The changes at Fulham over the last few years have been nothing short of revolutionary. The players showed how effective the new improved training techniques were last season, and another significant factor in the success of the team has been in the treatment and care given to those players unfortunate enough to pick up injuries.
In the latest in the series "Stories Behind the Faces", Fulham Today caught up with Alex Court, a key member of Roger Propos' team working behind the scenes.
Alex, what exactly is your role at Fulham?
I work as Roger Propos' assistant at the Club. I used to be the Exercise Physiologist, but my role has developed more into being responsible for the rehabilitation of the players, working very closely with Roger.
Roger looks after the whole of the First Team squad and I assist him with that, but my main function is in the rehab of the injured players. Whenever anybody gets hurt they see the Physio's first, and then they get passed over to Roger and myself. We devise programmes and work with them to continue their recovery to ensure that they return to full fitness and full training as quickly as possible. It obviously depends on the particular kind of injury, but we try to return them to training as promptly and as safely as possible, and in the correct state of fitness so that they are ready to play almost immediately.
Does this mean working with the players on a "one to one" basis?
It depends how many injuries we have. If we've got four or five players then I'm looking after all of them, and that will involve quite a lot of planning. We put together a schedule for each of the players which is determined by what the actual injury is. For example, someone like Chris Coleman who has a long-term injury will be at a completely different stage of his rehab compared to somebody who may have just turned their ankle. We try and co-ordinate everyone together as much as we can, but each player will have a specific rehab programme that will address, on a daily basis, their recovery needs.
So it will be very organised, very time structured, to give the player specific objectives. It's no longer the case of just turning up and having a bit of treatment, they know exactly what they've got to do at what time, which is obviously a lot more efficient.
Is this just the First Team?
It's basically all the professional squad, but there is a crossover with the Academy. We want the Academy to use the same ideas and the same techniques as the First Team. We're trying to introduce continuity across the whole of the Club. We haven't got a physical trainer with the youth team at the moment, so now the Physio's take care of any injuries, and Roger and I help out where we can, but mostly we concentrate on the First Team squad.
What is the set-up like at Fulham, in terms of equipment and facilities?
I think we're probably in the top three or four in the Premiership. Our facilities are comparable with Man Utd, Arsenal, Liverpool, all the top clubs. As far as the medical team and the physical preparation set-up goes, we're up there with the best. Ask any of the players who have been at different clubs in the Premiership, and they will all say that we are better than anything they've experienced before.
You said that you were originally an Exercise Physiologist. What exactly is that?
Basically, you look at how the body reacts to exercise and you try to enhance that reaction. With sedentary people, you can make a big difference very quickly. But with elite athletes, which professional footballers are these days, you might only be able to have a minute affect, but it might enable them to prolong their career for a year or two longer, or it might mean they can play on Saturday rather than have to wait a week or two longer.
Everything we do at Fulham is scientifically based. There's no guesswork. Everybody in the Medical and Physical Team understands how the body works and we try to enhance each player on an individual basis. We don't say, here's a group of players, they'll all do the same, each person is tested and measured individually, and from that we produce specific programmes to help them reach their optimum performance.
Is this an approach that's been around in football long?
Not very long. I arrived at Fulham in 1997 and I started doing fitness testing then. Before that, the First team hadn't had too much physiological input. The Physio did some, but it was very limited because he was on his own and without the facilities and equipment.
So how did you arrive at Fulham?
I was at Harrods originally, in their Occupational Health Department, and I was very interested in what was going on at Fulham. I had worked with athletes before and was keen to see what it was like. So I came down, and at that time Chris Smith, the Physio, had about twelve injuries. He was on his own, he looked after the First Team, the Reserves and the Youth Team, with no facilities, so he asked me if I could help. I started to come down one morning a week, and then two mornings and then three, and then two days and then three. When Jean, Christian and Roger arrived, Roger needed an assistant, they identified there was a need for a rehab specialist, and because I had been with the Club before and knew everyone, he gave me the opportunity to become full-time and take up the role. So this is my second full season, and it's all down to Jean, Christian and Roger believing in me and giving me the chance.
And what did you do before Harrods?
