By Joe Miller
Over the past 42 years that I have been involved in our beautiful game, I have seen so many things and many changes, some for the good and almost as many, in my opinion, that don’t reflect the TRUE nature of day-to-day life as a team physiotherapist, warts and all.
Back in the late-70s, when some of the current crops of club therapists were no more than a twinkle in their father’s eye, I embarked on a journey in football that has taken me the length and breadth of the UK and into Europe.
My love for the game probably stemmed from watching my father playing non-league football for Bishops Stortford and formally the Army.
I decided I was never a player but loved being around the players and became fascinated by the man in the white coat treating the players’ injuries, and then changing the white coat for a tracksuit and boots, running around the pitch with the players, and taking them through their paces with exercises such as sandpit running and medicine ball throwing, then back to the treatment room for more ice bucket sessions and massage.
A few years later, I was to discover that the ‘massage’ sessions were transverse frictions, a therapy that I still practice today. Oddly enough, as if by magic, it still has the same therapeutic effect.
In 1978, I started to attend local treatment of injury courses with Watford, run by Dr Vernon Edwards, Arsenal, run by Dr John Crane at the old Highbury stadium, Leyton Orient, run by Graeme Smith, Neil Baxter and Dr Ernest Cook at Enfield, and latterly Craig Simmons.
All well-respected men of knowledge and enthusiasm, nothing was ever too much trouble to offer advice.
It was at one of these sessions at Enfield that I met the Chelsea physiotherapist Eddie Franklin, a man who gave me one very sound piece of advice.
Enrol in the FA three-year diploma course at Lilleshall, he had been a tutor there in the early-70s and couldn’t speak too highly of it. Gaining this diploma was a prerequisite to getting a position at a professional club.
During the next three years, I spent many a Monday at Stamford Bridge watching Eddie work with the injured players, time that would prove invaluable later when I started the three-year diploma course at Lilleshall.
That three-year course was a very much sought after course, students came from all over the world to attend, one such student from the Netherlands later became the team doctor to AZ Alkmaar, Matt Spoor, his son followed his father’s footsteps and became team physiotherapist to the Dutch club.
I recall the late Jim Headridge being there, what an innovator he was.
Guys that were on the course at the time such as Les Helms of Tranmere Rovers and later Everton, Derek French of Wimbledon, Watford and wherever Dave Bassett went, Derek went too.
Alan Sutton of Leeds United, Peter Prince of Cambridge United, Malcolm Musgrove of Plymouth Argyle and Exeter City, Buster Footman of Southend United and John Challenor of Ipswich Town to name just a few.
We had some great tutors in Paddy Armour, Geoff Ladley, John McVey, Dr Miles Kingston.
Having completed the three-year course, I started the season looking after the youth and capital league team.
Then, one Friday afternoon, I got a call from a Scotsman claiming to be George Graham, initially, I thought it was a wind-up but having proved his identity, he asked me to meet him for an interview to become the first-team physiotherapist for Millwall.
Meeting him and subsequently the club doctor, I was offered the job. Apparently, I had been recommended by a player Millwall had signed from Orient earlier in the year, he had been impressed by the way I worked and appreciation of players needs and grasp of how players tick. I wonder how many of today’s ‘Wunderkinds’ have gone the extra mile to make sure players get the very best, without the assistance of sports science, nutritionists, psychologist and analysts.
We did the lot and players still returned to playing as fit, if not fitter, than before they were injured.
Working on a day-to-day basis, you get to know how each and every player ticks, their likes and dislikes, pre-match superstitions, food, etc.
Dressing rooms are the greatest place to be on a matchday; the buzz, the camaraderie and nervous banter.
You realise after not too many games what players want, one player may want an unopened roll of tie-ups – this is long before metres of underwrap was used.
Another only his left calf massaged, another his back eased out with a little bit of Maitland Therapy, another a bowl of hot water to soak his feet with boots on, all the quirks and foibles of players.
How many of today’s new kids have picked a bandage or strapping off the floor. I feel that some of them, with the way they preen themselves like peacocks, feel it’s beneath them.
Away match routine was always the same in my first two seasons at Millwall, I went for a 15-minute run from the hotel and tried to get back in under the 15, shower and breakfast. Assistant manager Theo Foley came down at 9:45 on the dot every time. George was the exception he came down at 10:15 and if ALL the players hadn’t been down for breakfast they soon were, because he would knock ’em up, and they’d follow him down like ducklings after their mother.
I think they all enjoyed this little game.
11:30 Theo and I would go down to the ground along with the coach driver, in fact, he became an integral part of the team, if he wasn’t on the trip the players would chirp, “It’s gonna go wonky today, Keith’s not here.”
