By Joe Miller
Throughout my time in the beautiful game, I have met some interesting and some not some so interesting.
From my early days at my first club Bishops Stortford, the manager was the very respected Ted Hardy, a no holds barred, straight-talking Londoner, renowned for him never give up and you’re not beaten until the final whistle attitude.
His ethos was run, tackle, train hard and then train even harder.
He was the Blues manager that won the last-ever Amateur Cup.
He would demand from his players and staff alike 100% commitment, he was also a stickler for timekeeping, too, one thing he shared in common with my dad. If we met the team bus at 9am, you were late at your peril. I’ve known Ted tell the driver to pull away from the ground two or three players short, only to park around the corner.
Players would eventually board the bus shamefaced and breathless, apologise for being late. Ted would retort, “What’s the point in you travelling today, you’re knackered running for a bus, heaven help us if your opponent’s quicker than you today!”
Needless to say, nobody missed the bus too much after that example.
Ted’s Successor at Bishops Stortford some eight years later was one of his protégés; a young and very ambitious coach called Trevor Harvey. He was one of the new breed of coaches, a non-player who aspired to something in the game. Trevor had a very successful time at the Blues, they won the inaugural FA Trophy with ex-Arsenal and England player John Radford up front, and an unknown guy seen on Hackney marshes called Terry Sullivan who scored the only goal.
The following season we had a great run in the FA Cup, reaching the third round away to Middlesbrough, who were then managed by the legendary Malcolm Allison. 2- 0 down with 15 minutes to go, two corners on, and we were on level terms thanks to centre-half Richard Bradford, a mild-mannered school teacher who wouldn’t say boo to a goose! At least that was until he crossed the line, and then he changed into one of the meanest no 5s I’ve ever seen (the polar opposite of his predecessor John Still who went on to be a very successful manager).
In the replay, I crossed swords, so to speak, with Big Mal as we scored just before half-time. On the way to the dressing rooms, Mal pushed me out of his way. Not being one to stand down I said: “Who do you think you’re pushing?!” His response went something like, “You, you carrot crunching b******d!” Now, just because I hailed from a small market town in deepest Hertfordshire was no excuse to cast aspersions upon my life, or worse still my parentage! So, I told him to go forth and multiply, but rather less politely! Little did I know that 15 years later, he would arrive as the new manager of Fisher Athletic. I had been offered the job at Southend United, and Mal came in as the next big thing at Fisher – he was going to make them the biggest club in South London.
After ten pre-season games, the first two league games, one away to Cheltenham Town which was a 0-0 draw, and a weekend staying at Lilleshall before an August bank holiday gave a game at Telford. We were lucky to lose only 3-1.
The myth about Big Mal’s cigar and champagne lifestyle was no longer a myth.
Even after an away pre-season friendly, it was a 10inch cigar and bottle of champagne on the team coach. A glimpse of things to come.
A guy called Roger Spry came in as a fitness guru. Not a single pre-season run for the players and they were crawling across the pitch like commando training assault course style, plus punch bags.
On the Sunday evening, all the squad were enjoying themselves in the bar playing darts and snooker with no reports of any injuries. At 11:45pm, there was a knock on my door by two players who loved attention and had got wind they might not be in the starting XI. They declared that they had hamstring injuries (surprise, surprise!).
I told them to go to bed as they had reported nothing on Saturday night, nor the training session Sunday afternoon. Unbeknown to me, Mal had sent them. They both played on the Monday no problems.
Training session following Wednesday evening I gave my pre-session report being a clean bill of health. Mal told me I wasn’t in his plans and he couldn’t work with me. So, I told him I thought that he was a flash so and so, especially as only 10 days earlier he had talked me out of taking the job at Southend. Ironically, our final pre-season game was against Southend, I spoke to David Webb and apologised for changing my mind.
His response still resonates with me to this day, “I’m sorry you’re not joining us but a word of advice, watch your back with Big Mal.” Apparently, he had been trying to oust Dave only a few days before arriving at Fisher. Proves one thing in my mind as Theo Foley said once, the game is the biggest whore in the world. Some may say I am a cynic, but hey, life throws things at you!
I was sacked by Big Mal the following Wednesday, as mentioned in a newspaper article next day, claiming an Allison revolution at Fisher, and then offered a job by Watford on Friday the day after. A rollercoaster and no mistake.
My boss there was a wonderful football man called Ernie Whalley, both he and his brother Tom had been players that I watched as a kid. He was a soft-spoken Welshman, an absolute dream to work with. He would ask me whether a player was fit to play and continue. If you gave Ernie an honest opinion, he respected it, I don’t ever recall him not listening to my opinions.
We had some decent players in our squad: David James, Mark Gardner, Euan Roberts, Jason Drysdale, Chris Pullen, to name just a few, they all went on to have good careers, some at International level.
