Old heads, new ideas

IN the second in our five-part series examining the way Sam Allardyce is changing the face of Bolton Wanderers, GORDON SHARROCK talks to Mark Taylor, who arrived at the Reebok two years ago as club physio and is now head of sports science and medicine, running a department that boasts expertise that is the equal of any club in the Premiership.

MARK Taylor apologises in advance for sounding arrogant but has no hesitation in proclaiming: "We feel we are better than anyone!"

Wanderers may be struggling to establish themselves as a Premiership force on the field but it is for the very reason that they find it difficult to compete with the elite that they believe it is essential their backroom team is top of the league.

"It's no good us trying to compete with Arsenal and Manchester United," Taylor explains. "They just go out and buy the best players. What we have to do is make sure that the players we get are provided with the best support that is available."

And in the ever-changing world of science, medicine and technology that means constantly staying ahead of the game.

So it is just as well that Sam AIlardyce is as forward-thinking and open-minded as any of the experts on Taylor's team of doctors, professors, technicians and coaches.

And provided it passes the acid test - "it has to be safe and it has to be effective" - he is prepared to try anything.

It comes as a surprise to some who have pigeon-holed "Big Sam" the centre-half, whose uncompromising performances made him a favourite at Burnden Park and are unaware of his unquenchable thirst for information and his willingness to embrace philosophies and innovations way beyond the limits of the average football manager.

But not a surprise to Taylor, who worked with him at Blackpool in the mid-90s when he first showed his interest in the appliance of science.

"We set up a really simple database but we were able to keep track of injuries and it's gone on from there," says the former Hartlepool, Blackpool and Wrexham midfielder who took up physiotherapy when his career was ended by a knee injury and is now one of the most qualified ex-players in physiotherapy.

"I took it to Blackburn, Sam took it to Notts County and Browny (Phil Brown was Allardyce's assistant at Bloomfield Road) brought it here to Bolton. We all messed around with it in our own ways and now we are all together again our ideas have expanded to such an extent that what started as a simple database is now massive!" Massive and comprehensive. Experts in just about every sport-related science are tapping in data on a daily basis: doctors, nutritionists, dieticians, physiologists, psychologists, chiropractors and fitness coaches.

Every member of the Wanderers' backroom staff is as comfortable at a computer keyboard as he is with a football. We're here to help improve the performance of the players but we're not saying it has a massive effect," Taylor is quick to point out, "around 10 or 15 per cent. But that might just make a difference.

"We employ the best people and offer players the best possible advice and support but we are all subject to 'Sam's Rule'. You can come up with the best argument imaginable for doing something and he'll just say 'No! This is football, nothing to do with science'."

The array of experts - Wanderers believe their support staff hold more degrees than any club in the land - is a far cry from what Taylor inherited when he left Blackburn to team up again with Allardyce and Brown.

"Sam took me down to the training ground and showed me the treatment room," Taylor recalls. "It was like the antiques roadshow. The gym had about three pieces of equipment. So we put together a proposal and we set about getting together the best team we could.

he problem was that we had no money but a lot of the people you see around here work for us on a part-time basis because they want to be associated with us. They know what's going on here. They are getting paid but they are not getting paid as much as they would get at Manchester United. Yet they should be at Manchester United because they are the best people. But I think some clubs are frightened to employ people who might want to take control of things. Not everyone is prepared to employ somebody more intelligent than himself!

"Not that Sam doesn't know what he's talking about. The first time I sat down with him I had just qualified and he asked me harder questions than I got in my exams."

Wanderers have built a reputation for taking science and technology and using their expertise to expand its use.

Players are now accustomed to wearing heart monitors in training but trials of a new hi-tech monitor, similar to the satellite-navigation system on a vehicle have helped Allardyce and his team combine football and fitness work in the same session rather than in two separate sesssions - a boon to the players and the coaching staff.

"We can monitor their fitness down to a tee," Taylor explains, "and we know we are the only club doing it properly because the computer software has been designed specifically for us.

"Now everybody is copying us.

"Last year we had Manchester United, Liverpool, Newcastle and Leeds here at the Reebok for an exhibition because they wanted to see how the system worked. We showed them but we didn't give them all the secrets of course. It's the interpretation of the data that matters - we know how but they'll have to find that out for themselves.

"It's the same with nutrition. All these products are available but if you don't combine them right, they can do more harm than good. Now thanks to Prof Don MacLaren, we are light years ahead of the rest."

Prof MacLaren of Liverpool John Moores University recently joined the Wanderers team as nutritionist and was impressed by the restaurant facilities at the Euxton training ground, where meals are provided for the players containing no more than three per cent fat. Now he is conducting personal nutritional profiles on every player and is currently working on a publication for the Christmas market that will give fans an insight into what the stars eat.

Starting with the academy - players as young as nine being offered the same advice on fitness, diet and development as the international stars - Taylor believes Wanderers will feel the benefit now and in years to come.

"We are starting to get a package together that's going to last us a long time. We're even giving parents advice on what to give their children in the packed lunches they take to school."

NEXT: Mike Forde, sports psychologist