UK Athletics turns to 'fixer' Neil Black

By Tom FordyceChief sports writer, BBC Sport

So we go from Charles in Charge to The Wolf.

UK Athletics' decision to replace the outgoing Charles van Commenee with a new structure headed by Neil Black has already provided some nice potential headlines. Now to see if it works.

First the Wolf. Black, unveiled on Thursday as UKA's new performance director to oversee both the appointment and work of a new head coach, owes his nickname to high jumper Martyn Bernard and 400m runner Andrew Steele.

Why? Because 53-year-old Black, promoted from his previous role as head of sports medicine and science, has gained a reputation as an uber-fixer on par with Harvey Keitel's character in Pulp Fiction.

Keitel could famously help assassins dispose of awkward dead bodies. Black's new responsibilities may not go quite that far, but in following the charismatic, controversial Van Commenee he could yet end up with blood on his hands.

"I am harder than Charles," he told the media gathered at Birmingham's Alexander Stadium. "I am less compromising, and I am probably more frustrated than Charles by having to go slower than we wanted to go."

The two men might appear quite different: Van Commenee the headline-grabbing outsider, brought in to shake things up, Black the long-time UKA insider promoted to ensure a smooth and rapid succession. But they are absolutely united in their beliefs about where British athletics needs to go, and how it should get there.

Black has worked alongside Van Commenee for the past four years, sitting in the same office and speaking to him every day when elsewhere.

"I cannot think of anyone at the top end of British athletics who is more respected than Neil Black," said the man making his farewells.

"If I were ever the CEO of an organisation, Neil Black is the first guy I would recruit. I am 100% happy that he is the right man, within the right structures, to push on with the next phase of the 10-year-plan we devised together back in 2008, and I'm confident there is more to come."

Both men share an obsession with accountability and targets, and the consequences of failure in either area.

"The thing that's incredibly important for me," Black told the BBC, "is athletes taking more responsibility for their own performances, and understanding the consequences of not performing."

Where they differ is in how they might get there.

Even at his valediction Van Commenee remained characteristically obdurate. Asked to reflect on any mistakes he might have made while in charge, he shrugged. "I think I compromised too much. For that reason we could have done better.

"Traditionally, there was no pressure on coaches in this country. I put some pressure on, but I think we lost some medals because of coaching."

Black, liked and respected by coaches around the country who were sometimes unimpressed with Van Commenee's combative approach and decision to bring in foreign coaches on big salaries to key positions, is likely to be a little more patient, a touch more conciliatory.

He has some sizable tasks in his new in-tray, not least picking his new head coach (UKA's Kevin Tyler remains a strong favourite) and rebuilding the bridges with triple jumper Phillips Idowu that had been detonated under the old regime. With a home World Championships in London to follow the next Olympics in Rio, he also has to ensure he hits his own medal targets more successfully than his old boss.

Black began his career at UKA as a physiotherapist, treating such luminaries as Sally Gunnell, Katharine Merry, Denise Lewis and Jessica Ennis.

His approach today is still informed by that background - evaluate a problem, make a diagnosis, come up with the plan to fix it and then communicate that.

Whoever he appoints beneath him will have neither the same power nor profile as Van Commenee. But he will need to be both an acolyte of the Dutchman and an ally to his successor.

"We've made some enormous steps forward," says Black. "But there are still lots of things where we can hold our hands up, identify where things went wrong."

UKA is keen to differentiate Black's job from that of the last man to hold the same title, Dave Collins, whose regime from 2004-2008 is not looked back on with great fondness.

He will oversee the Olympic and Paralympic performance plans and focus on providing the best possible support networks for athletes; the head coach will be the one in daily close contact with the athletes and coaches themselves.

He will also begin with the good wishes of many of those stars, the majority of whom have either been treated by him or witnessed what he can do close up.

"Glad to see Mr Neil Black coming in as performance director," tweeted Paula Radcliffe. "He understands the sport on many levels. I hope his choice of head coach matches his passion."

World 400m hurdles champion Dai Greene was in agreement - "I'm sure he will be very popular among the UKA team" - while European Indoor 3,000m champion Helen Clitheroe described him as a "top man, who knows the sport, with good people skills and a good runner too".

Van Commenee will remain in position for the next few months, leading UKA's review of the last four years rather than planning for the next Olympic cycle.

He insisted again on Thursday that the only reason for his refusal to renew his contract was GB's failure to make his medal target of eight at the London Olympics.

"I have said from day one that if you don't hit targets there are consequences. I've just done what I said.

"I had no choice. It's best for British athletics that I move sidewards and somebody else will take over. It's in better hands with Neil."

Despite that, there remain suspicions that he had decided long ago he would go, tired by the intense demands of the job and sometimes isolated within the sport.

And then? Where will Charles take charge next? Where else in the world might this unique gun for hire end up?

"First I will relax, eat properly and go to bed on time. Then, hopefully, in the future lots of people are interested in what I have to offer; that's not the case at the moment.

"The thing I'm most proud of is the culture we've set together. It's a high-performance culture which enabled us to get rid of the cynicism and negativity around our sport. There's more confidence and belief."


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