How Important is Fitness When It Comes To Winning Football Matches?

With a permanent boss finally appointed, Chesterfield are looking to climb the League 2 table on the back of a new style of play and an improved training culture. But is fitness really the answer? asks Will Strauss

For the third time this season, Chesterfield FC has a new manager. Having dispensed with the services of John Sheridan and subsequently given his assistant, Tommy Wright, a go, the club has now appointed former Accrington Stanley manager Paul Cook on a two and a half year deal.

Cook seems like a decent enough appointment: he is enthusiastic, forthright and had a decent playing career with the likes of Wolves and Coventry. His managerial record, so far, isn’t up to much though (unless you happen to hold the League of Ireland in particularly high esteem). But the former Southport and Sligo Rovers boss does have a reputation for getting his teams to play exciting attacking football and that will go down well with most people in this particular corner of North Derbyshire.

Cook is said to have got the job partly because of the progressive style of football that his Accrington team played against the Spireites in a 4-3 reverse earlier this season and partly because of his enthusiasm and attitude towards training. A theory confirmed by owner Dave Allen last week.

“Footballers are paid as full-time footballers but I don’t see many of them training too much and that is the culture [Paul] is going to bring to the club,” he said. “We’re going to have a different culture down at Chesterfield. They’ve got to embrace the Di Canio method. [Swindon] train six days a week. They’re superfit. If you’ve got talent and you’ve got superfit you’ll start to win games. If you’ve not got so much talent but you’ve got superfit you’ll be better than you were if you weren’t superfit won’t you?”

A Bit Of Previous

Sound point though this may be, it doesn’t really say much for the previous regime or for other clubs around the country.

On that very point Allen said: “[Currently the players] go in two hours on a Monday, two or three hours on a Tuesday if they’re not playing, have Wednesday off, train Thursday, train a little bit on Friday, play Saturday and have Sunday off. It’s not enough.”

Results in the last 18 months would suggest he could be right. In being relegated from League 1 last season Chesterfield lost more than 25 points from winning positions – most notably shipping late goals against relegation rivals Scunthorpe and Wycombe when well placed to pick up more points than they eventually ended up with.

It could be suggested that this was down to an inability to ‘go the distance’ fitness wise. It could also be argued that it was down to a number of other factors such as confidence, decision-making and communication.

Equally, in our most recent league game, a horrific single goal defeat at home to bottom-of-the-table Barnet, I would say (from my less-than-lofty position in the West Stand) that some of the players were looking a bit ‘leggy’. There was no drive, no thrust and an inability to ‘go again.’ Our best players were two youngsters, Tendayi Darikwa and loanee Chris Atkinson, and the evergreen Terrell Forbes. The rest were simply not at the races. The consequence? Having created enough chances to win two games of football, we conceded another late goal and lost 1-0.

Survival Of The Fittest

The upshot of all this is that the team, under Cook, is now doing extra training each week and even the odd bit of pilates.

Anyway, all of this got me thinking. Do the fittest teams always do well over a season? On the one hand, Swindon (the team praised by Allen) are certainly doing OK in League One. While on the other, Oxford United (one of Swindon’s local rivals), with their newly appointed strength and conditioning coach and their pre-season ambition to be the “the fittest, the fastest and the strongest in League Two” are just one place and one point above the Spireites, a team now considered to be quite the opposite.

Let’s look at another example. Older readers will appreciate this.

When Liverpool were winning things under the great Bill Shankly, Roger Hunt, the England centre forward, said that the secret of their success was that they “were the fittest team in the country”. Those players won the league in 1964, 1966 and 1973 (albeit in an era when smoking, drinking and eating steak before a game was almost universally encouraged).

What does science say about it? Well, apparently very few people have successfully studied the connection between fitness and winning. But there is some evidence.

Thomas Karapatsos, the editor and founder of Soccer Mastermind, reports* on a study involving 320 male players from three different English leagues. He says the research concluded that: “team performance and success was not directly related to the level of fitness. Other factors such as player’s technique, tactics, formations, psychology, mindset and injuries need to be evaluated.”

Go back to 1999 and there is further evidence. In their report ‘Physical Fitness, Injuries, and Team Performance in Soccer’**, six Scandinavian sports scientists set out to investigate the relationship between physical fitness and team success.

Weak Relationship

Testing 306 players from 17 teams in the two highest divisions in Iceland they found that: “the relationship between team average performance on the various [fitness] tests and team success expressed as final league standing was generally weak.”

Instead, they concluded that incurring fewer injuries during a season equates to a higher league position (really? hold the front page!) and, more interestingly, that the higher a team can jump (yes, jump) the better they’ll do (which goes some way to explaining how well Stevenage and Sheffield Wednesday did last season).

‘This does not mean,” they add, ‘that a team with superior fitness would not have a definite advantage when playing an opponent with less physically fit players. [But] the ability to transform this fitness advantage to a real performance advantage would depend on a number of other factors, such as motivation, and technical and tactical skills.”

I’m not entirely sure what any of this proves. I personally think that Cook and Allen are right: the first team squad does look like it needs to train more. But hopefully this is not just about fitness or about how far and how fast they can run but also with a view to avoiding injury, rehearsing set-plays and working better as a unit.

Well I certainly hope it is. As science seems to think that improved oxygen intake levels alone are not going to be enough to get Spireites up the table.

As well as writing about his first love, Chesterfield FC, Will is currently generating articles for Dencroft, the concrete garages company.


** Med Sci Sports Exerc, vol 36, no 2, pp278-285, 2004


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