

“I have been told by leading figures in the city that I shouldn’t raise my opinions and concerns but where is the fairness in that? Someone needs to stand up to protect the sport’s future.”