I was late. Snow had slowed traffic on the M1, and the satnav only takes you so far into Matlock. When I called to ask for help I was greeted with, “Where are you?” Straight to the point.
After listening to directions, I went an extra 200 yards and found the correct address. I turned up the long drive to Jack Hill Farm, where Joe Neville stood in the doorway. “Come in.”
The greatest coaches get the best out of players every year. Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United became a dominant force under his 27-year reign; NBA basketball saw Phil Jackson win 11 championships in 19 years with Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers. Regardless of how players changed, or styles adjusted under international influence, each coach found a way to highlight their players’ strengths and eradicate their weaknesses.
Joe Neville competed on the world stage from the early 1970s, and he’s been coaching world-class athletes for nearly as long. The success he had as a shooter has trickled down through several generations and today Joe is one of the most revered teaching minds on the planet. A lot of it has to do with his straight-to-the-point approach: “You’ve got to find a way to put the lead on the target.”
Once inside, the white-haired 70-year-old poured us each a cup of tea and we went through to the living room where a log fire was roaring. I warmed up, as did Joe, and we started talking about the glory days.
“I shot Sporting a few times but I wanted to shoot competitively, and there was nothing more competitive than the Olympics. Because of the 1980 Moscow boycott, a lot of us missed our chance, and it turned out that only the shooting team and one or two others stayed home. To train for more than four years, and then be told on the day that we can’t go, that made me really angry. I stopped shooting for a few years after that.”
Joe has every right to be angry. He barely missed a medal in Munich, reached a Commonwealth podium either side of Moscow, and competed against some of the greatest names in shooting. When he returned to the sport five years later, he found that it had lost its competitive edge. “I came back and won a Sporting shoot that easily had more than 100 people attending. The organiser handed me £15 and I thought, ‘What’s this?’ That was when events started introducing birds-only shooting and only a handful of people had entered money into the competition pot.”
Joe found a new outlet for his competitive nature when he turned to coaching: “I started working with Kevin Gill and one or two others, but I decided to travel to [what was then] Czechoslovakia and learn how to coach from Petr Málek, who went on to finish second in Skeet at the 2000 Olympics. I shot a round of Skeet for him and hit all 25, but when I spoke to him afterwards he said, ‘Your technique is crap’.”
He spent two weeks learning from the eventual silver medallist and soon began working with another for Trap in Ian Peel. “He was an organised person and I knew he would come away from Sydney with a medal. When the targets were perfect, Ian was unbeatable. At an earlier competition, I remember watching a few targets with him before he shot and they looked weak. I went to the trap house and asked, ‘Are we shooting Olympic Skeet or National? Because those targets are dropping.’ They started flying faster and it worked: Ian missed the first one but straighted the rest, and hit all 25 in the final to win.
“I never considered myself a coach with Ian – he was too good a shooter. I was an observation officer, just making sure he was doing everything right. One day at practice, I noticed he had a weird stance and his arm was at a different angle. I asked him what he was doing and he said, ‘Just checking you were observing properly is all.’”
With the success of a silver medallist to his name, Joe shifted his attention to another top flight international: Sarah Wixey. “She is mad. What a character. If there was a competition on Sunday, I’d hear from her on Thursday saying, ‘I can’t do this, I’m a crap shot. I’m useless’, and that was when I knew she was going to win.
“She should have won at the Olympics in 2004. I don’t know if I’ve ever told her but I think I’m to blame. My focus was with another shooter, and I let one of my assistants look after her in the resting area between rounds. He said something to her that changed her approach and that was it for her. I was livid, especially because the finalists fell apart that year. If Sarah had got to the final, she would have easily won gold.”
Throughout the interview, Joe would occasionally be interrupted, or stop it himself, to talk on the phone to the variety of young stars he coaches today. Three names on the Podium Potential list, released by British Shooting in January, feature on his talent roster. “I’m glad Mike Gilligan has got some funding. I felt like Rory Warlow was a bit embarrassed that he had certain things paid for him last year, but they’re good shooting partners.”
Amber Hill called him halfway through the day. “She’s been practising with her new gun, and says the trigger needs adjusting slightly.”
For shooters who perform well at Olympic and Commonwealth Games, they are famous for two weeks. Despite never attending either, the 16-year-old has bucked this trend and found fame, but Joe isn’t overly concerned: “She’s dealing with it well. I think she enjoys the spotlight and going to these events, but she doesn’t let it get to her.
“Amber was brought to me about two-and-a-half years ago, and she’s made big improvements since then. She’s got drive, and knows what she wants. Every time I see her she tells me what she wants to work on, and by the end of most lessons, she’s improved on that area.”
When asked about Amber’s chances at Rio 2016, it was the one time Joe didn’t go straight to the point with his answer. He paused for a moment: “When you reach the Olympics there are 30 people in your discipline who could win it. Shooting has never been at a better place, and shooters have never been better. It takes drive and focus from now until the final shot of the Olympics to make it, and each stage gets harder. Ian Peel is Caroline’s [Povey, Joe’s Trap shooting daughter] mentor, and he said to her when she first started shooting internationally that it takes five to 10 years to build an Olympic champion. They can’t expect to win it first time round, but with drive and focus they could all get there. When you’re in those situations you just have to do everything you can to put the lead on the target.”