BY RICHARD CAWLEY
Part of a performance coach’s job is to help footballers make gains – no matter how marginal. And Dave Carolan has an interesting response when it is put to him that you cannot coach pace.
The reason the topic comes up is that we’ve just spoken about Kylian Mbappe putting on the afterburners in France’s 1-0 victory over Germany at the European Championships earlier this month.
“Speed kills in any sport,” said Carolan, who started working in football as a sports science consultant in 1999 and joined Millwall in September 2020.
“If you have players who do have that, they are gold dust and worth more money. If he has got technique as well as speed then it is open cheque book time.
“But we do spend a lot of time on developing the speed and power in players, and some of it is through understanding when to run and how to run. Not everything has got to be about hitting a top max speed, it can be about the acceleration.
“The freak speed you see at the top end of the game is one thing, but just making someone two per cent quicker can make a huge difference to us and the team. We just try and maximise everyone’s potential.
“So can we make Billy Mitchell a bit more explosive, so he can get to a few more knockdowns in midfield? With some of the older players, can we maintain their speed rather than losing a yard?
“Over the years I’ve found it is a journey for a player in terms of their athletic potential. When they are young they are able to be developed an awful lot across a lot of different parameters. By the time they get into their mid to late 20s, an opportunity to really enhance a lot of things diminishes. You might be focusing on specifics.
“Towards the latter end of their career it is keeping them at a point where they can almost keep up with the pace of the game – especially with the young ones coming through.
“You’re not treating everyone the same; there is always a challenge from each individual because of who they are, where they play and their injuries during their career. It is a spectrum across the squad.
“It is like a minestrone – there is always something different popping up to the surface from time to time that you have to contend with. Even across a whole season that is going to change.
“If you look at someone like Murray Wallace, he can end up being a full-back, a wing-back or a centre-back and you’re potentially trying to condition him for all three positions – or one. You’ve never cracked it. There is always something to learn.”
Dundalk-born Carolan was a youth international for Ireland and was on the books of London Irish as a “messy scrum-half” when a back injury ended his career.
He had picked rugby over gaelic football, being part of his hometown’s youth team.
Carolan started working with Gary Rowett at Birmingham in May 2015 and has followed him into his next three clubs – Derby County, Stoke City and Millwall.
It will be hard for the 2021-22 season to throw up the same kind of physical demands as the one just completed.
The Covid-19 pandemic ensured the campaign did not start until September and still had to be finished in early May.
“I was consulting before I became full-time and my thought process was that while we were going to have a short close season and a short pre-season, actually the players will decondition less in the close season,” said Carolan.
“We identified this was a year almost for maintenance, that we didn’t need to chase any performance improvements or change the numbers we need to achieve in the gym.
“It was about keeping people fit and available as much as possible. There are some injuries we can’t control – the contact injuries and when people land awkwardly. Towards the end we had Murray Wallace with his foot, Ryan Leonard and Ken Zohore with their ankles – they were contact or falling injuries which made our squad availability a little bit lower.
“Outside of that we have kept the majority of the squad available throughout the whole season.
“We had Jed [Wallace] available pretty much every game. Mason [Bennett] missed a handful of games. You go to the back and Jake Cooper had his recovery from a shoulder injury, but apart from that nothing else.
“Even though it was a challenging season in terms of the density, with the help of a well-balanced training programme and our focus on recovery – which started immediately after every game with the seven or eight strategies we have in place – it kept people available.
“We can’t do it without the players and they have bought into what we want to do this year in terms of recovery, even though that can mean jogging around the Madejski Stadium in January after the game – it is freezing and they are wearing two coats. None have ever complained about it. They have got on with it and known it is for the greater good that we’re doing this. That’s a huge help.
“People talk about the squad mentality at Millwall being excellent and that pays into it. The senior players are the first ones back out afterwards, to do things right, and it’s a credit to them. They have built up this great culture.”
Managers often talk about medical advice on a player’s ‘load’ – how many minutes they can play in a match before their chances of suffering an injury increase.
Carolan is part of that conversation.
“We certainly have parameters with players where we’re looking and deciding if they are in a more risky position,” he said. “As in, is there an additional amount of risk that is going to be associated with this player going to do what he is being asked to do? That could be in training or matches.
“My role is to present the information to all parties. Then empowered with that objective data, but also with our subjective knowledge and experience – because there is a lot of experience in the room – what do we think of this? We’re certainly not data-driven – we are data-guided. It allows us to make better decisions.