I worked as an Exercise Physiologist for a private Sports Medicine Clinic in Northampton. We did consultancy work for corporate companies like Nationwide, Rushden & Diamonds Football Club, the Northamptonshire Police Force and also the Fire Department. There was a lot of group work, and a whole range of different types of people, from ordinary members of the public to elite athletes.
Before that, I did my degree in America, in Atlanta. I spent four years at Georgia State and loved it. I played basketball, so it was part of a basketball scholarship. A lot of people say that an American degree isn't as good as a British one, but my degree was Exercise, Science and Sports Medicine, and I think that the Americans are more advanced in those fields, so it makes my degree a very good one. You just have to look at American sports teams and athletes and see how far ahead they are. As part of my degree, I did an internship at the British Olympic Medical Centre in London, where I worked testing people like Steve Redgrave and Mathew Pinsett and top athletes like Kelly Holmes. I was lucky enough to be able to do that for ten weeks, and that experience stood me in good stead for what I'm doing now.
What's it like working in a professional football environment?
It's fun. I laugh every single day. It's an absolute pleasure to work here. All my friends think I'm so lucky because I love my job and they hate theirs. It's been a hard slog to get where I am, and obviously you have good days and bad days, but I'm a very passionate person and I love what I do. It's a demanding, time-consuming environment, we work six or seven day weeks and very long hours, but it's a pleasure to do it.
I particularly like my current role in rehab because I feel help the players and hopefully help motivate them. I hope I can empathise; I've played basketball to a high level and I've been injured so I think I can understand what it's like when they're unable to play.
So it's not just the physical side of rehab that you concentrate on?
It's the same for everybody in the medical team and coaching staff. When you're dealing with so many individuals, there's always going to be a psychological side to the work. These guys are very self-motivated, they all want to play on Saturday, but they're going to have ups and downs when they're injured and that's where we can hopefully make them enjoy what they're doing and help them see how much good it's doing them.
Since Jean, Christian and Roger have arrived, I think the players have seen the benefits of their training, and are motivated to do it because they can see it makes them better athletes.
How does it feel being female in what has traditionally been a predominantly male-oriented world?
Five years ago it was a real challenge. It was very difficult to get anybody's respect in what was very much a man's world. Why should we listen to you, you've never played football, that sort of thing. I had to be very strong, and believe in myself and my skills. I had to fight long and hard and there were times when I thought I couldn't do it. It was a real challenge, but I enjoy challenges. I'm a determined person and I want to be successful.
But now the players all know me, and Jean, Christian and Roger all respect me and because of that it motivates me to work very hard. In many ways as well, I think it actually helps the lads having a females around. I think perhaps that they tell me things sometimes that wouldn't tell another man. If they're a bit down it helps them to open up a bit, and express their emotions easier which can only be healthy.
What have been your highlights from your time at Fulham?
The highlight for me, and anybody in the crowd who knew me will know how much this meant to me, was last season when we walked out onto the pitch and were presented with our Championship medals. To be walking round the ground and be feeling part of it all was amazing. To get up there and get that medal knowing that I'd been given it because everyone respected the job I'd done meant so much to me. It made all those really bad days, the days when you didn't think you were going to make it, worthwhile. That's been the absolute highlight of my career.
Another special moment was when Simon Morgan played against Wolves after coming back from his injury. I'd obviously spent a lot of time with him, every day for months, and when he came back and got a standing ovation I cried my eyes out. He'd worked really hard and I was very proud of him. That was a very rewarding moment.
Finally, what does the future hold for Alex Court and for Fulham?
I'm just going to try and keep positive and keep enjoying what I'm doing. I want to carry on learning and improving and hopefully see Fulham succeed in the Premiership. We want to be at the top of the Premiership, we want to be in Europe, and anything I can do to help that would be great. I love it at Fulham, we're one of the best Clubs in the country and it's a privilege to be here.
So there you have it....the appliance of science. We've come a long way since the days when all an injured player could look forward to would be cold water and some liberal usage of the flat-capped trainer's magic sponge. But with Alex and her colleagues working their own magic, it's nice to know that the care the Fulham players of today are getting is the best there possibly is.