From my humble beginnings at Bishops Stortford, I started with the youth team as a physiotherapist at Orient, (my boss was the ex-West Ham player Pat Holland). Pat had the same great work ethic, game aspirations and habits given to him by the great Ron Greenwood. Playing the West Ham way didn’t always work, but it showed me that standards are set and where possible it should be adhered to. There was one youth team game against Arsenal, and there was a lean-looking kid with a definite on-field presence. He just had something about him, and Patsy said to me, he’s going to play for England one day and have a great career. The player was Tony Adams. Form is temporary but class is permanent.
One Friday afternoon in early September, I got a phone call from George Graham asking me to meet him to discuss a position at Millwall. Apparently, his player Bill Roffey, who he had signed from the O’s had recommended me.
A week later, I started at The Den. After about a month, we were on an away trip and George’s customary number two was Theo Foley. I sat in the hotel bar chatting, and George said to me: “I’m not going to tell you how to do your job, or you wouldn’t be here. Just 98% of players have the capacity to screw you, the other 2% will.“ This has stuck with me ever since. You don’t have to love them, but do like them if they’re honest.
Alas, many are not honest and think only of themselves. It’s even worse now with social media. George was immaculate in his dress and that reflected in his preparation for games, too, meticulous to a fault. Nothing was ever left to chance in every detail, there was a purpose to everything he organised. Away travel was the same, all players were allowed, if they wanted, one-half pint of beer or a glass of wine. That’s the limit. It was his mantra, but don’t lose or you will be dry for the rest of the season. Players respected it.
No player was allowed to skip breakfast. We had to make sure they were all down for breakfast by half ten – that was his usual good night comment. Success is built on standards, discipline and mutual respect.
The facilities at The Den were basic: an ice machine that leaked and worked only on the provision that you kept it half-full at most. The only electro-medical equipment was an old shortwave machine with a set of diathermy pads which had been harbouring dust for at least five years.
George had just had the gym revamped so at least I had the equipment to keep players ticking over, and even better a good base for efficient indoor rehab. I loved working with the players whether it was on weights, beams, medicine balls, skipping ropes or benches. My basis was if 10% of your body is injured, we keep the other 90% in tune.
I recall the endless hours in the gym with the injured players on the weights, core work, using cones for figure-eight runs, countless terraces, laps of the pitch on the red grass around the perimeter, walks to Greenwich baths for a ‘new idea’ of player aqua aerobics. We could walk unhindered by wannabe fans, albeit players did sign the occasional autograph.
I pushed the players to keep a good level of fitness, spent many an extra afternoon session in Greenwich Park on stamina and speed work. Sooner or later you get a nickname from the players, I got the name of Mengele, as my Initials were JM. This was due to the Nazi war criminal Josef Mengele who had just been found somewhere in South America. The players hated the way I trained and pushed them. But It was a grudging sign of respect. We both knew that when they went back to the squad, they wouldn’t break down. In fact, they would return on a par to the squad fitness levels. No stats, GPS trackers, or excessive training personnel. Just good old fashioned training and rehab, learned from those well spent weeks at Lilleshall.
George left to take the Arsenal job. His successor was the complete opposite, John Docherty took over halfway through pre-season training but reserve team boss Roger Cross and myself had already been proactive in our approach, carrying on with our previous boss’ ethos. Theo and I used to go down to the opposition ground, lay out all the kit, the coach driver was invaluable and loved this part of his job. He was a vital part of our team.
The Doc came in and it was soon clear his ways were completely different. Away travel was a real eye-opener, 75 minutes late leaving the ground, meant 90 minutes late arriving at the hotel, and a rushed reception and room allocation, I had been used to allocating shared rooms list to the hotel on Thursday prior, with a list of room numbers listed on the dressing room notice board so that the players could just check-in. The Doc stopped that, he thought it wasn’t necessary.
“Preparation is key”
The Doc also stopped the morning pre-match preparation of taking the kit to the ground. This was one of the few occasions on which you can meet your counterpart and exchange views etc. Also, you get a chance to look at the pitch and relay opinions on footwear, either studs or moulded boots etc…
The Doc’s reason for stopping the kit preparation was “I don’t want you leaving the hotel, a player might receive some attention.” On one such away trip to Bradford City, a player had allegedly ‘slipped’ in the shower and hurt his adductor muscles… Imagine this scenario: a player laying on his bed writhing in agony, having apparently having slipped in the shower. I assessed him and obtained some ice from the hotel kitchen. I informed the manager of the situation. As a result, the player didn’t play. In fact, he was on the injury list for five weeks. When the truth finally emerged it transpired that the said player had been involved in some sexual gymnastics with one of the hotel staff (his subterfuge being well aided by a number of his teammates).
