There’s the famous old story of the unnamed top flight English manager who wouldn’t let his players train with the ball during the week in the belief this would make them more hungry for it when matchday came around. It is perhaps an apocryphal tale, but it does characterise the historical lack of training sophistication and the poor preparation that was long associated with English football before the arrival of foreign coaches in the modern era.
Indeed, BTLM has often pictured a typical footballer’s training session in the 1970s to involve running up and down the terracing a few times, a fag break and the hitting of random pot-shots at the goalkeeper for an hour while telling bawdy jokes. Lunch would be pie and chips in the local cafe and post-training wind down would involve an afternoon in the bookies or snooker hall. Not every footballer lived the life of Stan Bowles to be fair, but English players who moved abroad during the 60s, 70s and 80s were quite startled at just how much more seriously coaching and preparation was taken in mainland Europe.
Some clubs and managers in England were more forward thinking than others though and Manchester City was at the forefront of exploring the opportunities that came from specialist external coaching. Malcolm Allison was a pioneer in this field and his inquiring mind was always interested in finding new ways to maximise a player’s potential and gain any sort of extra competitive advantage.
It was one of his initiatives that brought Derek Ibbotson to work for the club as a fitness coach between 1967 and 1972. Huddersfield-born Ibbotson had been a well-known middle distance runner in the 1950s and had won a 5000m bronze medal in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. He switched disciplines and became the first British athlete to run a 4-minute mile (Roger Bannister was the first to run sub-4 minutes) and subsequently broke the world record for the distance in 1957.
As his athletics career wound down he went to work in promotions and design with the sportswear company Puma. Ibbotson would also dabble in coaching and believed he could bring experience of his training to other sports aside from athletics. Working for a while with his local club Huddersfield Town, such was his growing reputation that he came to the attention of Allison who brought him on board at City.
Derek Ibbotson’s five-year-stint at the club happened to coincide with the most successful period in Manchester City’s history to that point and, while the reasons for that success were numerous, the conditioning and sprint work that Ibbotson focused on was certainly a contributory factor – City’s teams were widely recognised as the most energetic and hard running in the top division.
He certainly had forward thinking views about the role of physical conditioning in the future of the sport: “There’s a long way to go. Notice how clubs relax the training as a match approaches. When players realise they can put even more into their training instead of saving themselves for their match, we’ll really begin to get somewhere.” When asked which City player he most admired, both in training and on the pitch, Ibbotson had no hesitation in naming City’s veteran captain Tony Book: “He’s strong, fast and thinks well. What a player. And what a pity he didn’t enjoy first team football ten years ago.”
City’s successful dalliance with the use of athletic coaches inspired other clubs to follow their example and it was interesting to note that this innovation was not just limited to clubs from the top end of the English League. Ron Jones, European Championship sprint-relay bronze medal winner worked with QPR; Bruce Tulloh, 5000 metre gold medalist and barefoot runner was employed by Reading; successful cross-country runner Dick Taylor spent time at Coventry; 1500m Olympian Ken Wood worked with his local club Sheffield Wednesday, while a few miles east Alan Simpson, the former UK mile and 1500m record holder brought his expertise to Rotherham. Chelsea employed triple-jumper and athletics coach Tom McNab in the years before he went on to become a Technical Adviser on Oscar-winning film Chariots of Fire.