With all the kit out and my matchday prep done, it’s back to the hotel for a pre-match pep talk, Messrs Graham and Foley were spot-on in their preparation, nothing was left to chance.
Pre-match food and prep are vital; I recall one away trip to Sunderland by train.
This was when British Rail still had a kitchen on the train, Theo making copious rounds of toast and appearing to be eating as many rounds as he buttered, and yours truly carrying plates of beans on toast with poached or scrambled eggs to players, huge pots of builders tea – wouldn’t happen today, it would be packed pasta pots.
Was the game better then or now? Results were the same you won some and you lost some, BUT the game was still the game.
Results matter definitely, but the underlying fact remains, this was achieved with less staff, a closer-knit team on and off the field, and NO massive egos, enhanced by the size of the name tag or colour of the lanyard.
Treatment modalities may have changed with the advancement of electrotherapy and gravity resisted equipment allied to too numerous to mention, stats, data, analysts, nutritionists, fitness and conditioning coaches, psychologists, at least five in a team to treat players, overkill and a loophole for the flakier player to use as an excuse as to why “I’m not fit yet” because I haven’t ticked all the boxes.
Alas, gone are the days of the team doctor forming an opinion of the injury with or without scans etc, the physiotherapist designing and carrying the whole rehab program, working with players on a daily basis you know how they tick, you keep an eye on their injury, recovery, weight, lifestyle, state of mind, fitness, and preparedness for return to playing.
A simplistic and sympathetic approach that WORKS.
In a varied time in football I have had seen manifold changes, some for the better, but some to the detriment of the development of players character.
One such change that I firmly believe has been retrograde Is the changes to apprentice/YTS/scholars in youth players.
Every player had duties as in an apprenticeship, whether it be cleaning boots, clearing the dressing rooms after training and games, cleaning the showers. These might be seen like menial or degrading jobs, but NO different to a trainee hairdresser sweeping up hair or washing clients prior to a haircut.
Such players learn that it’s NOT all about playing football, it kept them in touch with reality, so much so they didn’t have a rose-coloured glasses image of the superstar professional footballer.
A few of the lads at Millwall who had these so-called menial tasks, went on to be household names in the game.
Two years before I joined, Teddy Sheringham was cleaning boots and washing the manger’s car.
When I joined, Neil Ruddock cleaned the dressing rooms, Phil Babb packed the skips for away games, Brian Horne pumped up the matchday and training balls. Graeme Jones, now assistant manager to Roberto Martinez with Belgium, cleaned my medical room and helped pack my medical skip, to this I still recall the lad never forgot a thing, unbeknown to me, he made a list the evening before so as not to let me down, no wonder he’s made a good career out of being prepared and diligent.
Players in my experience will ‘try it on’ from time to time. On away trips, some that will remain nameless, might try and pop out for a look at the local nightlife after hours.
I recall one such night when we stayed at The Tickled Trout near Preston. Having all been together for the evening meal, normally something on a pre-requested diet, but I was always making sure didn’t move away from the pre-ordered meal, and ask for asparagus or broccoli, for obvious reasons. Players went to their rooms around 10:15-10:30.
At 11pm, Theo and I went for a late stroll near the players’ rooms, only to see two pairs of feet hanging out of a window, the players’ arms being held by two accomplices. What happened next still makes me smile, we crept up to the players and tied the laces together of their shoes and retired to a safe distance.
When the players made the ground, not only did they fall over, but were tied together as well. Chaos and night excursion cancelled. Excuses for being late for training are always a good source of entertainment, battery flat, traffic hold-ups, etc, etc. One of the best came from the aforementioned Neil Ruddock. When asked why he was late, we were told that his electric blanket had caught fire, one, it was September, and two, as if we wouldn’t ask his landlady who was only 400 yards from the ground.
Now, after nearly 42 years working at a good level of the beautiful game, I have worked with some fantastic people, some famous and some not so famous, managers, coaches, players, physiotherapists, doctors, surgeons, but I still remember the late Eddie Franklin telling me to sign up to the FA diploma course, and soon after I passed, Graeme Smith, now Professor Graeme Smith, saying to me: “Stick to your principles of treatment and beliefs, things may change in life but the body and anatomy remain the same.”
I would say that the road that many of my peers and I have been on is a truly meaningful one, and would say that some of today’s new kids might have the shiny name tags and brightly coloured lanyards, and be armed with laptops and charts full of stats and new age mnemonics, but more importantly, can they engage with players as individuals, manage an injury from trauma through to return to play single-handedly WARTS AND ALL and last as long in the game, I very much doubt it.