The Doc’s open management style meant that players were allowed breakfast room service and not the disciplined pattern of George. Obviously when I said to the manager, “If the players were allowed carte blanche to have breakfast if and when they felt like it, this type of thing is going to happen.” Suffice to say my opinion wasn’t well received. You can manage the odd tweak to regimes, but laxity in discipline leads to abuse and problems.
Obviously, not all players are the same. There are some you can trust and those that you just instinctively know will let you down. I guess you can forgive the odd peccadillo if it doesn’t impact the team as a whole.
The players of today seem more inclined to advertise their exploits on social media, a curse in my opinion.
However, you must lead by example to determine standards. George, immaculate and disciplined; Ernie Whalley regimental in his prep; Pat Holland a disciple of Ron Greenwood; all were all ultra-professional and provided an exemplary standard.
At this point, away travel was now becoming something of a farce. The Doc would still be in the bar at 1:45am, asking for a morning call at 10am, to be repeated at 10:45am and 11:30am. He would finally emerge from his room at midday, bleary-eyed wearing a Cambridge Utd beanie hat with a cigar butt hanging out of his mouth. The complete antithesis to my previous immaculate well prepared disciplined boss. Standards are there for a reason, and to me, they are cast in stone.
I was usually in bed by 11pm, up at 7am with a cup of tea, followed by a 15-minute run, and down for breakfast by 9am. This was my time for reflection.
The relationship between the manager, physiotherapist and the players is based upon trust. The manager needs to know that he can rely on players to return from injury without breakdown and most importantly, the players have to have faith in their physiotherapist.
Depending on injury, physiotherapist and player had to spend a lot, or a little time together – a rapport had to be built with each other. The physio learned what made a player tick and became a multi-faceted part of his life, from the early stage of treatment to the subsequent rehab back to playing.
Nowadays, of course, you have at least six people involved, dietician, sports psychologist, conditioning coach, strength & conditioning expert, not to mention the analysis export. Overkill in my opinion, and an opportunity for an ego to flourish, allowing existences to be justified. This is only my opinion, but I think a valid one.
Being a physiotherapist, we have the opportunity to see players on a daily basis, and over the years have become pretty good judges of character. We don’t build up too many long-term friendships with players due to the nature of the beast. Players move on, and we only meet again as opposition. The friendships that remain are in my opinion with our peers, a few ex-players who we bump into occasionally, or those that speak to you at golf days etc.
Big Mal didn’t appreciate input regarding a players nature when offered to him. I gave him my opinion as part of my role as team physiotherapist on the two late-night hamstring scenarios, it was truthful and based on the experience of the individual.
I recall Millwall signing a former player in the first summer of the Doc. The club medic had made his report, and his recommendation was that we should not sign the said player. We gave our report to the manager, which he read, passed it to the chief scout. There were raised eyebrows, and the manager thanked us for the report but the player had already been signed 15 minutes ago.
The said player had been a crowd favourite in his previous spell, won the FA Youth Cup with likes of Sheringham, Sansome, Roberts, Martin, all England youth players too. Clearly, the Doc needed a marquee signing. One week into his training the player received a calf injury, then a hamstring injury, followed by lumbar-sacral problems.
Evidence enough which vindicated the club medic by early March; the player had spent more time with me for physio rather than the squad.
One Saturday before a game, I was asked by the chairman, “When is, ‘so and so’ going to be fit?” I gave a considered and honest answer being “Mr Chairman personally I don’t think he will ever be fit enough to play at this level, and Dr Baron will tell you the same.” My comments didn’t go down too well but it was the truth.
The manager proceeded to then ignore me for a week, and the player made a handful of substitute appearances until the end of the season. At the end of the season, I left over contract disputes (read into that what you will).
My successor Peter Melville, who I knew from his Cambridge United connections, sent the said player to Lilleshall for a fortnight, and then to the sports physiologist Dr Craig Sharp.
Their combined opinions made very interesting reading. In summary, it read, “You can take a 28-year-old, moderately fit supporter from your terraces and within one month he could achieve the level of fitness that ‘Mr *******’ enjoys.”
Honesty is possibly not always the best policy perhaps, but too many people ‘fudge’ answers. Cover up and cheating will eventually bite you on the bum.
With injury scenarios that require procedures by the club surgeon/specialist, I always made a point of being in theatre for the op. Not only to enhance my knowledge and to have an appreciation of the procedure generally but to know what in practice was deemed necessary to any player. Players have a right, in my opinion, to know what happened in theatre.
Rehab would be discussed with the surgeon and the club doctor. Programme determined and explained to the player, aims and expected outcomes. I never said to a player “Do it because I say so.” That’s definitely counterproductive. Encourage players in respect of rehab – rehab can be tedious but also enjoyable with encouragement and support even if the players having an off-day. I have had some very good bosses in the game, and some not so clever.
With the experience gained over the years, you tend to get to know players quite well.
