BBC BLOGS - Paul Fletcher
« Previous | Main | Next »

From Northampton Town to Real Madrid

Post categories:

Paul Fletcher | 09:30 UK time, Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Glen Thurgood was up early on the morning of Wednesday, 23 September, e-mailing friends and discussing the events of the previous evening.

Northampton Town had defeated Liverpool 4-2 in a penalty shoot-out at Anfield in the Carling Cup. It was a sensational result that did little to help the cause of beleaguered Reds boss Roy Hodgson but it gave Thurgood a huge sense of satisfaction.

As fitness coach at Northampton, Thurgood was delighted to see his charges more than match their more illustrious Premier League opponents.

"In many ways, the victory was the proudest moment of my career so far," Thurgood told me. "We ran Liverpool off the park in extra-time, proving to me that everything we had been done in pre-season - conditioning the players correctly - had been crucial.

"To beat League One side Brighton in round one could be viewed as a fluke but to defeat Championship side Reading and Liverpool showed that Northampton had the conditioning to match these teams."

Following the coach journey back from Anfield, Thurgood had struggled to sleep after arriving home at 0400. He tried but the adrenalin was still flowing. In the end, he gave up.

And then it happened. Into Thurgood's inbox arrived the golden ticket - an invitation from Real Madrid to travel to Spain, to watch them at work and learn from their methods.

Glen Thurgood (centre) takes the Northampton squad through some strength and conditioning exercises.

Thurgood has worked hard to minimise the number of injuries: Photo: Northampton Town FC

Thurgood had appeared on Real's radar several months earlier during pre-season. Town were preparing for the new campaign at Stowe School, where Real were running a residential football and language camp.

The Real coaches who came over from Spain observed Thurgood's techniques as he conditioned the players after their summer break. His programme was based on the sort of biometric, speed and endurance work far removed from the antiquated idea of running a squad of players up and down hills until they threw up.

As pre-season wound down, the Real coaches approached Thurgood to compliment him on what they had seen. They exchanged contact details and the Town coach wasted no time in e-mailing them, asking if he could visit. He heard nothing.

Until the victory over Liverpool.

Thurgood travelled to Spain in December and spent a week observing how Real work. There is a sense of awe in his voice as he discusses the attention to detail at Real's Ciudad Real Madrid (Real Madrid City) training facilities on the outskirts of the capital, which opened in 2005.

The main complex is shaped like a T, with pitches and changing facilities running off at either side. The youngest age group starts at the bottom of the T, while the first team have their own sealed-off area at the top.

Thurgood noticed the size of the toilets and showers in the changing rooms increased the closer he got to the first-team's quarters. The very youngest age groups also trained on smaller pitches because smaller people have less aerobic capacity. It is just one small example of how sports science has shaped the design of the complex.

The contrast in facilities between Real and Northampton is obviously stark but Thurgood, who spent most of his time with the second team, realised the principles that govern what he does at Town and his counterparts in Spain are the same.

"It is not that far apart but they have more money to invest in facilities and equipment," said Thurgood.

Thurgood obviously feels great pride in the fact that Northampton players have suffered very few muscle strains this season. One was a hamstring injury suffered by a senior player in a game at Hartlepool in August. It came minutes after his introduction as a substitute and took the gloss off Thurgood's otherwise successful summer. Many of the injuries sustained during the season have been calf strains. Thurgood attributes some of these to training on hard artificial pitches during the cold winter.

"I take injuries personally," he said.

"The longest a player has been out with a muscle pull this season is three weeks. In pre-season, there was a 78% reduction in injuries from the previous summer. I am hoping to keep the number of muscle pulls through the season in single figures."

I get the impression Thurgood's visit to Spain underlined his belief that his work has an integral role to play in football. Most top clubs now have several conditioning and fitness coaches. Lower down the leagues, they are still regarded as a luxury by some.

"It often comes down to finances and sometimes it is the chairman rather than the manager who needs convincing," said the 33-year-old Thurgood, who is close to completing a master's degree that has involved studying the speed and acceleration of players over short distances.

