In May 2016, the BBC featured a story on the science behind Leicester City’s historic premier league victory that season. Somewhat clinically, the article examined how the combination of explosive sprinting, weight training and good old-fashioned fun had coalesced into one of the greatest stories of top-flight English football.
While the BBC article took the issue of weight training for granted, history shows that football has been remarkably slow in embracing the weights room. Indeed, trawling through the footballing annals suggests that it wasn’t until the 1950s that football teams truly began to experiment with strength training.
Today’s post, centring on one such experiment, details Ron Chifney’s efforts to introduce Tottenham Hotspur to the rigours of weightlifting during the 1950-1951 season. Chifney, as will become clear, was an avid footballing fan and his efforts to strengthen Spurs involved some rather remarkable innovations.
Writing in Health & Strength, an English physical culture magazine in 1951, Chifney provided readers with a wealth of photographs from his rather novel relationship.
Before examining the workouts however, the question must surely be asked. What did Tottenham expect to gain from this experiment?
The Innovative Tottenham Hotspur
Much like the current team, the Tottenham squad of the mid-century were known for their quick play and eye for goal. Led by Arthur Rowe, Tottenham were one of the early forerunners of the ‘push and run’ style of play that would soon become commonplace amongst English teams.
As the name suggests, the ‘push and run’ tactic involved a series of one-two passes between players as a means of cutting through the opposition at pace. Taking the second division by storm the previous season, 1950-1951 marked Tottenham’s first appearance in the top flight of English football since 1935. Led by household names such as Alf Ramsey, Ronnie Burgess and Bill Nicholson, Tottenham would take that year’s first division by storm.
So impressive were Rowe’s side that by the season’s end, they had secured their first ever first division title. The first, pundits agreed, of many.
It was this environment of new, attacking football that Chifney entered at the start of the season. Tasked with improving the youth squads and whatever first team footballers were interested, he set about his task in an industrious manner.
The Real Training
Football training methods in the 1950s were, at times, quite simplistic. Laps and laps around the training field often constituted the bulk of what we might call fitness training. This was not the case with Chifney’s Tottenham protégées. Training youth products such as Sid McClellan, Ted Gibbons and Colin Brittan, Chifney set out a series of customised training plans aimed at improving their on pitch performances.
McClellan, then a twenty-one year old inside forward, was given a series of exercises to bulk up his upper body and provide much needed strength. Although Chifney was impressed with McClellan’s ‘previously weight trained physique’, noting that the striker was capable of covering a hundred yards in ten seconds, he still felt there was room for improvement. Chifney’s goal was thus to add muscular bulk to an already speedy player. Importantly, he believed McClellan’s training programme was clearly paying dividends as the opening page of the article featured McClellan seconds before scoring a winning goal against Derby County.
Other Chifney students included Ted Gibbins, an aspiring half-back who many believed was only kept out of the first team owing to the talent of the Tottenham squad. Though confined to the sidelines, Gibbins took to the gym with a series of dumbbell and barbell exercises in a bid to break into the first team. This included swingbell pullovers to increase his ability to throw the ball from the sidelines and jump squats to improve his agility. In short, Chifney had Gibbons train with an eye to his position. A form of functional training that current trainers would no doubt appreciate.
The final player covered in depth by Chifney’s Spurs experiment was Colin Brittan, an promising wing-half from Bristol. Brittan would feature eight times for the first team during the 1950-1951 season having appeared to have benefited greatly from Chifney’s mentorship. In the article, Chifney highlighted the importance of posterior chain work for the pacey wing-half by having Brittan perform deadlifts and good morning exercises aimed at strengthening his lower back and hamstrings. Such targeted training would later be echoed by the training coach Charles Poliquin who believed that weakness in the lower back was one of the major predicators of injury amongst footballers.
Word evidently got round the Spurs training ground that Chifney’s experiment was something worth examining. Such murmurings filtered up to the first team and it wasn’t long before Chifney met with first team stars such as Alf Ramsey and Ron Burgess. Though the senior players only appeared to dabble in Chifney’s training system, that they were at least open to it is quite extraordinary as many footballers of the era believed that weight training caused one to become muscle bound and slow. Clearly Chifney’s influence was not limited to the youth squad.
Football, as a topic of study has long interested historians and while the origins, development and enhancement of the game continues to be studied in great detail, more work could certainly be done on the evolution of training programmes within individual clubs.
Such training was often dependent on individual trainers, in this case Ron Chifney, and conducted primarily through the youth squads. Nevertheless it was often seen as something beneficial. Indeed by the end of Chifney’s experiment, Spurs had won that year’s first division title and had a new stock of promising footballers to call upon. This stock, as evidenced below, had been ‘enhanced’ through Chifney’s methods.
As a final word it is important to emphasis that although Chifney’s efforts in 1950 can be viewed as a success, it was a long time before weight training became the norm for footballers. Indeed, eight years after Chifney’s Spurs sojourn, the effervescent footballer Malcolm Allison was seen as an outlier for indulging in weight training while at West Ham. Similarly when Allison became ‘Big Mal’ as a manager, his decision to include weight training for youth players was questioned by many in the footballing community. This became a particularly sore point for Allison, who lamented the archaic attitudes of those opposed to weight training in his 1967 work ‘Soccer for Thinkers.’
What the cases of Chifney and Allison highlight however is that there was a real appetite amongst some in the footballing community to change and better training methods for players. Urged on by the competitive will to win, select teams embraced the weights room from the 1950s onward. While such teams were initially in the minority, there is no denying the gym’s importance to the game today. Indeed so ubiquitous has fitness training become that footballers are now regularly chastised for slacking on their fitness programmes and in the case of Adebayo Akinfenwa are applauded for their strength in the gym.
Article © Conor Heffernan