THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

Stephen Wagg describes how British clubs are beginning to overcome their traditional hostility to the appliance of science

The current denigration of Glenn Hoddle is as  predecessors Robson and Taylor, but, quite by accident, it has thrown up a matter of some interest: football’s relationship to science. Hoddle has, on the one hand, been persistently criticised for employing a “faith healer”, yet, on the other, for allowing his players to be given Creatine, an ameno acidic powder thought to aid short, high energy movement and delay fatigue.

Glenn can’t win. One moment he’s importing some pre-scientific witch figure into the England camp to do some hocus pocus; the next he’s letting scientists tamper chemically with Our Boys. But the Hod In Drug Shock routine is far from untypical of the English football world’s relationship, historically, to science; for the most part, this world has shunned outsiders and “so-called experts”. There are a number of reasons for this.

Modern sport scientists treat both the physical and the mental. Physiologists are advising on the effect of this substance or that on the performance of the sporting body, biomechanists are advising sports people on such matters as how best to run and how to avoid injury and sport psychologists are helping sports teams to gel as units. Tennis players, golfers, rugby clubs, canoeists, cricketers and rifle shooters are using these skills; English football is dipping its toe in the water.

There is an irony here. If science aims to procure better sports results by rational planning, then British football people were among the first to adopt such an approach. Many of earliest football coaches, for example, were British. They were prophets without honour in their own country, however, and could only find work abroad. For example, a Scot called Jimmy Robertson went to Hungary in 1911 to coach MTK Budapest and was succeeded in the job by Jimmy Hogan, an Englishman. Hostility to coaching in England had to with the complex, but ultimately class-based nature of the game. Amateur teams refused all tactical preparation – indeed, when the leading amateur club Corinthian Casuals was founded in 1882, it pledged to compete for no prizes of any description. In professional football, coaching was seen as infringing the masculine ethos of a working-class game that had grown organically out of the backstreets of industrial England. 

But this ethos was as much as anything to exclude outsiders. After all, interwar football managers were not against scientific preparation in principle. Herbert Chapman (Huddersfield and Arsenal), for example, wrote of the need to “organise victory” and that “these born footballers, as we may call them, are rare”. Frank Buckley (Blackpool and Wolverhampton) shared this view: he engaged a psychologist from a local further education college to work with the Wolves players, whom, in a famous incident of 1935, he claimed to have had injected with “monkey secretions”.

After the Second World War, there was growing consternation at the English League clubs about the possible incursion of alien football planners. At the FA Stanley  Rous inaugurated coaching courses in 1934 and this was followed, three years later, by the first PE teachers’ certificate (at Loughborough College). Among professional players, sympathy (indeed, demand for) coaching grew, but so did animosity toward “the PE brigade” who might compete with them in the post-playing job market. 

This animosity was fuelled by the popular press and most of it came down on the head of Walter Winterbottom, England team manager (and FA Director of Coaching) from 1946 to 1962. Popular press portrayal of Winterbottom changed perceptibly after England’s defeat by Hungary in 1953. Having barely mentioned him in previous reportage, football writers now began to paint a picture of Winterbottom as a theory-bound boffin chalking on a blackboard while the Brave Lions of the England team looked away in embarrassment.

What is interesting about this early bout of England manager-bashing are the terms of indictment. Having predicted in 1953 that English spontaneity would be too good for Hungarian communist regimentation, the popular press now accused Winterbottom of insufficient preparation. In the time since managers, both at club and national level, have frequently been accused of adopting too little, or the wrong, tactics. There has been intermittent breast-beating about our “kick and rush”and “long ball” game and the word “technique” has assumed a central place in the national football vocabulary. The tacit assumption remained, however, that improvements must be made without recourse either to “PE types” or to foreigners.

The Premiership has definitely sharpened the contradictions here. A huge number of different nationalities have been attracted to play in England, most of them citing an affection for the helter skelter of English football. However, many of these players, especially those who have played in Italy, expect to be given expert fitness training – something not provided by most English clubs. For example, when Christian Gross became manager of Tottenham in 1997 he tried to bring Fritz Schmidt to White Hart Lane as fitness trainer. When Schmidt was refused a work permit, the job went to Kunle Odetoyinbo, a lecturer in sports physiology at Roehampton Institute in London, who had previously worked as a consultant with Southampton. 

Kunle has been in post now for six months and is responsible for all the physical preparation of Tottenham players. Has he been given the Winterbottom “boffin” treatment? “No,” says Kunle, “the players are very receptive. They are given harder work to do, but they say they’ve never felt so fit. In pre-season they used to throw their guts up after two weeks. This time we gave them a seven-week build-up.” And now, if the players do throw up, it won’t be red meat; Kunle vets the menu at the team hotel and it’s strictly rice or pasta.

There will, in all probability, be more science in English football from now on, for three reasons. Firstly, players have been developing a more professional consciousness since the 1960s and most of them now want to talk to anyone who might help to make them better at what they do. This doesn’t apply, however, to the glitterati of the Premiership. Eddie Saunders, centre half for Woking in the Football Conference, spent time at various League clubs: “I was surprised how little help I got at some places. They don’t teach you. It’s just the usual stuff like ‘Get tight’, ‘Hit the channels’ and all that.” Eddie gets his degree in Sports Science this year. Some of his friends have already graduated and are busy sending around their CVs.

Secondly, any possible aid in the massively important business of pursuing success at the highest level in football will now be considered. Andrew Head, Kunle Odetoyinbo’s former colleague at Roehampton Institute, says: “Every little edge they’ll go for, and sport science is relatively cheap. It’s critical mass: as soon as three or four Premiership teams employ sport scientists they’ll all do it. They’ll follow Europe.”

Which brings us to the third point – the growing infatuation in English football culture with the notion of European managerial sophistication. Europe has always represented modernity to the English football world – low-cut boots with plastic soles, new playing formations and the European Cup all originated on the continent – and was often defiled because of it: Europe has been a good place to drop your Union Jack boxer shorts. But now the widespread perception is that Europe is where the knowledge necessary to take a club to the top is gained. And European football knowledge is seen essentially as scientific knowledge; indeed some European football coaches have doctorates. No-one typifies this better than Arsène Wenger. A combination of his team’s achievements, his French accent and his professorial manner invests everything he says with profundity. 

Contrast this with the steady, Nice-Bloke-But eroding of Roy Evans’s reputation at Liverpool. Until a couple of years ago, Evans’s association with the mystique of the “Boot Room” was greatly in his favour. Now it’s seen as local, traditional and stick-in-the-mud and a European manager with the appropriate scientific aura has been hired to help him.

From WSC 142 December 1998. What was happening this month

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