By Nick Beanland
Nick Allamby is Head of Sports Performance at Bradford City. He, along with Phil Parkinson and Steve Parkin, signed a new three-year deal shortly after the epic 2012/13 season. Nick very kindly agreed to speak to me last week as he begins preparation for life in League One.
WOAP: Tell us about your background before coming into the world of professional football.
NA: I’ve been involved in sport for as long as I can remember. My main sport was athletics, running cross country in the winter and on the track in the summer, focusing on 400m and 800m. In terms of work, my family had their own business and I worked for them and through that I was educated to a certain level. With my athletics background and having one or two injury problems I became interested in training methods and the treatment and management of injuries.
A family friend was a masseur at Middlesbrough football club and I started to work with him occasionally, which led me to doing different courses, one of which was the FA’s medical educational programme. I was then taken on formally by Boro as a part-time masseur in 2000. A couple of years later a new physio joined Boro (Grant Downie – now Manchester City’s Head of Sports Medicine) – he became my mentor and completely changed my career path. He saw some potential in me and encouraged me to try different things, one of which was to go to university and educate myself to a higher level.
I did a degree in Medicine and then a Masters in Exercise Physiology and I then ended up with a niche role at Boro which Grant created for me. He realised I had a skill for keeping less fit players fit, particularly those with long term medical issues, who needed separate care. Being in the Premier League at this point meant we had the scope to staff things very well, with four physios and four sports scientists with me working in between the two departments.
When Gareth Southgate became manager he encouraged me to get involved with all of the players and at that point I moved completely on to the Performance side of things.
WOAP: Presumably, as Boro were in the Premier League at that point you were working without much financial restraint?
NA: There were three departments: Medical, Sports Science and Fitness. We had the best of everything: travelling, access to new technology, good links with Teesside University (something I still have now and they’ve done some work with me at Bradford), exceptional training facilities, so we didn’t want for anything.
When Boro were relegated (in 2009) the operation was streamlined and I ended up being made Head of Sports Science and Conditioning and, as staff numbers had been cut, my role became much bigger.
WOAP: Was your eventual departure from Boro down to cost cutting?
NA: No, my big breakthrough came as a result of numbers being cut as I ended up being given more responsibility, becoming head of a department at quite a young age (at that point Nick was 35).
The team started well but the board then decided to change the manager (Boro were fourth when Gareth Southgate was sacked in October 2009. His replacement was Gordon Strachan). The new manager had his own methods of training which didn’t quite fit with my philosophy, so the first few months were quite an uncomfortable time for me.
After that I came into favour a little more, but ultimately I wasn’t able to do the job I wanted to. I didn’t have enough control to make a difference so I wasn’t enjoying work anymore. At that point I got an offer to work privately with a player I’d worked with previously, so I set up my own business, working primarily with that player and eventually I ended up consulting for six or seven players who had suffered long term injuries and were still suffering as a result.
My job was to keep them playing as much as possible and I did that role for about a year and that led into the Bradford job in the summer of 2011.
I knew Colin Cooper from my time at Boro and he asked me to help him and Peter Jackson with pre-season, so I came in as a consultant. Initially the board were a little unsure as they’d never had sports science support before, so with a tight budget it was for a risk for them to take me on. I said I wouldn’t do it unless they took me on full time during pre-season as I had to do the full pre-season to make a real difference. The board agreed and that shows the foresight they have because it’s unusual to appoint somebody like me at that level.
I’d had no input into the players’ off season plan and they came back less fit than I would expect a team to be. I had to get them as fit as possible whilst also giving Peter and Colin as many players to choose from as possible. I could’ve delivered a pre-season to really hammer the players, but that leads to the strong players getting fitter and the weaker ones getting injured.
Once we were into the season I was working two days a week with the players and when the management changed and Phil came in we hit it off straight away. He told me the budget was tight but he wanted me in with the players as much as possible and so I started spending four days a week at the club.
Once we got to Christmas time we were picking up more points, especially at home, partly because they’d improved physically – at that point I was told I could work with the players as much as I liked. I put all my other work to one side and now I just consult occasionally with the University of Teesside’s elite athlete programme, which I do to allow me to work with different sorts of sportspeople.
