Performance revolution that helped end Scotland’s 22 years of hurt
Written by Simon Austin — November 20, 2020
WHEN Graeme Jones sat down in his new office on day one as Head of High Performance for the SFA, it was the beginning of a quiet revolution for Scotland.
At that point, in October 2017, his department consisted of one doctor, a sports scientist and a physio. There was no GPS and no data analysis.
Fast forward three years, to David Marshall’s penalty heroics and the players conga-ing around their breakfast tables in a Belgrade banquet hall, and it’s viva la revolution.
“Now the environment is right and the chemistry between the players, coaches and support staff is right,” Jones, who has been with the SFA for five years in total, tells TGG. “If we hadn’t won the other night that would still be the case.
“We have it with the women’s team as well, with them having had success in qualifying for the World Cup last year. I’ve done a lot of travelling to different clubs - before covid, anyway - and there is nothing that we do that’s behind them. It’s on the money.
“I think it’s had a really positive impact, more than anything on the players wanting to be involved. Ultimately, you are trying to create an environment that they want to perform in.
“Otherwise, will they really want to be coming away for 10 days? Will the tightness in their muscles feel a little bit worse than it actually is when they join up?
“All these things I’ve experienced in the past, where they don’t feel comfortable in the environment or that they can perform in it.”
To find out exactly what changed for Scotland in terms of high performance, we need to go back to Jones’ first day as Head of High Performance at the Oriam High Performance Centre.
START OF THE REVOLUTION
Jones had been with the SFA since August 2015 as Head of Sports Science and Medicine. It was Performance Director Malkay Mackay who decided he was the man to lead Scotland's quiet revolution.
“When I came in as Head of High Performance, the structure was a little bit old fashioned,” admits Jones. “That’s not a criticism of the individuals who were in place, it’s more an acknowledgement of a lack of focus and resources there had been in that area.
“There was an acceptance from within the association, and from Malkay in particular, that things needed to change. When you have elite athletes coming in from top clubs it can be a massive risk if you don’t have the right performance environment in place.
“I remember sitting down in my office at Oriam on my first day and writing three key things that needed to change on a whiteboard on the wall. Number one was communication. Two was relationships. Three was staff and services.
"Over the next six months there was a huge, huge amount of change and investment in those areas. Sports science was ramped up. GPS was invested in. Match analysis was invested in. Then sports medicine, with recovery therapies and support, and different things we introduced to enhance the experience on camp.
“We brought in a different type of sports medicine doctor and different physios. We almost tried to de-medicalise it when we were on camp, so it was less about treatment and more about management.
“It’s really taken the full three years to get to a point where I am comfortable with what we do.”
This quest for improvement has continued for three years, even during covid. A recent example is in scheduling, which might sound like something fairly inconsequential, but is actually “really, really important, especially on camp,” according to Jones.
“A player wakes up in the morning and wants to know what his day looks like," he explains. "They’re so used to that at their clubs and it’s maybe even more important when they're away with us in a foreign country, sleeping in a hotel room on their own.
“When we travel, structure training, meetings, meal times, physio appointments all starts with the schedule.”
During Scotland's October camp, which again involved three fixtures (against Israel, Slovakia and the Czech Republic), Jones introduced the Kairos scheduling app and says it made a “massive, massive difference” and that the staff and players were “immediately on board with it."
Previously, the team manager had had to print off bespoke schedules for each and every player and then slide them under their doors.
“Frank, our team manager, is great, but that was a hell of struggle for him and it’s far from ideal for the players either, because the schedule isn’t changeable or interactive once it’s been printed off on a piece of paper.
“That meant that more often that not we fell back on WhatsApp groups, which might be great for banter and chat, but are not so good for scheduling. We needed a more professional solution and when we had some time to reflect in March because of our games being cancelled, I decided this was an area we were going to improve on.”
Cue the introduction of Kairos, who also work with clubs in all top four tiers of English football, as well as with international teams.
The Kairos app incorporates a daily calendar with real-time notifications and enables training schedules and sessions to be uploaded and updated.
“The simplicity of the app is excellent and that’s the biggest compliment you could give,” says Jones. “The moment it’s complicated, you lose your audience, which, for us, is the players.
“At any time you can pull out the app and adjust your schedule and everyone is notified. The manager loves it, the players love it. We can do quite detailed planning and scheduling, adding files like covid certificates, maps and videos, and players can book sessions with the masseur or physio. It’s a really clear interface.
“It’s brought a lot more professionalism to our scheduling, which has been huge for us.”
Such is Jones’ devotion to the app that he was still updating it in the early hours of last Frida morning - while celebrations after the Serbia game, which saw Scotland qualify for a major men’s tournament for the first time in 22 years - were in full swing.
“It was 3.30am in the morning and I decided I should amend the schedule for the coming day,” remembers Jones. “A notification pinged up on everyone’s phones and let’s just say there was a fair bit of ribbing and laughter flying my way.”
RELATIONSHIPS WITH THE CLUBS
As with any international team, relationships with the clubs are absolutely key. After all, Scotland are essentially borrowing someone else's players.
This is why Jones has spent so much time travelling to clubs both north and south of the border in order to meet practitioners and develop resilient relationships.
"That’s the thing they don’t teach you on a University course - that building relationships is absolutely key,” he says.
