BIGINTERVIEW: Craig Salmon talks to Preston’s UK Athletics’ departing endurance coach and former Olympic 5,000m Team GB star John Nuttall
John Nuttall has never been one to shy away from setting himself tough challenges during his long career in athletics.
As a young man he strained every sinew in his body to be the very best he could be as a middle and long distance runner.
And when he finally hung up his running shoes after a career which peaked when he was selected by Team GB in the 5,000m at the Atlanta Olympic Games in 1996, the former Preston Harrier was keen to pass on his knowledge and experience to the younger generation.
For the past decade, Nuttall has been working for UK Athletics as their specialist endurance coach at the National Performance Institute in Loughborough.
He has overseen the performance and development programmes of every elite endurance athlete in the UK – through two Olympic Games, Beijing 2008 and London 2012.
Perhaps his greatest moment as a coach arrived last year at the London Games when Mo Farah stormed to a historic double Olympic gold in the 5,000m and 10,000m.
But Nuttall is now set to leave all that behind and embark upon an exciting new challenge in the Middle East.
The 46-year-old has been asked to become the head coach of the Aspire Academy in Qatar.
His mission will be to identify the country’s most promising young talent and then attempt to turn them into elite performers – whether that will be in athletics or other sports such as football, table tennis and squash – by the time they graduate from the Academy.
“It’s not been an easy decision to take,” Nuttall said when he spoke to the Evening Post this week from his UK Athletics base at Loughborough.
“I really enjoy the job I am doing here at UK Athletics.
“At the end of the day, you have got to look at opportunities like these.
“Once I knew the ins and outs and the finer detail of the role, I just could not turn it down.
“It’s great opportunity for me to push on professionally in an exciting part of the world.
“Qatar has got the World Cup coming in 2022 and who knows whether there will be an Olympic bid 10 years further down the line.
“Sport is becoming more and more popular over there and it’s the chance for me to head up and manage an entire sporting development programme.”
Nuttall revealed he was first interviewed about the role late last year around the same time as UKA underwent a major restructure which saw Nuttall team-up with American distance coach Terrence Mahon.
Their remit was to oversee the UKA’s endurance programme through to the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio De Janeiro and then the 2017 IAAF World Championships in London.
“I was interviewed in Doha last year about the role around the same time we were going through the procedure of change here at UK Athletics,” Nuttall explained
“I was then contacted again in July asking if I was still interested in the role.
“I asked them to put the details of the role on paper and once I looked at it, I could not say no.
“So that’s it. Once I’ve finalised things – I will be staying on at the UKA until October – I’ll be packing my bags and moving to Qatar.
“I have thoroughly enjoyed my time at UKA, but after 10 years, I just felt it was the right time for a fresh challenge.”
Nuttall, who used to coach European 10,000m silver medallist Chris Thompson and is the current coach of Preston’s 2011 Eurpean indoor 3,000m champion Helen Clitheroe, admits he will always cherish the memories of his time working for UK Athletics.
“Highlight-wise, I look at it from two different views really,” he said.
“For me as an individual coach, Helen winning the European Indoors at the age of 37 was just a brilliant moment.
“I know how hard she worked for it and I don’t look at Helen as just someone I’ve coach, she’s a very good friend.
“From a team point of view and my role as the endurance coach, you can’t look further than the London Olympics.
“That half-a-hour period or so in the Olympic Stadium on that Saturday evening when Jessica Ennis and Greg Rutherford won gold followed by Mo, I don’t think we’ll see the like of it again.”
Nuttall conceded it will be a big wrench to be away from his family – including daughter Hannah and son Luke, but he is keen to stamp his mark on his new job.
He said: “At the moment the Academy is only open to boys but there are plans to develop a programme for girls as well,” he said.
“We will be going into schools and looking at children at the ages of 10 and 11 and identifying the best young athletes and sports people.
“They will then be invited to enrol on a scholarship programme at the Academy.
“For the first few years the scholars will take part in a generic sports programme.
“They will be assessed throughout those first years.
“It will be our job to work out which sports that they will be good at.
“In athletics for instance, you might get somebody who is a very good jumper, but not a good thrower, so their programme will be tailored to what they are good at.
“Most of the academy students won’t become elite athletes.
“You’re probably looking at 20% being great athletes or great sports people at the end of their scholarship.
“The rest will get a good education and will go down a different route when they leave.”