The ones that would run through a brick wall, ones that need an arm around them, and the ones that beat their chest and say, “Come on boys we are in this together” (they’re about as reliable as a Reliant Robin in the Le Mans 24-hour race).
A good dressing room should have a mixture of players, those that, if you are in a corner, you would want by your side, and then the chest beaters you definitely would not. I’ve been in dressing rooms that have been a good, honest unit, and some that have been positively toxic with cliques, and one or two players that are a bad influence on the weaker-willed guys, like the pied piper dragging people into the sewer following their retrograde ways. If the manager doesn’t evict them, they will get him the sack.
The new kids on the block coming into the game after just two years at university are, in my opinion, diluting the craft knowledge and ethos of their peers. Back in the ’70s and ’80s, some very good students went through the three-year course at Lilleshall, now for some absurd reason its almost forgotten and definitely undervalued.
Tutors included Paddy Armour, head of physiotherapy at Pinderfields Hospital, John McVey of Leicester City, Alan Smith, a former course member, Geoff Ladley of Leeds Utd. Professor Robert Myles Gibson, alongside various guest speakers, and the well-renowned and respected Professor McFarlane, who in fact took the Q&A session with students on their final day assessment.
Many previous course members have gone on to have renowned careers in the game. In the group was John Sheridan, Jim Curran, Derek French, John Clinkard, Les Helms, Malcolm Musgrove, Dr Matt Spoor, Alan Sutton, Dave Butler, Brian Morris and Craig Simmons, who became physio to the FA GM National School at Lilleshall – the original academy for the best U14s in the country which produced future England players with coaching and education.
During the time of the old course, very few women were interested in it. On lady of note was Caroline Brouwer, who, at the time, was working with Derek French at Wimbledon. She had a real no-nonsense approach to her learning and her appetite for knowledge bordered on insatiable.
One of the guys I met at Lilleshall, albeit very briefly was the late Jimmy Headrige. A real innovator and a man who recognised the needs of players, knowing what was required on a day-to-day basis. In the words of the aforementioned Big Mal when describing Martin Peters, Jimmy was a man “ahead of his time”.
When I finally decided to retire, City engaged a student fresh out of Anglia Ruskin University, a young lady aged just 21. I went to a pre-season game at City. After the game, I had the opportunity to have a chat. Clearly, she thought she had arrived, especially with the arrogant demeanour. We started chatting and it soon became apparent to me that she had no idea of what the job entailed. She tried to tell me that a compression bandage was an outmoded idea, moreover valueless. She hadn’t even heard of a Robert Jones bandage. She even questioned the values of Tubigrip, citing that it had no efficacious value. She only lasted two years.
Her predecessor was another two-year graduate from Anglia Ruskin. She shadowed me for a few training sessions. We were due to play an away game at Chippenham Town, I offered her the opportunity to travel and get a feel for the dressing room and match day prep. Depart the ground at 9:45am, two pickups en route, returning to the ground around 8:30pm. Her response was an indication of her failure to appreciate what was required to be the team therapist. “Why do you leave so early when kick-off isn’t until three?” and “Anyhow, I go out with my friends on Saturday nights!”
Clearly, the Mantra and ethos of the ‘old school’ physiotherapists that passed through Lilleshall in our era was lost on the ‘new kids on the block’.
The old-style Lilleshall course then ceased and was revamped. Subsequently, it was run by Alan Hodson. The new course still had some very good people come out of it.
In fact, a colleague of mine has just started his 27th season at Wolves. I doubt if many of the newbies will ever last as long as any of the guys that came from the old or the new course with such distinction.
Their legacy is there for all to see, a long and rewarding career within the ‘beautiful game’, warts and all.
I have had a long, eventful and enjoyable career. I have worked for the great and not so great managers. I have been offered jobs and also been talked out of jobs. One by an alleged ‘legend’ and regretted it. My ex-wife also talked me out of taking the Fulham Job when Dave Galley left to join Luton, citing the increased time spent away from home. She didn’t understand at the time that there were only 92 full-time physiotherapist jobs in the country, and I was one of the privileged few.
I’ve never applied for a position, only ever receiving positions on recommendation, something which I am proud of to this day. We make sacrifices because it is a privilege to work in this field, and we love it.
One overriding feeling remains: Remain true to the core values and understanding that each injury and player is treated in the same fashion regardless of status, age or creed. Never play percentages or alter the standards taught and valued.
Working with the players and challenging them to plank exercise sessions have always been thoroughly enjoyable and rewarding. I’ve lost count of the hours and miles travelling the length and breadth of the country, and even into Europe for games and pre-season matches!
I wouldn’t change many things if I had my time again, apart from maybe starting to train and study ten years earlier. But suffice to say I have some great memories, having met some fantastic people along the way, and wholly recommend working in the beautiful game.