Glen Thurgood working with Northampton Town's Paul Rodgers.

Thurgood (right) has been at Northampton since July 2010. Photo: Northampton Town FC

"Sometimes it is a choice between employing a conditioning coach, investing in new facilities and seeing the results in three, four or five years, or buying a couple of new players in an attempt to get promoted."

Thurgood told me he had worked at National League Two rugby union clubs that employed several conditioning coaches. I could sense he was frustrated that, in his opinion, football had been slow to embrace the idea of placing greater focus on the wellbeing of players. More than half the clubs in League Two do not have a fitness coach.

Yet Thurgood can make the significance of conditioning and strength work sound very simple. The body only works in one particular way and so you can predict what will happen when you do X, Y or Z to it. It is possible to predict how long it should take a player to return to optimum condition after injury, or how long the body will take to adapt to different things you ask of it.

"Training is standardised for the squad but in strength and conditioning everything is individualised," added Thurgood, who is keen to continue to share and exchange with his contacts in Madrid.

"Footballers play in different positions, they are different genetically and have different training ages. It is a lot of work and a bit of a headache but worth it to work out their [strength and conditioning] weaknesses and then improve them."

Thurgood was employed by Notts County last season, working as a sports scientist in their academy. He was impressed by the grasp that the much-travelled Sven-Goran Eriksson had of the importance of conditioning and sports science. Eriksson's view is shared by Northampton manager Ian Sampson and club captain Andy Holt.

"Glen makes a big difference," said the 32-year-old, who has been at the club since 2006.

"I am definitely less injury prone than in previous seasons and for the older professionals like myself the work that Glen does might mean the difference between playing as few as 30 or as many as 50 games a season.

"We have had an intense run of games recently, with eight matches in 29 days. In none of those games have we looked tired or lost to a fitter team."

Northampton drew six consecutive fixtures prior to Tuesday's 3-2 defeat against Burton. The Cobblers trailed 3-0 at the break and almost snatched a draw after a strong second-half comeback but the defeat was a further blow to their fading play-off hopes.

Real Madrid are back in action when they entertain Real Malaga at the Bernabeu on Thursday, a result they must win if they are to cling to the coat-tails of Barcelona at the top of La Liga.

In many respects Real Madrid and Northampton are separated by a vast chasm of history, fame and wealth.

But as Thurgood has discovered they are united in their belief in the importance of strength and conditoning.

You can follow me throughout the season at



  • Comment number 1.

    Madrid are playing Malaga on thursday Phil !

  • Comment number 2.

    Paul , I should have said ! lol

  • Comment number 3.

    Fantastic to see a "small" club like Northampton planning ahead & equipping themselves with someone who has helped them beat far superior teams.

    Always frustrates me when Managers, players or Chairmen at lower league clubs almost write off their chances against teams with bigger budgets before a ball has even been kicked. Most football clubs are very poor at maximising the resources available to them & for a club that does (in this case Northampton), they can reap the benefits.

    Cracking article, Fletch!!

  • Comment number 4.

    Excellent article. Not only is it good to see a young manager being recognised for his efforts, it's great that Thurgood is not prepared to let of a lack of finances stop him seeking an advantage on the opposition.

    Conditioning players properly is essential, and the fact that few of his players suffer muscle strains is a testament to what Thurgood is doing.

  • Comment number 5.

    Any chance of a move to Everton!?!?!

  • Comment number 6.

    A very good article, exposing the strength of overcoming lower class ability with higher class preparation.

    It is juust a shame really that proportionately, back room staff earn so much less money than the players, there should be a lot more recognition for the work they do.

    There is intense snobbery within the game that in order to be a top coach, you must have been at least a professional player at some level. I think this is potentially where the game misses out on some real innovative progression.

    Coaches such as Arrigo Sacci and Jose Mourniho are very good examples of coaches that have came into effect from other areas of life.

    I just hope one day this changes, and that clubs can expand their pool of staff outside of the PFA.

  • Comment number 7.

    Now then,

    pekster11 - thanks for pointing that out. And panic not, I just love being called Phil, the name I never had.

    tomefccam - I agree, in other parts of Europe, and in other sports within the UK, a strength and conditioning coach is standard. In collision sports like rugby league they are absolutely vital, but I would argue that they are also crucial in football.

    Football has sometimes been slow to embrace what science and nutrition can offer but think about the game now and compare it with what it was like 15 or 20 years ago; completely different in terms of diet, preparation and (usually) lifetsyle.

    In a few years I would be surprised if a strength and conditioning/fitness coach is not standard. Why invest in players and ignore a vital tool in terms of keeping them fit?

  • Comment number 8.

    Good article Paul.
    I am from Northampton and you can really see how much work the team put into their conditioning work. That extra bit of fitness can really make the difference at that level, especially when players are not always technically gifted - conditioning can sometimes be the winning factor.
    Surely this also highlights the short sightedness of people in football. They demand success instantly and so splurge cash on players whilst overlooking these technical areas that bring benefits in the long term. They also overlook the success it brings in other football clubs and are blissfully ignorant to it's affects i.e. The Milan academy helping OAPS to the top of serie A.

    P.S Andy Holt is a left back /Left Midfielder

  • Comment number 9.

    Good article though Paul ! better than the ones Phil usually writes !! lol

  • Comment number 10.

    Completely agree Paul. Any decent Sports Scientist can tell you immediately that the amount of uniform training drills that teams include in their sessions is very high, and simply of no benefit to a lot of the squad.

    Does your 6'5 centre back need to be trained the same as your 5'8 winger. Simple answer, NO. Each person is an individual and should be trained as such.

    You want each individual to attain peak benefit and performance. Paul Gascoigne for me is a player who was trained in the wrong way for the latter stages of his career, he became gaunt and lost the robust strength that a lot of his play was based around. This was possibly because he was being trained in the same way of someone 10 years his junior and with a completely different body shape and muscle fibres, and being told to eat the exact same amounts of food.

    However, training must compensate for weaknesses as well as building upon strengths. Our genes dictate a lot of our abilities. You will never be faster than you are genetically designed to be, however you can reach that peak, and some to do this, will require more specialst training than others.

  • Comment number 11.

    Oh we could so do with him at Spurs - god knows how many players we've had injured this season!

    Just a quick point, is he an ex footballer? Not sure if Spurs themselves had someone on the books who came through the youth team with a similar name?

  • Comment number 12.

    Maybe Michael Owen could emply him as well :)

  • Comment number 13.


    Ian Sampson has this afternoon (Wednesday) been sacked as the manager of Northampton Town. However, I'm sure this is not a reflection on the fitness and strength of the squad!

  • Comment number 14.

    Another great insightful different blog. Also a blog which doesn't revolve around the big 4. Amazing! More of the same please.

  • Comment number 15.

    Bit of a kiss of death there Paul! Crikey!

    The title/content of this blog will be a bit of a kick in the teeth for Cobblers fans tonight I'd suspect?

  • Comment number 16.

    Arsene sign him up!!

  • Comment number 17.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 18.

    The chasm is huge but historically Cobblers were founded in 1897 - 5 years ahead of Real Madrid! (an excellent article)

  • Comment number 19.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 20.

    Top blog Paul! A very enjoyable and different read, but very good all the same :)

  • Comment number 21.

    One of the more interesting blogs I have read in some time.

    Nice to see you go off the beaten path more and more, Paul. Keep up the good work.

  • Comment number 22.

    Great article! Probably the best i've read on the BBC (make of that as you will)..

    As a sport & exercise science student at university it's great to see people taking the same qualifications doing well! He sounds like he has a great understanding of stength and condtioning and is doing the best with what little resources he has.

    And at such a young age he may well end up at a top club one day (maybe even Real Madrid?)


BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.