Fitness is a pertinent issue at Hearts right now. All season questions persisted about players’ physical endurance, the squad’s overall condition, plus the seemingly incessant injury problems at Riccarton. Tom Taylor, the club’s head of fitness, battled on bravely whilst others debated the above.
He heard all the talk about sub-standard training and the need for coaching staff to work players harder. Other than commuting from the moon to Edinburgh each day, it would be difficult to avoid such comments. He has spent all season addressing those matters and is now preparing for one of the biggest pre-seasons of his life this summer.
That is quite a statement when you consider Taylor, 26, spent five years at West Ham United before decamping to Scotland for a fresh challenge last June. He worked under Sam Allardyce and Slaven Bilic coaching prominent English Premier League players like Andy Carroll, Dimitri Payet, Joe Cole and Manuel Lanzini.
His first season at Hearts has been an endurance test like no other. Head coach Ian Cathro was sacked only weeks after Taylor’s arrival. Then came Jon Daly’s four-week interim period in charge before Craig Levein stepped back into the dugout. The fitness coach is determined things will run more smoothly next year with a settled management team. Training programmes are already in place to ensure Hearts begin the new season sharp, strong and in rude health.
“I knew it was a risk coming here,” explains Taylor. “When a manager loses his job that can have a knock-on effect further down so I was aware of that. Jon took over so I had to find out how we could work together, and then the same with Craig. Heading into our first pre-season together, I think we’ve all worked together long enough to know how we operate and what we want to do. I’m looking forward to getting next season started.
“Different managers have different styles and different ways they want to work. That is ultimately going to have an impact on fitness levels and injuries. Having a settled structed will be really important going into next season.
“When there are changes, it puts things back and you are playing catch-up a little bit. That’s natural when there are changes anywhere. One of the biggest risk factors for injuries is change. When you’re into a settled routine and a settled structure, then I think you are going to see the benefit of that.
“We’ve had long conversations already about how we’re going to approach it this summer and we all know the plans. That will definitely help us create a team that are fit and able to implement the manager’s style of play – and also a team of players who are available throughout the season. That is obviously hugely important.”
Hearts suffered an embarrassing Betfred League Cup exit at the group stage last July, which cost Cathro his job. Taylor, Levein and the rest of the coaching staff are acutely aware that a repeat of that fiasco isn’t an option this year.
“Something the manager wants is a team that are ready to go, especially with the Betfred Cup starting early. We want to get through the group stages so we need to make sure the squad are prepared. It’s going to be a hard pre-season for the players. We want them to have a good level of base fitness and it’s something we’ve been talking about for a long time now. A lot of the stuff is in place now and ready to go.”
Getting time off might be a bit of a challenge when you’re the head of fitness. Taylor has to plan his summer holidays carefully but working needs are forever prominent.
“I’m doing my UEFA B Licence in Northern Ireland, so that will take up one of my weeks off but I hope to get a break. My role is best suited within the coaching department because you are in on all the conversations and you know what’s required. I really enjoy the coaching so it’s good for me to do the badges. It’s not a requirement but a lot of people in this type of role do have them.”
Studying is part of his nature. He left Swansea University with a first-class honours degree and a masters degree in sports science. He instantly joined West Ham as a sports scientist before progressing to become their first-team fitness coach.
“To leave West Ham wasn’t easy,” says Taylor. “It was a comfortable life for me down there with all my friends and family nearby. I felt I needed to test myself and see how I could influence things up here.
“It happened so quickly, I had no time to find out about Scottish football. I had no prior experience of the game here so I didn’t know what to expect. When I joined it was a case of going straight into it and finding my feet as I went. The facilities at Oriam are on a par with what we had down in England – the pitch and the gym and everything. So that’s been a huge bonus.
“Everyone is very honest here and I’m working with a good bunch of players. There are no egos, which is hugely important. I’ve enjoyed that side of it rather than sometimes fighting with people or fighting to get your way.
“People are buying into the things we’re doing and everyone has worked very hard.
“We’ve had conversations as a group [about fitness levels] but pre-season is the time you work on that. The training sessions have changed slightly with Craig and one thing that’s been new to me is working with all the younger players. Their needs are very different to the needs of Christophe Berra or Aaron Hughes.
“It’s a challenge but we want to develop young lads who can handle the men’s game. Their training load will maybe be a bit different because we want to make sure they aren’t missing out on gym work or stuff like that. The more senior one follow a different routine.”
Taylor returns south next weekend to run the London Marathon in memory of his Auntie Sue. He is raising money for the mental health chairty Mind.
“I lost my auntie last year. She had mental health issues. The knock-on effect on my family has been quite big so this is something I wanted to do. I wanted to help a charity that is close to my family and close to my heart. I’ve wanted to do the London Marathon for quite a while, to be honest. I’ve never done a full marathon so next Sunday is the day.”
It’s also the day Hearts travel to Ibrox.
“I was hoping it would be a half past 12 kick-off on the Saturday but when I heard it was Sunday I was like: ‘NO!’ The manager has said I can go so it’s alright, thankfully.”
Getting permission probably wasn’t too difficult. Levein will need his fitness coach more than ever this summer as all concerned try to get Hearts properly fit and prepared for another gruelling Scottish Premiership campaign.