From Back-Room To Boot Room: Veteran Non-League Physio Gavin Blackwell Explains The Vital Importance Of Good Staff

Chris Wright

19th, January 2018


By Gavin Blackwell

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Following the recent appointments at Sunderland and Middlesbrough of Chris Coleman and Tony Pulis, we saw both newly-appointed managers opt to change the entire back-room staff.

Traditionally, even when a season is only a quarter of the way through, we hear of the back-room departures that usually accompany a sacking.

But when Bill Shankly was appointed manager of Liverpool in 1959, having managed Preston North End and Huddersfield Town, he took what would now be the surprise decision to retain all of the Anfield staff.

Physio and right-hand man Bob Paisley, Reuben Bennett, Ronnie Moran, Joe Fagan and Tom Saunders remained part of his managerial team and he later promoted Roy Evans to be reserve team coach. It proved to be a decision that helped bring unparalleled success and highlighted the importance of having a good staff around a manager.

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Nowadays it is the norm for managers to bring in their own men. When David Moyes took over at Manchester United, he opted to sack Mike Phelan despite the advice of his predecessor Alex Ferguson and probably regretted it when finding himself lasting less than 12 months in the job.

The biggest and most important factor in a back-room staff is trust and loyalty to the manager. Shankly assessed the playing side, dispensed with the services of two dozen players but kept faith with the back-room men. He made his demands crystal clear to his inherited lieutenants; loyalty to each other as well as himself, and no back-biting.

The thing that mattered most of all was that everybody should pull together in the name of Liverpool. And this has been the story ever since. Shanks preached the gospel of collective effort with everyone working for and with each other. And while the team progressed on the field, the boys in the back room kicked around ideas to further the cause.

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The game has changed in many ways over the years, including the sheer number of back room staff needed to keep club’s running day-to-day.

At one time, a manager’s staff was small and close knit. It included an assistant manager, coach, physio, kit man, doctor and a chief scout. Nowadays, the analysis and medical departments alone can boast staff numbers running into double figures.

Today’s manager has to captain and organise an efficient team-behind-the-team that not only has specific tasks but also runs smoothly in all conditions, with strengths appreciated and weaknesses tolerated – a motto of former Oldham Athletic and Everton manager Joe Royle.

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It is important to remember that being a back-room man means you are exposed to a lot of the brutality that goes on behind the scenes, the more cut-throat aspects of the professional game.

Once a manager departs, the ensuing vacuum naturally creates instability and uncertainty. It’s always an anxious time for all involved.

Immediately, it is a mixture of emotions. First and foremost, you are disappointed that a fellow pro has lost his job. After all, he is someone you have been working closely on a daily basis.

Personally, I have experienced it more than a few times in my career in semi-pro football.

It all starts with a phone call from the club. They let you know before the news breaks publicly. They tell you they have made a change. They then let you know who is going and who is staying for the initial interim period. I have been lucky in that I have been kept on each time it has happened to me in 30 years, on all bar two occasions.

Dealing with the news is very tough. You form relationships with people and all of a sudden you know they won’t be in training or in charge of the next game.

It’s very strange. It hits you initially and when you go into the club, the manager isn’t there and the caretaker is taking training. Quite simply, you have to get on with it and put your emotions to one side, That is football, You have to deal with it.

I once joined Stourbridge FC with the new manager as part of a completely new, pre-assembled backroom staff he chose to bring with him. So I have experienced both sides of the equation.

There are a lot of ups and downs and, as a coach, assistant manager or physio, you have to concentrate on the players because they will be affected, too. You are employed by the club and you have a job to do. And, of course, you are grateful you are still employed.

Football really is crazy and you get different scenarios at every club. In the most extreme, managers want to bring in a full back-room team, which means the physios and those in the sports science department can be among those replaced.

Sweeping changes mean a major reshuffle overnight and a lot of people wake up to find themselves out of work.

Other clubs might appoint a manager and tell him he has to work with the staff already there. And then there is a mixture of the two.

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Going in to a job today, you’d probably be well aware of the club’s background, track record and the number of managers and recent changes there might have been – like at Sunderland and Middlesbrough, as aforementioned.

Then there are the questions: “Who am I going to take with me? Who and what do I need?” You need a balance in the people around you.

Staffs travel in packs and some chairmen/boards will know that you don’t just appoint a manager, you appoint a whole team that has become incredibly close and compact over the years. I’ve never done that and am not certain it is good thing.

The Liverpool boot room philosophy of old is a rarity in today’s high-pressure football cyclone. But you might lose good people if you change everything; people who could help you simply by having an intimate knowledge of the club.

Over the years, the people I’ve inherited at clubs turned out to be not only good coaches but very good people. It would have been a mistake to say: “Right, all of you, OUT!”

We have seen good, loyal club-men shown the door by a new manager – the likes of Tony Book (Man City), Tony Parkes (Blackburn Rovers) and, last year, Swansea legend Alan Curtis shown the door by Paul Clements.

Whenever a manager is appointed, it is inevitable there will be consequences.

It is the unfortunate flip side of this glamorous game; the one where people get hurt and heartbreak is only a result away.

Gavin Blackwell has spent his career working as a physiotherapist for a series of non-league clubs, including Oldbury United, Bilston Town, Stourbridge, Hednesford Town and Halesowen Town (where he is currently in his third spell).

Blackwell has been involved in plenty of on-field success, having played his part in winning three Southern League titles, four Senior cup and a hatful (five) forays into the FA Cup first round proper.

He was also part of the backroom staff at Halesowen that managed to bring in a quarter-of-a-million-pounds in transfer fees after seeing no fewer than nine players leave to join professional clubs.