Robbie Elliott interview: The revolution in pre-season science

Stuart Rayner speaks to former Newcastle and Sunderland player-turned leading expert Robbie Elliott about pre-season training

Former Newcastle United player Robbie Elliott
Former Newcastle United player Robbie Elliott

Not all that long ago even a top-flight football pre-season revolved around running around until you were sick, then running some more. Then a bit more.

July was the time English footballers were put through agony to work off their holiday excesses and get into shape for a long season.

Once based on little more than old wives’ tales, pre-season has become an exact science. Few are better qualified to talk about it than Robbie Elliott.

A youngster at Newcastle United in the early 1990s, after a playing career which also took in Sunderland and Hartlepool United among others, Elliott turned to the appliance of his Northumbria University sports science degree.

Now he is a performance expert at Nike headquarters in Portland, Oregon, a job which includes working with the USA national football sides.

So Elliott is better placed than most to talk about the revolution in pre-season training. Nowadays players are simply not allowed to rock up overweight on the first day back, having been given detailed programmes to keep to over their holidays. In the “good old days”, stories would abound of players nipping off the beaten track to interrupt cross-country runs with a sneaky cigarette. Today there is no hiding place. Every move is tracked by GPS systems and heart monitors.

“Pre-season is the most important time of the year for a professional footballer,” says Elliott.

“The games don’t count but they’re vitally important.

“When I first began as a professional footballer, I don’t think there was really any science in pre-season. You would go away in the summer, put on as much weight as possible, then get rid of it.

“I remember running around Benwell and players being ill.

“Nowadays pre-season doesn’t have the same impact because players are fitter, faster and stronger, and look after themselves 12 months of the year. If you don’t come back fit for the start of pre-season you get left behind.

“I used to work harder in the off-season. I figured during pre-season, when the games were coming thick and fast, they were going to go with the fitter player. The data which the clubs have now is phenomenal. It allows them to tailor plans for each individual – players who didn’t play as much last season, those who have a weakness or an imbalance.”

If it sounds like hard work, Elliott believes there are few dissenters.

“I think players are very receptive because you get your fitness from football,” he argues. “It’s an easy sell because it’s more playing football and less running. Before you wouldn’t see the football for two weeks. Now it’s all building up your fitness with small-sided games and things like that.

“Maybe when it comes to the recovery side or spending time in the gym there are still some who don’t see the benefit. I’ve seen it at Newcastle where some people weren’t interested in going to the gym, but it was a wake-up call when they saw some of their team-mates working so hard on that side of it and getting the benefit on the field.

“All Premier League managers are open to sports science now. Look at Sir Alex Ferguson, the longest-serving of them all – his sports science department was second to none. That’s why you got his team performing as it did. Last season Robin van Persie probably played more than he ever had, and Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Rio Ferdinand were still playing regularly.

“It’s probably the most important part of the club because if players aren’t playing, they’re no use to you.”

Back for a second spell, in 2006 Elliott was part of the Newcastle squad that “won” the now-defunct InterToto Cup (three clubs shared that honour). It was a much-maligned competition but one Elliott felt was a perfect way to tune up.

“That did wonders for us,” he recalls. “We had so many games prior to the season and they were all competitive.

“Once you’ve got that fitness it should be easy to keep. Sometimes you would see teams running out of steam in the second half of the season, but I think that was more psychological.”

Elliott’s interest in sports science began aged 23. He was fortunate enough to soon be working under one of English football’s most progressive managers.

“When I broke my leg at Bolton (in 1997) I realised this was what I wanted to do,” says Elliott.

“I remember going to the treatment room and there was one physio and no fitness coach. The physio told me to go off and work in the gym because he had two other players he needed to look after.

“That got me interested and I went to college to study.

“That was under Colin Todd. Sam Allardyce (who joined Bolton in 1999) was fantastic, he was one of the managers who would try things. He’s interested in sports science, and could see the benefits.”

Elliott retired in 2008 to begin a third spell at Newcastle as assistant fitness and conditioning coach. He left after Premier League relegation to take up a role with Nike, initially splitting his time between Gosforth and Portland.

“I was doing a lot of work in Newcastle and enjoying it, but you would never get the chance to work with the range of top-level athletes I do out here,” Elliott explains. “I’m not solely with soccer. The other week we had the Canadian basketball team.

“We don’t train the sport, we train the athlete. Last summer we had NFL players, ice hockey players, some of the Man United squad and a pro surfer.

“Even just seeing the mentality of these guys when they’re in the same room was great.”

Clearly crossing the Atlantic has expanded Elliott’s horizons. Perhaps one day his hometown club might benefit from that knowledge.

Journalists

David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer