Mick Rathbone: Strapping ankles, hearts and minds for four decades
Written by Simon Austin — May 12, 2022
FOR four decades Mick Rathbone has been a football physio, although the title only tells you a part of what he does.
“I’m the conduit for the mood of the players, a confidante,” the 63-year-old tells TGG. “As much as a physio will strap an ankle, he will strap your head and heart at the same time.”
Often the medical room is a “safe zone, a place away from the manager, away from judgement”.
At Everton, where he was Head of Medical for eight years up to 2010, the medical room doubled up as an unofficial common room and manager David Moyes would often come in to tell players, “Get out if you’re not injured!”
“Every player would come in and we would laugh and joke and tell stories,” Rathbone remembers. “James McFadden would say, ‘Baz, tell us your Big Sam story.’ I felt a lot of our success during that period was down to engendering spirit, togetherness and understanding.
“David understood that better than anyone and he still does to this day. A lot of that was developed in the medical room.”
The importance of relationships and the need to look after the person as well as the player is a theme that runs throughout Rathbone’s new book, 'The Smell of Football 2', the follow-up to his first tome about his work in professional football.
LOVE AFFAIR WITH EVERTON
The author (he wrote the book himself without the help of a ghost writer) is a natural story teller.
Chapter one begins, “I just got sacked by my best friend (I know that sounds like a tag line from a Jeremy Kyle show)" and the book is a page turner from first to last. I initially intended to just flick through it, but ended up avidly reading every word in just two sittings.
Rathbone’s association with Moyes goes all the way back to their time together at Preston North End in the late nineties, when the Scot was starting out in management. Yet still he sacked his long-standing Head of Medical, because he thought both club and practitioner needed a refresh.
At first Rathbone was shocked, but soon he came to understand and even respect the decision. As ever, Moyes was honest, direct and empathetic when he delivered the news.
“What David showed me that day was that he truly was a brilliant manager and man,” Rathbone writes. “He went up even more in my estimations.”
Looking back, Rathbone just wasn’t the same ‘Baz’ (a nickname he was first given by team-mates at Blackburn Rovers in 1979, after the actor Basil Rathbone) that everyone had known and loved. The demands of the job had taken a toll on him.
“I used to go up to see David in his office at 9.30am to give him a page of bad news, generally,” Rathbone tells me. “In my last year at Everton we had lots of injuries. It was just one of those things, but I felt bad and guilty.
“The difference between having your best team out and not can be league position, bonuses, the manager’s job. When you have to deliver that news day in, day out, over a period of time it becomes very emotionally taxing. It sucks the life out of you. The spring in your step becomes a trudge with the weight of the world on your shoulders.”
Soon he was back in the game with Coventry City and The Smell of Football 2 covers spells with 10 different teams over the course of 11 years.
He actually ended up returning to Everton in 2018, when his friend and former protege Danny Donachie, by now the club's Head of Therapy, asked him to work with the Under-23s. Rathbone discovered a very different club to the one he had known before.
It was a highly successful season for the U23s, who won a league and cup double under the charge of David Unsworth, but there was a disconnect between the Academy and Marco Silva’s first team. This was perhaps one of the reasons why Everton have been towards the bottom of the table for homegrown minutes in the Premier League over the last few seasons.
Rathbone writes: “What of Marco Silva and his staff? We never saw them. I know that sounds incredible, when we were part of the same club and the same training ground. I glimpsed him twice between my return in November and the end of that season.
"I would see one of his staff regularly behind the equipment store having a crafty fag. This guy was supposedly a fitness coach. How do these guys get jobs in our country when we have such amazing homegrown people? They made it quite clear they didn’t want to mix with us. That’s their prerogative, of course.
“We were not allowed in the gym when the first team were in. We were not allowed in their restaurant when the first team were in. It sounds incredible but it’s true. Amazingly, we were not even allowed to watch them train.”
The veteran practitioner recalls the time an U23 player was called up to train with the first team and he to the viewing balcony next to the office in which Moyes had sacked him to watch his progress. Soon Shaun Doran, the assistant first team kit man, was despatched to ask him to move. He was clearly embarrassed and uncomfortable at having to do so.
“I went inside, angry and saddened,” Rathbone remembers. “What a shame.”
He also remembers being in a room at Goodison Park in early 2016 when Farhad Moshiri, who had just taken over the club, walked in. A friend was ecstatic about the riches now being brought into the club, but Rathbone warned him: “Careful what you wish for. Everton is already great.”
These words proved prophetic, because the Toffees have been on a downward curve ever since Moshiri took over and now find themselves in a relegation battle, despite having spent hundreds of millions on signings in the last few years.
“A multi-millionaire owner with a trigger finger, regular managerial changes, investing millions on players who weren’t significantly better than the ones they already had," is Rathbone's summary. "Everton had lost a bit of its soul, a bit of its identity.”
ROAD TO DAMASCUS MOMENT
Perhaps Silva should have tapped into the experience and expertise of his U23s physio, because he was "more knowledgeable, mature, calm and experienced than ever before."
For a start, Rathbone had learned how to delegate effectively, when in the past he tended to take on everything himself.
“When I arrived at Everton I had staff for the first time. On my first day Jimmy Comer was massaging a player and I thought, ‘What are you doing, that’s my job.’ I never let (physio) Matt Connery run on in a Premier League game. If you’re reading this Matt I’m sorry, I should have let you do that.
“At Preston I’d done every job. We signed Colin Hendry on loan and he asked Moyesy, ‘What physio have you got?’ 'Baz.’ Chiropadist? Baz. Chiropractor? Baz does backs and necks. Fitness coach? Baz is good at running.
“Over time I realised you have to let people learn and grow. When I was at Salford nine months ago they had a brilliant Aussie physio, Steve Valassaskis, who started on the same day as me. He said, ‘Can I run on in the odd league game, I never have.’ I said, ‘You can run on every game and I’ll stand on the side with an earpiece on.’"
Rathbone also became more open-minded.
“Danny Donachie once got me to do an online test and I was the most closed-minded they had come across. I learned a lot off Danny.”
This change in thinking extended to his views of sport science. At first he had been skeptical - and wasn't the only one.
“Going back 15, 20 years, I think most managers paid lip service to sport science and that was all. At Everton they brought in a lad called Steve Tashjian (now Head of Performance for the US Men’s National Team) and also Dave Billows (now fitness coach at West Ham) and they were good guys, we got on well. But I never let them in, I never let them do anything.
“They were on the outside looking in, skeletons at the feast. Over time I came to realise that sport science is massively important and that football clubs cannot do without these people.”
As well as Tashjiun and Billows, he pays credit to Nathan Beardsley at Nottingham Forest and Kevin Gibbins at Rochdale (who had worked with his son Oliver) for helping to change his mind. What these practitioners all had in common was that they “looked at the player as a whole person, not just a dataset."
They also regarded sport science as being about pushing performance rather than limiting it.
“I read a great article on your website with Tony Strudwick,” Rathbone says. “He was concerned that sport science was becoming a tool to limit players, when it should be about getting that extra yard out of them."
The 63-year-old tells a story to illustrate his point and it's one that he says still holds true today.
“We were on the last day of pre-season at Everton in 2005/6 and doing the dreaded horse shoes - running from one corner flag to the other. You have 45 seconds and the big question is whether you’ll have to do four or six. Six is beyond.
“So the players have done five and Moyesy says, ‘One more.’ At this point our new Italian fitness coach, Stefano Marroni, comes running over. ‘David, David, come on! The heart is through the roof!’
“He had telemetry, which allowed him to see the players’ heart rates live on his laptop. And David says, ‘Listen, mate. We are about to play our first game of the season and I want players who can get up off the floor and go one more time.’ And that was that, the players did another one. Stefano was a good guy, but David was right.”
