My season flashbacks.
Wahhooooo! Finally a few weeks off. Honestly the last few weeks have been mental. Adapting to COVID restrictions, monitoring and tracking every aspect of the players’ working lives and playing a game what felt like every other day. I can finally breathe, be me again and see my family.
Before we left for the off season, I spoke to one of the coaches, asking him what he was going to do with the time… “my wife knows I’m non-responsive for the first four or five days, I just sleep. Then maybe we’ll go somewhere and I can sleep some more…” After the last few weeks of carnage post lockdown, that seemed to be the general consensus how everyone is spending the off-season; “nothing” “just chill really” or “catch up on sleep.”
Most people I work with do 6-7 day weeks and crazy hours, missing out on big occasions and normal weekend activities. So with a few weeks off you’d think everyone would be buzzing to just live, with nowhere to be and the world at their feet.
Instead, everyone is shattered and it’s just a case of recovering…to do it all again.
Before that happens, in a few days time, I thought I’d reflect on the season gone. One day, when my Premier League days are behind me, and I’m sat in the pub, at a weekend, watching a game with my loved ones, I’ll dust this post off, and remember the good old days when football was everything.
Day one of Pre-season is always exciting, I think anyway. Fresh, tanned, (burnt in my case), overweight from too many beers (hopefully staff only) and full of ideas of how to do it better this season.
During the first two days physical, medical and physio screening testing slots are allocated. Putting the players through their paces and highlighting their strengths, weaknesses and areas of concern. My favourite is the maximal Yo-yo test – I’m not sure the players would agree.
I remember thinking that no matter what, it won’t be as stressful as the pre-season before – day two, fly to China, sleep, train, then play a game on day five in 40deg heat – a sport scientists nightmare.
In the second week, we flew to Austria. I set up my ‘office’ in my hotel room, GPS equipment everywhere, vests hung up to dry on my balcony, heart rate monitors in the bath. The trip was a whirlwind; setting up, planning, dragging igloos full of ice for miles. We trained A LOT, played a game, and walked up a mountain side. No alcohol allowed but plenty of Schnitzel in the manager’s home country.
I blinked, we were back at the training ground. Then I blinked again and we were in Ireland. Anyone who has been in a Pre-season will know the feeling.
I sometimes wonder why we go away in Pre-season, from a preparation perspective, the facilities, opposition and logistics are much better at the training ground (my views are my own);. However the camp in Ireland was insane – particularly the gym!
The day I got back, I excitedly ordered a pizza and poured a beer (after weeks of healthy only options). Half way through the first slice I fell asleep. Pre-season was over, and I was (once again) left wondering how I was going to survive the next 9 months* of in season; no longer the fresh, bright eyed Laura of six weeks before….
*little did I know it would actually be 13 months.
In-Season 2019-20 (Pre-lockdown)
Most people including myself will say that football is ever changing, that you have to be adaptable and reactive. It’s true… just in a very routine way. Coaches will routinely mix a session up seconds before it starts, players will routinely come in or leave in the last second of the transfer window, a random injury will happen for no obvious reason, usually in October/November time, a physio will routinely swing between super hyper happy and murderously angry (sorry guys). In-season is never boring, but it is relatively similar one week to the next.
Then in October, something happened that has been deemed many people’s ‘highlight’ of the 2019/20 season. You might not have heard – if you live in a cave – but we lost 9-0 to Leicester.
It wasn’t ideal and the atmosphere in the following days was less than rosy. Honestly though, I don’t think one person at the club came out of the next few weeks without learning something. In my opinion, the decision for us all to reflect and do better, rather than the football favourite of finding a scapegoat and pointing fingers, was nothing short of genius. The bitching and moaning that’s inevitable in any rough period was replaced by the reality that nothing and nobody is changing, so everyone is responsible for making a difference.
We quickly had to get our shit together and start preparing the lads for Christmas – ramping up the training load and injury prevention strategies. Christmas is always madness, fixtures come thick and fast whilst everyone outside the football bubble is getting drunk and merry without you. It could have easily have been a second slump for us – both emotionally and performance wise.
Instead we had an excellent Christmas period of overachieving results and an incredible squad availability record. As backroom staff it came down to open communication, weeks of preparation, trust in each other and a belief that together, we wanted to be better.
Early March, a small group of staff were sent to deep clean the hotel prior to our away fixture at Norwich. For a couple of weeks there had been an awareness of COVID, handshakes banned, hand sanitiser everywhere. Then we got a phone call from our Head of Medical (who was halfway to Norwich): “The lads have been told to go home, we don’t know if we’ll see them in a couple of days, a couple of weeks or a couple of months, so prepare what you can in the next few minutes.”
It was definitely a test of the reactive, adaptive skills mentioned earlier. Everyone pulled together though and I think it went as smoothly as you could ask. Over the next few days we delivered bikes, gym and physio equipment and heart rate monitors to the boys. Programmes were added to apps. The lads were split into Pods of 6 as well as a sport scientist, physio, psychologist, soft tissue therapist and a coach. And for what turned out to be two months, the lads were trained, coached, monitored and supported remotely.
I can’t thank my POD enough for the lockdown period. We had daily meetings which made sure I never felt out of the loop. We had structure to our days, constant communication and the small groups meant everything was manageable to an individual level. I feel like as staff we came out of it stronger, having properly looked out for each other over that time. Never underestimate the importance of just asking someone how they are, and taking the time to listen.
The lads were on it too – their application and motivation for their programmes were unreal. Some of the lads came back in the best condition of their careers and all of them came back fit and ready to train.
In-Season 2019-20 (Post-lockdown)
On return, the training ground was almost unrecognisable. Training was all done away from the main building, and it was literally just training. No meals, no appearances, no hanging around. I think it was massively beneficial that all focus was just on football, with none of the usual distractions that come with being a Premier League club. Treatments were outside and capped at 15mins, all gym sessions were done in the dome at individual stations. EVERYTHING was cleaned before and after each session. Snoods, masks and gloves were compulsory and no one got through the gates without filling in a symptom survey and having a temperature check. The lads were responsible for bringing in their own water, kit, bibs and GPS vests. To be fair, they were better than I thought – although the ‘lost property’ box still played a key role pitch side. We were joined every day by a Premier League inspector checking we were following the rules, and for the most part I genuinely think they had a great time getting to know everyone and seeing what we do.
Despite the restrictions, everyone was buzzing to be back. Training was hard and planned to the letter, making sure when the Premier League green light was lit, we were ready. We set targets, tracked and progressed load, and discussed any yellow flags in detail every day – and that’s just the sport scientists. It was full on but worth it!
Then the games started. Some weeks we would just play, recover, play, recover. The lads not making the squad did top up sessions and gym sessions were squeezed in wherever it was appropriate. With hotels and flights limited, there were a few brutal trips up the country for the travelling staff, arriving back in the early hours of the morning, only to go again a couple of days later.
The lads played at an incredible intensity, out running our opponents in every game. Even when we’d played three games in a week, some lads were running the most they’d done all season in the third game. The results were unbelievable and in my opinion so deserved; “almost unrecognisable from the team who lost 9 nil to Leicester in October” as the pundits regularly reminded us.
By the end of the season everyone was on their last legs; physically, mentally and emotionally. There was definitely a sense of pride and team spirit though, beyond anything I’ve experienced before, that I hope we can carry into the upcoming season.
For now, I’m going seeing my family, climbing some mountains, drinking some gin, and trying to switch my brain off for a few days!