UK Athletics appoints 'the wolf' in hunt for future Olympic success
Neil Black is UKA's new performance director and he has a similarly formidable reputation to Charles van Commenee.
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The new UK Athletics performance director, Neil Black, looks across to the former
head coach Charles van Commenee.
They call Neil Black "the wolf", a reference to the character who disposes of dead bodies played by Harvey Keitel in Pulp Fiction, and it is under his watch as the newly appointed performance director that athletics in the UK will move forward to Rio 2016 and beyond. After four years of Charles van Commenee it seems unthinkable that any senior figure at UKA could be quite so charismatic, or fearsome, as the disciplinarian Dutchman but Black – whose first task will be to appoint a successor to the outgoing head coach – has already made quite an impression.
"I'll tell you some of my nicknames," said Black, a former physiotherapist who has been overseeing sports medicine and science at UKA since 2007, when asked to describe his personality. And so began one of the more bizarre athletics press conferences in recent times. "What am I?" asked Black. "Charles said it, I am harder than Charles, I am less compromising." It was the long jumper and Olympic gold medallist, Greg Rutherford, who coined the nickname "the wolf" for Black, who is also known as "the fixer" for getting things done.
Within an hour of the announcement being made, Black already had his own spoof Twitter account à la Charles van Comedy – complete with a werewolf style photoshopped picture – as British athletes unanimously added their voices of approval to cheer on the new addition to the management structure and UKA's first performance director since 2008 (the role was abandoned under Van Commenee).
Black, who says he is interested in learning lessons from British cycling as well as cricket to propel athletics forward, has a close relationship with many of Britain's star athletes. When Jessica Ennis injured her foot, ruling her out of the Beijing Olympics in 2008, it was Black who flew home with her on the plane and oversaw her rehabilitation; when the double Olympic gold medallist Mo Farah wanted to relocate to the US it was Black who travelled to Oregon, coordinated the arrangements and kept in touch with the set-up. Those achievements are what have earned him his reputation as a "fixer". "I've got to say watching Neil do a Skype massage with Mo from 3,000 miles away is one of the more bizarre experiences I've had in this job," said the chief executive, Niels de Vos.
"You will be struggling to find one member of the British team who has anything negative to say about him," said Van Commenee. But at least one athlete warned that the "harder than Charles" tag may yet temper those celebrations. On his appointment the Olympic bronze medallist heptathlete Kelly Sotherton tweeted: "Neil Black is tougher than a conker soaked in vinegar! I think he'll shock some athletes who think otherwise!" Indeed Black confirmed that it was he who had told Sotherton, in no uncertain terms, that she should retire and he seems keen to continue Van Commenee's uncompromising stance over the next five years.
Comparing his approach with Van Commenee, Black said: "I'm harder in the sense that I will push even further than he did. I want change more quickly ... I'm a little bit more patient and a little bit more mellow perhaps than Charles could be.
"Charles would go and say, 'You're underperforming,' and that's great for some and absolutely terrible for others. Some people love him for his directness and some people think he's a monster. I'll go and say, 'Tell me about your performance.' It will take a little bit longer but the end result is the same – they work out their performance isn't good enough."
Black believes one of his fortes is "clearing up mess" and a problem left behind from Van Commenee's regime is the messy situation concerning the triple jumper Phillips Idowu. In the build-up to the London Games the 33-year-old star did not have any direct communication with the head coach – Idowu refused to shake Van Commenee's publicly outstretched hand at the airport in South Korea following the world championships last year – and just days before the Games the head coach admitted he did not even know if an injured Idowu would turn up.
Idowu did appear but the Londoner billed as a major medal hope failed even to qualify for the final and the entire saga was seen as a poorly handled episode in the sport. Asked how he intends to improve relations with Idowu, Black said: "I've known Phillips for a long time and had a really positive working relationship with him all of that time. I don't see any reason why that would change. He's a world-class athlete, we want to support him to get back to full fitness and high-level performances, so that's the approach I will take. But Phillips will have to take the same responsibility for his performances as every other athlete … I'm really hopeful we can find a positive way forward."
Athletics background Former international middle-distance runner in 1970s, retired due to injury
Physiotherapy career Qualified in 1981. Began working with GB track and field team in 1990. Became the national lead for physiotherapy at the English Institute for Sport in 2002 before moving across to UK Athletics.
Roles at UK Athletics Moved to chief physiotherapist from November 2004 before becoming the lead in sports medicine and science in December 2007. Appointed as the new performance director in September 2012.