It’s not unusual to see young men walking about on a Saturday night clutching polystyrene boxes as they head home hungry after a football match. Alan Stubbs’ Hibs players are no different.
But rather than munching on a large donner kebab or a fish supper, they’ll be tucking into a specially-prepared meal aimed at helping them recover from the rigours of the 90 minutes they’ve just played.
Those white boxes are possibly the most visible evidence of the revolution which is going on behind the scenes at Easter Road where, under head of sports science and fitness Craig Flannigan, the players are finding no detail is too small to escape attention.
As a former professional football player himself, Flannigan appreciates that the fundamentals remain the same. Any footballer needs to have a touch, to be tactically aware, mentally robust for professional sport and to be physically able to compete and, regardless of what’s being done in terms of conditioning or nutrition strategies, everyone is judged by 4.45 on a Saturday afternoon.
There is, however, greater recognition today of the part diet and nutrition, strength conditioning, rehabilitation from injury and so on play – not only in ensuring players peak on match days, but in helping them extend their professional careers.
Hibs boss Alan Stubbs has already revealed the part sports science played in giving him extra years as a player and, as such, is 100 per cent behind Flannigan and Paul Green, the club’s strength and conditioning coach.
Having worked with several Scottish Premiership sides and latterly as an education coordinator with PFA Scotland, Flannigan was initially asked to write a pre-season plan for Hibs before Stubbs was appointed successor to the sacked Terry Butcher, admitting his one concern was that the new manager might either not be singing from the same hymn sheet or might not want him to deliver it.
He said: “I have to be honest, at some clubs you have to get the manager to buy into it. I think the biggest hurdle is the manager and coaching staff. If they are onside with your programme, then that’s half the battle. I have to say I’ve never met a manager, coaching staff and medical staff who have been more supportive.”
Equally, Flannigan has met with no resistance from the players to what he sees as a long-term programme, one which he hopes will continue to be pursued by Hibs regardless of future changes in personnel.
He said: “I’m big on educating players as to why we do something. It’s how you put it across, how you get to that end goal. We won’t shout, we won’t scream. Sometimes you won’t win everyone over and certain times you can carry passengers, but they can only be carried so long. It’s a cut-throat industry. If someone is not willing to do it, someone else will come in and take your job.
“We’re not doing anything that’s rocket science. Perhaps [with] other managers I have witnessed, it’s been a case of this is the programme, we are doing it because Rangers are doing it or Arsenal are doing it. We are doing it because we feel the plan is right for the group of players we have got. Ultimately, it’s for performance enhancement, injury prevention and prolonging careers.
“There was no knee-jerk reaction to some poor results at the start of the season. It was, ‘This is the plan and we are sticking to it’. In sport it has to be that.”
Weight, body composition, hydration and so on are checked regularly, with Stubbs’ players eating individually prepared meals. Flannigan said: “I’m not daft enough to think we can control every meal they have, but we provide breakfast, lunch and post-training food, Monday Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. Then there’s less meals in the week we don’t have control of.
“Generally speaking, those meals we do control, we are educating them as to why we are doing that. We work really closely with the chef and kitchen staff, so they understand the food groups we want in terms of carbohydrates and proteins at different stages at the week.
“It’s the same with post-match food. Right after the game, the guys get vitamins and minerals in a milk-based product. From there, some guys will do cool downs, the next phase cold therapy in form of ice baths. Then we have pineapples and water melons which have anti-inflammatory products in them and are water-based fruits for hydration.
“They also have a carbohydrate/protein meal that they can eat there, take away in their car or have on the bus. That would be in the form of chicken with pasta or sweet potato.
“The hardest thing in team sport is to individualise. Whether it’s diet or training, it all comes down to personnel and time to implement it. The manager has come from a fantastic background. It’s his first job, but he was seven years at Everton, whereby he had a team of ten within the 21s, which is more than any club in Scotland has at first team level.
“They have the mechanisms to make sure the right-back had a different support to the centre forward and ultimately that’s what we are working towards. We train as a team, but every player is different in terms of training history, injury history, medical issues. We track and monitor heart rate in every training session, so there’s individual data.”
Although Stubbs has recently revealed his belief his players are beginning to reap the rewards for the work going on unseen at East Mains, Flannigan insists his plan is barely underway as it is rolled out within the club’s younger age levels.
He said: “The first team was the priority, then the under-20s and 17s. Next we will be testing all the teams, whereby they’ll be given individualised feedback, not individualised programmes as yet, but feedback so the parents are getting the information and from there will start the education process.”
And, Flannigan revealed, he’s looking to strengthen the structure put in place by encouraging links with outside bodies. He said: “We have six masters level interns from Edinburgh University at the club to assist and also a partnership with Queen Margaret University with two of the leading professors in their fields.
“We’re trying to bring the community together, but also bringing in expertise which is on our doorstep. It’s a real opportunity to link in with good quality academic institutions and that will be the key to taking the sports science programme, the fitness programme and the club forward long term.”