Neville: Sports science key for player development

Pete Lansley 14 Apr 2015
Phil Neville speaks to the academy coaches at The Cliff

Former Manchester United star on how integration of science important for marginal gains

It is fitting that Phil Neville should welcome academy coaches for the Premier League Leadership Journey event to The Cliff as it was at Manchester United’s former training ground that the 'Class of '92' started to take control of a destiny that would eventually enable them to conquer Europe.

As part of the Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP), launched in 2012 to improve the quality and quantity of homegrown players in English football, the Premier League holds regular events for academy directors and coaches to share best practice, debate pertinent issues arising at their clubs and learn from one another.

The March event for coaches from the youth development phase (11-16 years) is to provide guidelines for coaches working with sport science and medicine within academy football.

Neville, the former Man Utd and England defender, is here to offer his insight into what makes an elite player.

"We didn't have the ability of some of our peers, so much of our progress was down to what extra we could put in."

Phil Neville

He captivates his audience with the lessons he took from the likes of Eric Cantona in Sir Alex Ferguson's great team of the 1990s at the venue where he learned his craft and, just as importantly, where he realised he had to take responsibility for his own development.

Of his own sporting family, his twin sister, Tracey, is head coach of the England netball team while brother Gary is Roy Hodgson's coach with the England football team.

"We didn't have the ability of some of our peers, so much of our progress was down to what extra we could put in," Neville tells the coaches. "Talk about marginal gains, I took more than my fair share of them!

"When I look at sports science, in terms of getting myself ready to train or play, I was doing it five years before it came in.

"Forget ability, it was hard work that got any of us three to where we've got. For my sister, the miles on the motorway, the coaching courses, the seminars, all that fed into that learning cycle of knowledge, preparation, organisation, reflection.

"We also had that sheer bloody-minded determination. Gary wasn't the most talented full-back but through hard work, he became one of the best right-backs England had."

As part of the 'Class of '92', Neville, far right, learnt a lot from his peers at Manchester United
As part of the 'Class of '92', Neville, far right, learnt a lot from his peers at Manchester United

Neville was invited by Chris Casper, the Premier League's Club Support Manager, who along with the Nevilles, David Beckham, Nicky Butt, Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes, were products of United's 1992 FA Youth Cup-winning team and learnt their trade at The Cliff.

One player there who helped to instill that work ethic was Eric Cantona, a key player in United winning the first Premier League title in 1992/93.

"When we were coming up from the youth team, we'd be having lunch and there'd be Eric Cantona," Neville says. "He had this small ball and he'd be kicking it high up against a wall and then controlling it like this [Neville mimics taking the ball down on the outside of his foot].

"People say he was a genius but his performance level was down to the amount of practice. Then first-team players would start emulating that. Then one or two of us youngsters would start doing this, and before you knew it, everyone was.

"Sir Alex, people say he's a genius, but he created a culture in which everyone wanted to improve, to be the best they could, and that spread."

Neville, a BBC pundit and co-owner of non-league Salford City, returned to Old Trafford last season to become United's first-team coach and, working with Tony Strudwick, the first-team fitness coach at the time, recognises just how important and extensive an elite club's sports science and medicine teams have become.

"We had seven sports scientists at United last season and they can tell you when someone's going to be injured before it's happened," he tells his audience. "It's scary.

"That's the knowledge you as a coach need to have. You need to have access to someone telling you when a player's results are down – endurance, flexibility, urine tests – so that you can use them in training and matches accordingly, to actually improve a player's output."

Neville, with his brother, Gary, and David Beckham after another successful title challenge
Neville, with his brother, Gary, and David Beckham after another successful title challenge

Sports science is a complex business but, as he prepares to hand the floor over to Matt Radcliffe, United's current first-team physiotherapist, Neville recounts the kind of simple formula that can have an impact at all levels of the game.

"Most non-league clubs will tell you that it's extremely difficult getting players prepared right for evening matches, what with coming from work and everything, and we're no different," he says. "Salford never used to win away matches in midweek.

"So this season we've started stopping off for pre-match meals, beans on toast or scrambled eggs. Now we're unbeaten away from home. The players like it, they feel looked after, prepared, they have a routine that works for them.

"Whether it's physiological and nutritional, or psychological, I couldn't tell you, but the players have bought into the better preparation routine and it works for them. So that's a marginal gain that is paying dividends."

It is this sort of thinking from players that Ged Roddy, the Premier League's head of youth development, is hoping to generate.

As part of the EPPP, the clubs must plan and are audited independently in three-year cycles.

As part of their planning, Roddy is keen for the clubs to become places where players can develop mentally as well as physically.

"We will push them really hard on what is a learning environment, how do you create it, because the players that do best are those that can embrace learning, become quick learners, and in the end become independent learners," Roddy says. "That's where Phil started today.

"He became an independent learner, went out there and did his own stuff. Those players all realised that these guys [coaches] can give us this, but they have got to do their own bit, too. I guess they wouldn't have termed it as marginal gains back then, more, 'I'm doing a bit more.' "

Pete Lansley (@PeteLansley), a freelance football reporter for the Sunday Times and the Guardian, is a Level 2/Youth Module 3 coach working with Derby County Community Trust.

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