Football Training: Changing Regimes

It’s been interesting to read the recent thoughts of Graeme Souness, the former Scotland international footballer, on the difficulties that he experienced during his time as manager of Liverpool. For those of a younger generation, who may only know Souness as a pundit on TV football coverage, it may be worthwhile offering a quick summary of his career.

Although he started as a trainee at Tottenham Hotspur, Souness would come to prominence during his time at Middlesbrough. The tough-tackling midfielder helped ‘Boro to promotion in 1974, scoring a hat-trick on the last day. But it was his transfer to Liverpool that really caught the attention of a much wider audience. As a Liverpool player, he achieved a truly incredible level of success, winning the league title on 5 separate occasions, together with 3 European Cups and 4 League Cup victories. Souness the player was to become a Liverpool legend.

As his career reached its latter stages, following a brief period with the Italian club, Sampdoria, Souness was to become the player manager at Glasgow Rangers. A rookie in the world of management, Souness found himself at the helm of a great club, but one which was suffering from something of a drought, in terms of league successes. He was appointed Rangers manager at the beginning of the 1986-87 season, with the club not having won the Scottish League Championship since 1978. In the meantime, their cross-city rivals Celtic (together with Aberdeen and Dundee United) had produced title-winning sides.

The task looked tough for Souness, but he set about using some of the methods that he’d picked up during his recent spell in Italy. His young players were expected to take better care of their diets and general fitness levels than had previously been the case. The players responded to his methods and the results were spectacular. Making use of a number of signings from the English leagues, Souness led Rangers to 3 league titles and 4 Scottish League Cup wins. With his successful managerial career growing, it was almost to be expected that Liverpool would come calling. According to Souness himself, he twice turned down chances to become the Liverpool manager, believing that it was too early in his managerial career.

When he did eventually take control at Anfield, he soon started to encounter. But it’s the natural of those difficulties that is perhaps most eye-opening for football fans today. He attempted to use a similar approach to that which had worked for him at Rangers, suggesting to the Liverpool players that they should take care of themselves. In particular, he highlighted that their enjoyment of fish and chips, plus post-match lagers, wasn’t the best way for them to make the most of their careers. The players were, however, largely unresponsive. In part, Souness put this down to the fact that they remembered how he had behaved during his time at the club, prior to changing his ways in Genoa.

The Souness story is not an isolated one. Today, how do we think that players prepare for matches and recover after them? We’re used to thinking of footballers spending time in the gym, maybe making use of rowing machines, weights, or the sort of treadmills reviewed by Shop Farinellis. This focus on fitness is regarded as being central to the success of professional players. Indeed, we might well extend that further and say that it is often perceived as being critical to many athletes – it’s now common place to see Sky cyclists hopping on to cycling machines after their rides, as part of their warm-down routine.

As far as diets are concerned, the days of enjoying a steak and chips prior to a match, as some players report was once the case, are also long gone. Arsene Wenger, the former Arsenal manager, is often credited with changing the approach and expectations in this area. But what of today’s amateur footballers? How about those playing in the Mid Lancashire Football League? It’s tempting to think that the professional game’s improvements in this area will have filtered down to the amateurs too, but we might suspect that varies from one club to the next.