The regular description of Hearts by opposition players or managers as “a big, physical side” doesn’t always go down well with supporters, who see it as a cheap jibe against their high-flying team.
John Hill, the club’s sports scientist, prefers to take it as a compliment. Under director of football Craig Levein and head coach Robbie Neilson, Hearts have made a conscious decision to develop athletic young footballers who will eventually have a chance of holding their own at a higher level of the game.
Levein and Neilson were quick to recognise that Scottish football had fallen years behind England and the rest of Europe in terms of embracing sports science. This, in effect, is an issue that has led to Scotland producing a raft of talented players in recent years who have lacked the physical attributes required to fulfil their potential in a sport for which core strength, speed and stamina are now just as important as raw skill. Gordon Strachan, the national team manager, touched on this point last week as he bemoaned the lack of physical stature among Scottish players.
Hill is in no doubt about the value of athleticism in modern football and, as the man tasked with ensuring Hearts’ players are in the best shape possible, is encouraged whenever he sees them overpowering, outrunning and, as a result, outscoring their Premiership opponents on a match-day.
“Football is a contact sport, so you’ve got to be athletic,” the 27-year-old fitness guru from Wolverhampton told the Evening News. “Part of my job is to develop the athletic potential of the lads. We’ve got young guys coming through who need to be up to the demands of competitive sport, especially in Scotland where there’s a large amount of contact and a definite emphasis on physicality and being able to use your body. The foreign lads have come in and found the game to be a bit more physical than they’re used to, so if we’re seen as a big, physical team then that suggests I’m doing my job right and preparing the lads properly for competition.
“It’s naive to think talent alone can take a player to the top. You need to have physical attributes if you want to go to the top level. If you look at the top league in England or Spain, these guys are all athletes. They’re big – often taller than your average men – and they have large muscle mass and they’re incredibly lean and incredibly fit. Our job is not just to look at the Scottish league, but to look further afield and aim for the very top levels in athletic performance and prepare the lads to be as good as they can be.
“If you want to produce a Scottish youngster who can go and compete in a top league and be able to deal with it, then part of it is developing their athletic potential. Talent is great, but if they can’t stay on the pitch because they can’t deal with the demands of the game, then they’re going to be limited in terms of how far they can go. My role is to work on improving each player’s strengths and limiting their weaknesses. It’s not just about making somebody big for the sake of being big, it’s got to be functional and relevant to the sport and the position they play. There’s no point in just adding on muscle mass that isn’t going to benefit them. It’s about training them to use muscles and make movements that are specific to the game.”
The relatively diminutive duo of Jamie Walker and Sam Nicholson are among Hearts’ most highly-regarded young prospects. Hill believes that the application of sports science, which they have benefited from at Riccarton in recent years, will ultimately help allow them to fulfil their potential.
“There are different requirements for different positions,” said Hill. “If you’re a centre-back and you come up against a strong, robust, athletic striker, you need to be able to match him physically otherwise if it comes down to a one-on-one, you’ll lose your individual battle.
“With wingers like Jamie and Sam, we can make them stronger and more powerful and you’ll get some lean mass with that. It’s really about making their training specific to what they do so we’ll look at what it is in games that makes them so special and then work on those aspects to make them more powerful, quicker and more explosive. We can do that by altering their training methods, either in the gym or on the training field.
“Instead of just giving them a gym programme and telling them to do it, we’ll ask them what they want to work on and we’ll work with them. For example, Jamie might want to work on his explosiveness and Sam might want to work on riding tackles or his change of direction. We can do that in the gym and on the field, without just saying we’ll get you bigger for the sake of being bigger.
“You couldn’t look at players like Jamie and Sam and say that, because of their stature, they’re too small to play at the top level in England. Certain teams play different systems. For us, it’s about equipping them with the tools they would need to be able to play in different situations and tolerate the physicality of the game down south. We want them to be able to use their bodies to protect the ball against bigger players than them and also be robust enough so that they if they were to go down south, they would be able to cope with the level of competition in training down there and wouldn’t break down. If you give them those tools, you give them the best possible chance of being able to go and make the most of their talent. The guys at Hearts are all buying into the culture we’ve instilled at the club. It means that anything we give them, they take it with both hands and run with it.”
Hill believes a lack of resources has prevented Scottish clubs embracing sports science. However, he feels he is at a club who genuinely understand the value of his profession in relation to developing well-rounded modern-day footballers. “I would wholeheartedly agree with Robbie on his views that Scotland is well behind England and the rest of Europe in terms of embracing sports science,” he explained. “I’ve got good contacts with some of the top sports scientists in Scotland. These guys are experienced in delivering to top level athletes in Scotland and England and the feeling is that there is a big difference in the level of support staff between Scottish and English clubs. In Scotland, not all clubs have access to sports scientists, gym facilities and monitoring tools. All that stuff is commonplace down south, right from Premier League to League One.
“When we played Man City in a friendly a few years ago, they had far more staff than us. They also had a gym that travels with them for game prep and recovery. It goes with them wherever they go. Our video analyst, Alex Threapleton, has just been down on a conference in Leicester and they have six analysts for the first-team alone. We’ve got one. Resources are a big thing. It’s not cheap to get all the gadgets and the tools. It’s difficult to get a balance between what you need and what is nice to have. But if you can afford what you need and get the right people, who are accredited and have come through the appropriate channels, into the right positions, then it can really help improve the players.
“If we’re wanting Scottish players to get better, we need to be able to provide them with the tools to get marginal gains. Part of that is sports science, which can definitely help you eke the best out of your players. I think Hearts are ahead of most Scottish clubs in terms of embracing it. Craig Levein and Robbie Neilson really embraced it when they came in. In addition to myself, they took on full-time staff at Under-20 level and have also brought more guys into the academy. It’s really important that our younger age-groups are getting a provision of sports science right from the age of under-11s. The SFA do an audit every year and Hearts are always highly rated in terms of our academy provisions. I feel the investment the club has made in this side of it has helped the lads develop.”
The recruitment of imposing foreigners like Blazej Augustyn and Alim Ozturk has helped Hearts earn their tag as a physical team. Hill believes the attributes of these players gives them an obvious advantage over their opponents.
“In general terms, looking at Scottish boys compared to English or European players, there is a noticeable difference,” he said. “You only have to look at someone like Blazej Augustyn. He’s 6ft 3ins. He’s an absolute bear and he’s played in some good leagues across Europe. That shows you the calibre of physicality in comparison to a lot of the Scottish boys. The right application of strength and conditioning, working with boys who want to buy into it, can make significant improvements to their athletic ability and, in turn, their footballing performance. It’s not just about making them better players, it’s about making them strong enough to be able to train well and stay on the pitch for longer.”