From the magic sponge to tailored fitness programmes — a history of injuries at Wigan

2012-injuries

Photo shows Larry Lloyd’s 4th Division promotion winning team of 1981-82. Lloyd centre second row, Graham Barrow fourth from left back row, Alex Cribley third from right back row. Kenny Banks, trainer, extreme left, back row. Photo from WiganWorld.

Kenny Banks is a name that  more senior Wigan Athletic supporters will remember with great affection. I never saw him play, but I saw him perform miracles as Latics’ trainer from the early 1960s. A player would go down injured — no histrionics in those days, real injuries — and Banks would sprint on to the pitch with his magic sponge. Invariably dressed in a tracksuit, he was as fast as any player on the pitch, despite his age. In those days there were no substitutes — if you went off your team played with 10 men — so Banks’ sponge was of critical importance. Indeed, to an impressionable teenager Kenny Banks was a magician. Even in the coldest nights of winter he would come on and splash the player with his sponge. Somehow the player would rise to his feet and get on with the game.

With seven of their senior players out injured for the Manchester City game on Wednesday, Latics could have used some of Kenny Banks’ magic. Why is it these days that there are so many injuries in the Premier League? Is English football more physical than it used to be?  In Banks’ time as a player — he made 183 appearances for Latics between 1952 and 1958 — and as a trainer spanning two decades at the club, the game was quite brutal at times. In 1962, Latics had a winger – Billy O’Loughlin – who was lightning fast. At times the crowd would say he was ‘fricky’, scared of the rugged slide tackles of those bruising opposition full backs in the old Lancashire Combination. Billy was just streetwise, trying to survive in a tough environment.

In 1980-81, Aston Villa won the First Division. In those days there were 22 teams in the division, so there were 42 games to play. However, they won the league in style, using 14 players all season! Compare that to Wigan Athletic of the present time. In Wednesday’s game against the League champions they were without Alcaraz, Caldwell, Crusat, Maloney, Miyaichi, Ramis and Watson – all injured. This is not to suggest Wigan get more injuries than other teams. In the last 10 games of last season they stayed relatively injury-free with only 13 players being used in their starting lineups.

The most recent posting on the Physioroom website shows that Wigan, Aston Villa and Newcastle are currently having the worst recent injury problems in the Premier League. None of the these three clubs has played up to the level expected of them this season. In contrast, one notes that currently over-performing West Bromwich have the least number of injuries according to the stats.

Injuries affect the form of all teams, irrespective of the size of their squad. The elite clubs have superb squads, which enable them to compete in Europe as well as the Premier League. They typically rotate their teams so that all players keep some degree of match fitness. Most clubs are not in that position and tend to put forward their strongest starting eleven in each match. This means that when they get injuries they have to bring in players lacking in the kind of match fitness that will serve them in a Premier League game. It usually takes them a game or two to get back to the levels required. Ben Watson and David Jones have both proved themselves to be up to the Premier League level this season, although initially they were not at their best. Rotation of the squad is not something that Roberto Martinez has felt confident enough to practice, except in cup ties.

There has been a lot of debate on why there are so many injuries in the Premier League. Oliver Sparrow identifies various factors that might contribute towards such levels of injury. Any player in the fast and furious Premier League will get injured sometime. As a consequence clubs have improved their medical facilities and sports science has come to the fore. Wigan Athletic’s Head of Sports Science, Richard Evans, came from Swansea with Roberto Martinez. According to the club’s website Evans “combines his knowledge of physiotherapy and sports science to help improve the overall fitness of the squad. This role involves designing specific fitness programmes for improvement and to help the rehabilitation of any players that pick up injuries. Evans also fronts the medical staff on match days and can often be seen pitch side.”

Things have changed since Kenny Banks’ days. Footballers now have to be super-fit, stretching their physical limits on a regular basis. Injuries can often come in waves and Wigan Athletic are currently experiencing a spate of them. Fortunately this is the best squad that Wigan have ever had, with strength in depth. However, Roberto Martinez will still breathe easier when all his front-line performers are available once again.

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