Another theme of the book is Rathbone's fear of getting old in a sport obsessed with youth.
“Life is a ticking clock," he writes. "You don’t hear it when you are young, but since I left Everton (in 2010) I had been hearing it louder and louder, faster and faster. Deafening.”
He had always been a good runner, ever since his earliest days as a player, and this became more important than ever when he reached his mid-50s.
“When I went to Coventry (in 2011) I was flying in pre-season,” he says. “Why did it matter that I could run at the front of the group? Because then it doesn’t matter if I can’t switch on a laptop or operate a cybex machine. My absolute fear was when I couldn’t do that, because then I lose my unique selling point.”
However, it's hard to be happy when you're running on fear, a fact he realised when he had a ‘Road to Damascus moment’ on the Caribbean island of Montserrat in 2019.
Rathbone had been asked to work there by the island’s national team manager Willy Donachie, the former Manchester City and Scotland player and the father of his former Everton colleague (and friend) Danny. One day the duo climbed to the highest point on the island and Rathbone had an epiphany.
“You had an incredible view of the still smouldering Soufriere Hills Volcano and the thousands of square metres of solidified lava that had covered and decimated the whole southern half of Montserrat," he writes.
“It was moving and frightening and awe-inspiring. It made you feel small. It made you feel insignificant. It made you feel vulnerable. Forty years of striving and worrying, of needing praise and validation, stopped right there.”
FOOTBALL PARADISE AT MAN UTD
Which brings us back to that central theme of the book - the importance of building relationships in the ‘post-tech’ world of professional football. Rathbone says this ability trumps even qualifications and expertise.
“I remember at Everton we brought in a guy call Dom Rogan on work experience and I knew from day one he was special - warm, generous, empathetic - and I gave him a job. I didn’t know if he had a first-class degree or second-class or unclassified, or whether he could draw the brachial plexus, but the players immediately connected with him and that was enough for me.”
The best example of all was during his six months working at Manchester United, which turned out to be Sir Alex Ferguson’s final season. The Head of Sports Medicine and Science, Steve McNally, had asked Rathbone in to work as a mentor in the Academy.
What he discovered was “a football paradise… as near to perfect as you could get". Much of this was down to the influence of the man at the top.
“I thought Sir Alex would be a miserable sod, ruling by fear, but you can’t rule by fear for 26 years,” he says. “He would come and sit with us in the dining hall and listen as well as talk. It wasn’t about him.
“And the thing about knowing everyone’s name? It was true, he did, but it was authentic, not contrived. He was interested in the lives of his players and staff and he genuinely cared about them.
“He was inquisitive. I remember standing with him to get a coffee once and he said, ‘Do you know how much that machine cost?’ ‘Er… £2,000?’ ‘£12,000.’ He then told me everything about the machine and why it was worth every penny and what coffee beans they used. He was like that with a lot of things.
“On his last day people were in tears around the training ground and he came over to talk to the young players at the Academy. ‘You know lads, this is a special club. The reason why Nicky (Butt) and Warren (Joyce) are hard on you is that if you want to cross that stream to the first team you have to be a special person.
“Only a special person can pull on the shirt of Manchester United.’ And I’m thinking, ‘Wow, how am I here?’ It was an amazing day.”
Running was still important to Rathbone and he tells a great story about beating Shinji Kagawa in a race when they were paired up by Nicky Butt, much to the amusement of the other players. The Japanese midfielder had come over to do some extra running with the Academy players after time out injured.
However, Rathbone was no longer running on fear, nor trying to prove himself to anyone else.
In the past year, he has worked with Salford City and now Accrington Stanley and has no intention to stop there.
“I know that when I get into Accrington tomorrow with the U18s I will be the first ugly mug those lads see and we’ll be joking and laughing together,” the Brummie says.
“And I know they will have a really good training session and play well. We will sweep all those lads along in that bubble of enthusiasm. I'm 63 and I'm the best I’ve ever been. By the time I get to 100 I will be one hell of a physio.”