English Premier League soccer clubs spend more on acquiring players than teams in other countries, yet trail continental rivals when it comes to looking after those expensive assets, trainers and doctors say.
“Compared to the rest, we’re probably catching up,” Dr. Peter Brukner, the Australian who oversaw 18-time champion Liverpool’s medical services, said in an interview. “Italians have always been pretty good in this area. I think the Spanish are pretty good in the way they look after their players and I think we’ve been a bit behind.”
Brukner left Liverpool last month, about two years after joining from Australia’s national soccer team. His appointment in March 2010 followed criticism of the club’s sports-medicine department by former players and ex-owners George Gillett and Tom Hicks. According to website physioroom.com, a U.K.-based aggregator of injury news, Liverpool has suffered the lowest number of injuries in the 20-team league since the start of the season.
“It’s all very well spending millions and millions of pounds on players but you have to do everything you can to ensure those players are out on the pitch rather than the medical room,” Brukner said. “It’s a simple matter of a looking after your assets.”
Managers in English soccer have a tradition of replacing backroom staff, including doctors and physiotherapists, with individuals they’ve worked with in the past, according to Mike Davison, U.K. managing director for sports medicine company Isokinetic, who’s recruited medical personnel for Champions League finalist Chelsea and advised England’s Football Association. Brukner started work about six months before current Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish.
“The quality of doctors and physiotherapists in the Premier League is as high anywhere in the world but they work in suboptimal conditions,” said Davison, who described a recent example where Aston Villa manager Alex McLeish replaced the club’s doctor Mark Waller without ever working with him and brought in a former colleague Dr. Ian McGuinness from Birmingham City, his previous club, as a replacement. Aston Villa spokesman Brian Doogan didn’t immediately return a voicemail message.
Graham Taylor, a former Villa manager and also coach of the England national team between 1990 and 1993, said managers shouldn’t be responsible for medical appointments.
“The doctor belongs to the club not the manager,” he said in an interview.
Doctors need to have “a continuity of work,” Jiri Dvorak, chief medical officer at soccer’s governing body FIFA, said in an interview. “They know the team.”
In English soccer the average tenure of a manager is 14 months, according to Davison. That often means disruption to the medical departments, something that happens less frequently overseas. Real Madrid and Juventus historically keep medical teams for between 10 and 12 years, he said.
“In that time the number of managers and presidents will have exceeded 11 or 12 in both instances,” Davison said. “Having a platform of stability is certainly important when it comes to the health of footballers.”
Sanitas, a private-medical company, started running Real’s medical team about four years ago.
Teams must “develop the highest-quality medical staff independent of the manager,” Brukner said. His departure, he said, was the club’s decision.
‘Trust and Faith’
“I would rather not comment on the relationship with the manager,” he added when asked about Dalglish.
Still, speaking generally, he said, “If the manager doesn’t have trust and faith in the medical staff then it’s a very difficult situation.”
Gillett, Liverpool’s co-owner, had railed at the number of injuries the team was suffering. Brukner said before he got to the club it had no “gym culture” and “there wasn’t a lot of fitness work done.”
As well as having fewer injuries than their opponents, Liverpool’s players also run on average 14 percent more than their rivals each game, the Daily Telegraph said April 19. The results have come on the back of spending on staff and infrastructure that’s less than the average annual wage of a Premier League player, Brukner said.
Liverpool’s players now work on injury prevention, something that wasn’t done previously. Antonio Acedo, who worked as a physiotherapist at Real Madrid between 1981 and 2008, said “80 percent of the work” done at the Spanish club focuses on prevention. Cristiano Ronaldo, who’s scored 43 goals this season for Real, does as much as five hours a week in the weight room to help guard against injuries, Acedo said.
Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard, 31, has missed much of the last two seasons through injury, mainly to his groin. Brukner says the midfielder’s chances of extending his career have been boosted by a change to his fitness regime.
“It may come back to bite me, that statement, but he’s certainly doing everything he should to improve his chances of prolonging his career,” he said.