As someone who isn’t exactly amongst the fittest people in Scotland, with the nature of this job basically sticking you to a chair most of the day, I marvel at those who can push themselves to extremes I will never properly comprehend far less attempt to emulate. For me, tough is hitting a daily steps target. For these guys … well, it’s not that.
A couple of years back, I did a piece on doping in football. It became vaguely notorious because it drew clear connecting lines between scandals in cycling and football teams who every three years or so accomplish things that seem impossible.
I didn’t make allegations. I hypothesised, based on information in the public domain.
I talked specifically about the systems in place in Germany and how those systems were exported to Ibrox via Anfield where Gerrard and his coaches had worked with Klopp and his people, a team who are so versed in performance enhancing mechanisms that they even openly boasted about the “formula” which their players drink.
If you ever watched Mark Daley’s program on doping in cycling, you’ll have seen something extraordinary. Just a little bit of the right stuff can massively enhance muscle growth, stamina and that, in turns, can have incredible impacts on performance.
Even to the layperson, it is obvious that in a game of fine margins that being one second faster or sharper or fitter than your opponent can make a huge difference to the outcome. Doping is the quick way of getting there. It’s not the only way.
You can achieve equally great things legitimately, but it takes hard work and the going gets very, very tough.
There is an outstanding example of it available on Netflix; part of the Untold series.
(I may write about another episode, Crime And Penalties, some other time; watch it if you haven’t seen it, it will blow your mind)
Breaking Pont is the story of how America’s two great tennis prodigies Andy Roddick and Mardy Fish were friends and competitors, with Roddick being the better and more driven player of the two.
Fish had talent, that much was obvious as he won a place at Saddlebrook, the elite tennis academy where the greats trained, and he was making a very comfortable living from playing in tournaments and seeing the world. He was pleased for his friend Roddick, who won the US Open and looked set to have a glittering career as one of the greatest of all time.
Three things are important to know.
The first was that Fish’s talent was always overshadowed by Roddick, who he played professionally and lost to nine times in a row. One match haunts him; the American Masters final after they’d become professionals, when Fish had him on match point twice and overthought Roddick’s strategy both times … even decades later you can tell he feels that.
Secondly, the era of American dominance in tennis itself was – although they didn’t know it – all over; the three greatest players in history were all about to emerge, and none of them were Americans.
Finally, as the American era ended and Fish, in particular, began to question whether his career would ever amount to anything more than a footnote, he did what Roddick would say, with some awe, that he had only ever seen a handful of players do.
Fish finally discovered the drive that the real top players have, the ruthless edge that makes them driven, supreme athletes and elevates them to greatness.
Now, tennis players are already amongst the most incredible performers in sport.
Their fitness levels are already absolutely unreal.
Fish, who had bought himself a hyperbaric chamber, decided that in order to be a better player that he would have to push himself further and harder than he ever had in his life. And so for a full year he did exactly that.
His goal was to reach the annual competition for the best eight players in the world, which is held in London.
Not only did he accomplish that goal, but he won several tournaments and – and it must have been personally and professionally satisfying – he beat Roddick twice on the bounce, which was obviously a contributing factor in his friend’s decision to accept that his own career was going to come up just short of where he’d hoped.
Sadly, Fish himself was never to scale the heights he dreamed; long standing mental health issues affected him and he quit on the day of the biggest game in his career, a US Open match with a place in the quarter final at stake, due to a crushing anxiety disorder. But for the year and a bit in which he was in his prime, at least physically, he perfectly encapsulated the rewards that come from dedication, discipline and a commitment to fitness and peak conditioning.
I’ve thought about that a lot over the last year, and about another Netflix documentary, The Last Dance, about the Chicago Bulls dynasty.
The critical moment for them comes in the year before their first title, when they lost in the playoffs and instead of going home for the off-season the team, led by Michael Jordan, decided to hit the gym and get themselves fitter and stronger than they’d ever been … and for the next three seasons they blew everyone away.
I know that there has been a lot of criticism of Ange’s training, and the number of injuries which we’ve suffered. But if this had surprised the man himself I’d have been more concerned; instead, he expected it because he’s seen it before in the first year in which he works with a team. But this guy is pushing this side to levels they’ve never been near.
Perhaps the most amazing thing he has said since coming here is something that was largely overlooked in its importance, and he only said it a week back, when he talked about the fitness issues which are affecting Hatate.
“I have said all along that there is a relentlessness when you play for this football club and you can’t rest on what you did last week or even the last pass or the last action. It’s constant and it’s always there. But you are never going to build that into players if you shield them away from it. This year my thoughts were just to expose as many of our players to it as I could. Earlier in the year we were throwing guys in without even training and the expectations are still there, you have to perform.”
Those comments make it abundantly clear that Ange is working to a formula and it’s about making players stronger – physically and mentally – than they’ve ever been in their lives. Look at the guy who he did work with last season; Maeda. That man’s fitness levels are some of the most amazing I’ve seen at Parkhead. How do you think he got that way?
He worked with Ange for two years. Ange helped turned him into that guy.
And that’s what he wants the whole of our team to be able to do. As Fish proved, and as Jordan and his team demonstrated, once you dedicate yourself to that or you are trained to that level the improvements that come with it will be visible for all to see.
If you want a football example from close to home, look no further than our super-kid Kieran Tierney … he is an example for every Scottish player to aspire to, an absolute football machine, a peak athlete who deserves every bit of his success.
That’s where this manager wants us to be. That’s the level he wants every single member of this Celtic side to reach … the point where they train and then play at an elite level. The point where they are fitter and stronger than they’ve ever been or thought they could be.
We are going to see that next season, and it is going to be special.