This was especially evident during the October camp, when midfielder Stuart Armstrong tested positive for covid.
“Because of the mutual respect and understanding that we've built up with Stuart's club (Southampton), it was far easier to deal with the situation than it may otherwise have been and the player wasn’t adversely affected.”
Two weeks prior to an international camp, communication with the clubs ramps up. Initially, it's mainly between the two medical departments, to ascertain injuries and fitness.
“Before we name the squad, we request data from the clubs - mainly GPS and anything else that’s pertinent,” explains Jones. “That helps us to work out where the players are at physically and what they can be expected to do in terms of training and matches.
“Clubs use different formats to collect that data, so we put it all in an Excel sheet and then our data analyst and sports scientist work together to create a visual of where the players are at from a physical point of view.
“This is a key when we have a meeting with the manager (Steve Clarke) and other key staff a couple of days before the players turn up for camp. We look at this visual and work out what we anticipate from the weekend round of matches and how we’re going to structure our week.
“Steve likes to know the hard specifics of the data, as well as the softer information about the personalities and different emotions of the players.”
During camp, the clubs largely leave Jones and his staff to get on with their work, although there will be communication if there is an issue with a player, such as an injury.
“They know the players best and we will always listen to what they think is the best course of action for them,” Jones says.
This season has been unprecedented in terms of fixture congestion because of the covid-19 pandemic.
“We’ve had three games in 10 days in both October and November, which we’ve never had before,” says Jones.
“Factor in that historically this is the international window when we experience most injuries anyway - both pre and during camp - and the fact that the players have been coming off a run of three games a week and you have a very difficult situation in terms of both mental and physical health.
"Add in the added anxiety of covid and the protocols that are now in place and it's exacerbated even further. It wasn’t a surprise that several players arrived physically and mentally tired.”
This is where good levels of communication with the clubs - as well as the investment in sports and data analysis over the last three years - come in so useful and help Scotland to monitor and manage the load of their players.
“There were 14 players who didn’t take part in full training during the first two days of preparation for the Serbia game, because they were coming off high loads,” says Jones. “It was only on matchday minus one (the day before the Serbia game) that everyone trained.
“Ramping up the load to levels the players aren’t used to and can’t absorb is when you get injuries. You have to be creative and I think we have a decent record in putting the players out and them performing to the levels we want, both tactically and in terms of performance.”
The analysts, Mark Leslie and Alex Troughton, analyse the data from Scotland’s training sessions, enabling them to carefully monitor load.
"They appreciate what we need and when we need it and turn it round quickly,” says Jones. "We keep it as simple as we can. They collect all the information and see whether we hit the levels we wanted in a particular session."
At the National Performance Centre, which is in Oriam near Edinburgh, Scotland’s players have access to the same recovery methods they would have at their clubs
“We have hot and cold contrast baths, a hydropool, masseurs, recovery leggings, normatecs, games readies - all the different bits and pieces,” explains Jones.
But on camp, the focus is on “doing the basics really, really well.”
This means two things - sleep and nutrition.
“We invest in staying in high-quality hotels, the same as the players would with their clubs, to make sure they can sleep as well as possible. We also have a performance nutritionist, who doesn’t travel with us, but who supports pre and post-camp and works very closely with our performance chef, Johnny McCallum.
“I’d go so far as to say that Johnny is the most important member of the performance staff. He’s very talented and the players love him - he’s the one they threw in the laundry basket after the Serbia game - and nutrition has such a big impact on not only performance but also morale.”
Which brings Jones onto what he says is another key ingredient of success: chemistry.
“You need to work with people you get on with, whether it’s within the performance team or with our suppliers, like Gareth Quinn at Kairos. You need people who really buy into what you’re doing.”
The Scot has now worked with three different managers - Mackay (when he was caretaker), Alex McLeish and now Steve Clarke - and says they were “very different characters, but all good to work with.”
And although he has a low-key public persona, Clarke is “hilarious behind closed doors."
“He gets a hard time for not giving much emotion away, but has a very dry sense of humour and is the perfect leader for what we are doing. In terms of performance, he really understands and buys into what we do.”
LOOKING AHEAD TO THE EUROS
The euphoria of victory over Serbia and qualification for a first major men's tournament in 22 years was slightly tempered by the defeats by Slovakia and Israel. Had they avoided defeat against Slovakia, Scotland would have had their best unbeaten run (10) since 1924.
The level of anticipation for next summer is still sky-high though.
“I had a conversation with our captain (Andy Robertson) and, despite everything he’s already achieved with Liverpool, he was absolutely buzzing about the Euros," Jones says.
“I can’t wait either - none of us can. We’ve got all the things in place in terms of how our high performance works, so now we get to look at the nicer things, like what we’ll do on camp when the tournament comes around.
“My team have been fantastic. I worked out that 29 people had worked in the performance team during my three years and they've all played a part in what has been achieved.
"In terms of the players, I really do think anything is possible. They’ve all got unbelievable commitment, are hugely passionate about playing for their country and I’d back them against anyone else.
“Look at Declan Gallagher, from Motherwell, who must have given Aleksandar Mitrovic nightmares after the Serbia game. Dusan Tadic was having to go into his own half to get away from Kieran Tierney. It was unbelievable.
“The level of togetherness and mentality of this group of players, and the staff, is something I have never experienced before.”