“But fundamentally it comes down to what do we think in the room? Do we think the risk is acceptable for this player to play? And if we do, he’ll go and play.
“Quite often we’ll be in the middle of games and I’ll come down from my viewing position at the stadium to give an insight. We are using live data.
“We had one game where we saw Mason, Scott [Malone] and Jed absolutely at the top end of their physical performances and that information needs to be presented back to the coaching staff as quickly as possible. That could be in the first half and we could be saying: ‘This game is abnormal – it’s very, very high intensity. We’re probably going to have to expect there is going to be a drop-off at some stage in physical capabilities in the players, for a period, while they try to recover’.
“That not only all builds into gameday but also how we plan pre-season and how we train differently next year to improve the capacity of the players to hold those positions longer in games, to be able to maintain energy longer. At the top end, they are going to be asked to do it for periods of 25-35 minutes non-stop – which is what the best teams are able to do. They suffocate you a little bit, like that.”
Millwall try and use the data to create bespoke programmes for their squad in terms of their recovery.
“When you’ve got someone like Scott Malone, who is regularly doing more than one thousand metres of high-speed running and 200 to 250 metres of sprinting in a game – back to back over maybe eight games in four weeks – it is trying to optimise that ability for the player to perform. We have to try and wrap services around them.
“That could be how much recovery they are getting, how much training they are doing on the actual pitch in the days leading up to games. It might mean players are treated slightly differently, at different times.
“You have got some players we are roughly tracking how fast they run in games or in training. Not only to ensure they are optimised in terms of performance, but we actually see that if they are regularly exposed to very high speeds it actually protects them from injury.
“We’re looking at the max speed every week and, generally speaking, every week the players have run over 95 per cent of their maximum velocity.
“It’s something we spent a lot of time on this year with Mason Bennett, to ensure he has remained as available as possible. It’s been one of his best seasons.
“That’s making sure we’re looking after Mason on an individual basis and any drop off in performance or those speeds, we’re immediately trying to work out why that is happening, working with the medical performance and coaching team.
“Are we seeing what we’re all seeing? Or is there something in the data? So at least then we can try and cut off any problem before it really occurs. Mason has really bought into it, but also the staff have worked extremely hard to stay on top of him and keep him available as long as possible.”
Carolan quickly hit it off with Rowett, feeling he needed a new challenge after seven years with Colchester United.
“I had an approach from a colleague of his to ask if I was interested. I’d already decided it was going to be my last year at Colchester. As serendipity had it, I went to meet Gary and Birmingham.
“In the course of that conversation we both had a similar idea around training, conditioning of players and how I manage people, on and off the pitch, and working up, down and across within a club.
“There was a great amount of congruence in how we thought about things.
“We work well together. I don’t need to be in his ear all the time. He values my opinion when it is needed. He has got a lot of people to advise him.
“I sit in that position to help when he needs help, or interject when I feel the time is right. Maybe adding a voice is valuable, but not to crowd the conversation.
“I’ve come in to complement Laurence [Bloom, head of performance]. My skillset would be a little bit different.
“Me being in the building allows Laurence to not spend so much of his time dealing with all the technologies and tidal wave of data we have coming in.”
Carolan’s family have been based in Norfolk. It has acted as an anchor, a contrast to the transient nature of the football industry.
He is grateful for the support of his wife Louise and three children – Noah, Elliot and Martha. Elliot is about to go and study sports science.
“The apple doesn’t fall from the tree,” said Carolan. “Elliot is quite possibly the only Millwall shirt-wearing person in Norwich. He takes great pride in wearing it.
“Football has always been a challenge for staff, with the dynamic nature of the work.
“It’s only with understanding families that it allows you to do your best work.
“I wanted to reduce the burden on them, so they didn’t feel their lives were being uprooted. It’s good to be able to give them somewhere they can call home and is a base.
“It’s not that we would ever be frightened of moving away but where it has been feasible for me to commute, and stay away for part of the week, it makes it so much easier.
“We’ve been based in Norfolk the whole time and they’ve allowed me to follow my career – whether it was based in the Midlands, more in the north with Stoke or with Millwall in London.
“It’s a pretty unique career to follow. I know all the staff really do have to lean on their families at times when there have been games non-stop. To not mention their support would be remiss.
“It can look great when you get three points on a Saturday. But you still want to go home and be a dad and a husband, to support them.”
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