In the close season of 1966, Middlesbrough Football Club appointed Jim Headrige to the club’s backroom staff.
Such appointments are more common now at this time of year across football, and also often happen with the appointment of a new manager.
In the last three years, half of the Premier League teams have either changed their doctor or physio on the back of this.
However, back to Jimmy, he was born in Glasgow in 1939 and Jim served in the Parachute Regiment during his national service.
He played professional football for Clydebank and it was at this time that he first got interested in the treatment of sports injuries.
Forced to retire at quite a young age with a severe knee injury, Jim wrote a letter to Middlesbrough’s medical officer and vice-chairman Dr Neil Phillips, asking if there were any positions for an assistant trainer.
His own injury, he wrote, had given him a great interest in the treatment of injuries and he was now seeking employment in that sphere, with a football club.
Harold Shepherdson had now become assistant manager to Stan Anderson and Micky Fenton had retired leaving physiotherapist George Wright was the only member of the treatment room staff.
Doctor Phillips replied to Jimmy’s letter, informing him they may be interested in offering him a position and inviting him to attend an interview.
He and Wright spent a day at the club with Jimmy and although he had no experience, they were both very impressed with him as a person.
More importantly, Wright believed he could work well with Jimmy on a day-to-day basis and was prepared to act as a tutor and train him in the ways of a qualified physiotherapist. For his part, Jimmy was keen to learn.
Doctor Phillips recommended to the board that Jimmy be employed as the reserve team trainer. It was one of the best appointments he made at the club.
Jimmy’s enthusiasm for learning every detail of all aspects of sports medicine was exceptional and George was experienced and well qualified to teach him – the two worked well together.
With Doctor Phillips as well, the club had three staff looking after and caring for players’ health, injuries and overall welfare.
It provided the Middlesbrough manager and players with exceptional medical service and introduced a strategy of care for all players, routine medical examinations, clinical examinations and heart and lung function tests included.
Blood tests would be carried out at regular intervals, immunisations and vaccinations would routinely be kept up to date. Prevention of injury was the focus, with training warm-up sessions to include stretching exercises – a novelty in those days.
Injured players would have a personalised, active, full-time programme of rehabilitation. No injured players would have afternoons off, they would be in for treatment. Special diets for the players were introduced and stretch routines – unheard of at the time.
Jimmy went on to complete all the necessary qualifications in both coaching and physiotherapy. After two years he was promoted to first-team trainer and physiotherapist.
The programme notes as supporters will have read: ‘George Wright, our trainer/ Physiotherapist, has taken up an appointment with Arsenal F.C. and takes with him our best wishes for the future. To his successor, Jim Headrige, we offer our congratulations on a well-deserved promotion. A quiet Scot, Jim has impressed Manager and players alike with his approach to all aspects of the game and we are confident that with his qualifications and football know-how the “back-stage” is in competent hands.’
He worked on injured players seven days a week, morning and afternoon to help them get much closer to match fitness.
They also had a first-class medical centre consisting of an emergency medical room, a private consulting room and separate treatment area with a remedial gymnasium.
In 1966, the building of such a medical centre at a football ground was considered quite revolutionary. So much so that Dr Phillips was asked by the FA to write an article on its development for their magazine.
It was also suggested to him other clubs could follow the development.
During his time at Middlesbrough, a young apprentice Alan Smith broke his leg and whilst out injured and being guided back to fitness by Headrige, he also developed an insight into the treatment and management of injuries.
The Scot encouraged Alan to become a trainer and physio and to complete the necessary courses.
He went on to serve Darlington, Blackpool, Rotherham United and Sheffield Wednesday, along with England U21s and the senior team at four major tournaments.
Jim had, by this time, become one of the main tutors for the FA and trained many a physio both professional and in non-league, myself included.
The backroom staff in a football club not only have specific tasks but also plays a part must also create a dressing room-atmosphere which win lose or draw produces a spirit of determination so important if a club is to achieve success.
It must also ensure that things run smoothly in all conditions like his Gaffer Jack Charlton said following the 1973/74 promotion year.
“I told Jimmy Headrige that I wanted to know everything that was going on. Some people think that managers don’t need to know everything but I wanted to know the lot and often he would come up to me and say I think you should have a word with such and such a player or this player needs sorting out. That way everything is nipped in the because I knew what was going on.”
He would later move on to the United Arab Emirates to take a physio coaching role, before returning to England and joining Bolton Wanderers in 1978.
In 1981, very soon after Ron Atkinson joined Manchester United, Jim was headhunted and it was one of Atkinson’s best signings when he persuaded Jim to move to Manchester United.
Atkinson described him as the best in the business and he had previously tried to take him to West Bromwich Albion.
Speaking exclusively to The Football Pink, Atkinson said: “I worked with Jim on lots of coaching courses and things like that and he was more or less the physio that trained the physios.
“I remember trying to persuade him once, he might have been at Bolton at the time, and I tried to persuade him to come to West Bromwich.
“He said, ‘No’. He was happy with Ian Greaves and he said, ‘The only club I think I’d go to would be Manchester United.’
“Now, obviously, when I got the United job, he was one of the first names I thought of because I had to get a new physio and subsequently, when he came, he captured everybody straight away.”
In the words of Jimmy’s wife, Margaret, it was “the fulfilment of a lifetime ambition”.
Sadly, though, in just a few short weeks, and days before the new season was due to start, he collapsed whilst working with the injured players and sadly died aged 42.
Atkinson explained: “Everybody was fully aware about him and then we had that unfortunate incident the week before the season was due to start when he was taking a warm-up session.
“He was taking [Gordon] McQueen and [Martin] Buchan, who had slight injuries, he was taking them on a bit of remedial and I think the last few words I spoke to him, I said, ‘Are they going to be alright?’ He said, ‘They’ll be fit for Saturday.’
“He went to the top end of the training ground, I could hear screaming and I actually thought McQueen had done something and then when I ran up, I found out Jimmy had had a heart attack and collapsed.
“He was dead then, yeah. So, that was a great tragedy. I’d never had that before.
“The night before, I’d got all the wives and staff to a hotel, we’d all had dinner together because we had three or four new staff members.
“I thought it was a good way of getting everybody together and his wife and daughter were still in the hotel waiting for him to pick them up and take them home, back to Blackpool.
“So, that wasn’t the most pleasant of things.”
He left Margaret and three children Karen, Lynn and Gary. Jimmy Headrige was regarded as a pioneer in the treatment of injuries, rehabilitation and fitness, also he helped develop a widespread interest in injury prevention.
Atkinson said of Headrige: “He was always there when the coaching courses were on in case there was a problem, but also, when there was a physiotherapy course on, he was very influential – he had a big part to play.
“At the time, we were all invariably on courses – particularly in the summer – or you were having get-togethers and it became a well-known fact that there was nobody better. He was the number one.
“He had a great personality. We went on a pre-season tour to Norway and Finland and he was one involved with the players.
“The players took to him very easy. They liked him very much because he had a great way of going and he had a good sense of humour as well – which is important in that job.
“The players had taken to him great, really.”
In 2015, I was able to recognise him when his family was presented with a posthumous award by The Football Medical Association for Jimmy’s outstanding contribution to football medicine.
Receiving the award from Ron Atkinson was a poignant moment for all. The fact that the entire room rose to give a standing ovation as the award was presented said it all.
There is no question that for many, not least Jim’s family, this was the highlight of the conference awards evening. It was a fitting tribute as well that the FMA recognised a colleague who is “gone but not forgotten”.