WOAP: What did you make of the club when you arrived in 2011?
NA: It was a little disorganised and it’s very difficult to reorganise things quickly – it’s normally evolution rather than revolution. A lot of things are dictated by finances, but there was nothing set up from a sports science point of view.
Some of the things the team did surprised me, an example being eating the pre-match meal on the bus on the way to the game, which was something I’d never seen before. I very quickly changed the food the players were eating day to day and for overnight trips. We now do hydration testing and overall wellbeing testing – this wasn’t the case when I arrived.
My aim was to make things more professional and Phil helped massively with that because he backed me 100%. I would go to him and say ‘Gaffer, we need this but it’s going to cost £500’ and he’d get onto the Board and they’d do it, so they’ve been brilliant.
WOAP: When Colin Cooper left you must’ve been concerned for what your future would hold?
NA: I had other work I could’ve fallen back on but I was enjoying my time at Bradford and didn’t want to leave. For my job to be fulfilling and to make the maximum impact I need a manager who believes in me and it was pure luck for me that Phil came in.
WOAP: What level of autonomy do you have?
NA: Everything I do goes through the manager and Steve Parkin. Phil controls every aspect of the programme but he needs help so it’s my job and that of Matt Barrass (City’s head physio) to do that.
If it’s decision-making that requires his authority I’ll give my opinion and then ultimately it’s down to Phil. As we restructure I will get more responsibility – he has a good level of trust in me so I control quite a lot – but he still has the final say. It’s his job, his club and every decision I make has an impact on what he’s doing. He values my opinion which is a perfect scenario for me.
WOAP: What would you say are your strengths?
NA: Although you have to have the qualifications and the knowledge, you have to be able to implement it and I think one of my strengths is that I’m a practical person. I can adapt and improvise quite well so when you haven’t got the equipment you’d have at a higher level you have to find other ways of doing things.
Even if you don’t have those facilities it doesn’t mean you can’t set up a structure – the most important thing is to get the players fit and then maintain it. If we get the basics in place and do the basics very well then we’ve got a chance of doing well.
It’s a question of ‘What do we need to know?’ We then make sure we do know that. As we get better there are things we would like to know that we might be able to implement as the club develops and the finances start to improve.
WOAP: What are the major differences between working at City and working at Boro?
NA: The one thing that really surprised me is how well the club (City) does for hotels, as I thought we’d be staying in some awful joints. But the hotels are of a very good standard. I know this year’s been exceptional – our cup final hotel is one of the best hotels in the country – but even on the normal trips we stay in nice, four star hotels. So in terms of accommodation there’s not much difference between ourselves and Boro.
The main difference is in how you travel to those places. The long journeys are done by coach as the budget won’t allow the squad to travel by train or plane. When Boro were in the Premier League the furthest we drove was Birmingham and anything further than that we’d fly.
As an example if we played at Southampton we’d be back on Teesside by 8pm and that has a huge impact on the players’ recovery times. If we (City) were playing at Exeter, Torquay or Plymouth we had to really plan carefully to maximise our chances in that game and the games that followed, because there’s no getting around a seven hour journey there and back.
WOAP: From your perspective how has the 2012/13 squad differed to the 2011/12 version?
NA: The starting point for the 2012/13 off season was that we’d managed to stay up and we knew there’d be new players coming in, but the players who stayed had a nine-week period between one season ending and the next beginning. We gave them two weeks of complete rest and the week after that they’d start doing very gentle exercise, maybe three half-hours of tennis as an example.
The week after that they’d start doing the planned programme that I gave them, but even then it’ll only be doing something every other day. It’s a graduated process where the intensity gradually increases, so the work gets harder and starts to involve strength and conditioning. That builds up to the week before they come back into the club where they do a full five-day week, so the bodies are well used to training before pre-season starts.
The players all had to come in for testing during the summer holidays and I put them through some running based tests to see where they were at. If they passed it they could continue with their holidays. If they didn’t they were coming in to do more fitness work. Luckily they all passed!
That was the biggest difference between 2012 and 2011. When they came back in 2012 I knew that all of them, new signings apart, were in good shape to start training properly five or six days a week.
In part two, Nick Allamby explains how pre-season training works and some of the fitness secrets behind the team’s promotion from League Two.