STEVE BRENNER IN SARASOTA
What makes a successful football club tick?
Most people immediately dream about a forward-thinking manager, plenty of money, a striker who bangs in 30 goals a season and a rock-solid backline.
They’re not wrong. All that helps.
But the next time you hear Lee Johnson talk about a collective effort at Ashton Gate, think about guys like Andrew Rolls and Derrick Bonsu.
No, they won’t be appearing on a Bristol City team-sheet any time soon, but their work behind the scenes in BS3 is vital.
Rolls, who is the head of performance, and Bonsu, strength and conditioning guru, are just two cogs of a brilliantly fluid wheel which ensures City’s squad are fighting-fit and ready to go for the long slog of a Championship season.
But it’s more than just keeping an eye on muscle strains and convalescing players from serious injury.
Rapid technological advancements mean the days of the magic sponge are long gone. Rolls and Bonsu, along with their team, analyse everything – from distances run at varying intensities during matches to the strength of a player’s hamstrings, leg muscles and their jumping ability – and it’s helped massively.
“The gaffer uses his eye brilliantly, but sometimes I look at a session and think one part is harder than another, but then the data shows something different,” Rolls, who arrived at Bristol City from Arsenal last summer, tells Bristol Live.
“The eye can lie. I wouldn’t say we are totally governed by the data, but I am just looking at the numbers – total distance, how fast they’ve run – it’s mathematical, and it all helps.”
London-born Bonsu and his colleagues are at the training ground every morning from 7.30am, having already soaked up the information gleaned from the previous game and training sessions.
Rolls meets with Johnson soon after to discuss the stats and fitness plans for the week ahead.
A state-of-the-art, camera-based system called TRACAB (which is used in many of the world’s top leagues, as well as in Major League Baseball in the United States) logs the distances players run during matches and throughout the week. It also details the intensity of their performance.
The numbers alter depending not only on their fitness levels, but also how the match unfolds. If, for example, the opposing team is deploying a high-press style, the data will be different from a match where the tempo was much slower.
“We want to train at a similar intensity at which we are playing,” explained Bonsu.
“If you don’t train as you play and, come the weekend, you haven’t trained at that intensity, that’s when you could be susceptible to injuries and found wanting as well.”
The stats are collated and taped to the wall – they are also sent to players individually – so everyone can see the results in a “leader board” fashion and how they compare to other teams in the Championship.
Bristol City were ranked sixth out of 24 last season in terms of high-intensity distance covered during matches, up from 13th in the previous campaign.
“It’s all about working harder,” smiled Bonsu.
Naturally, every one of the 92 clubs in the Football League have similar set-ups, the quality and depth dependent on the resources available.
But, what’s evident in BS3 is that stability is key.
Continuity in the often madcap footballing world doesn’t stop at the bloke in the dug-out or the people in the boardroom holding the purse strings.
The collaboration runs right through the heart of the club – a new boss could come in and have wildly different opinions on the fitness side and make sweeping changes.
That upsets equilibrium and, naturally, causes problems which could manifest themselves on the pitch.
The end result? Unhappiness, uncertainty and almost guaranteed failure.
Bonsu has been at Bristol City for six years and worked with just two managers – Steve Cotterill and, now, Johnson.“City have shown they want to commit to a long-term process, I wouldn’t have left Arsenal to come here if I thought they were going to sack the manager, sack the board and there would be different owners,” added Rolls, before putting the Robins through the paces in the sweltering Florida sun.
“There are terrible stories about people moving their families down, kids enrolled in new schools and then they lose their job.”
“It’s 100% collaborative,” concluded Bonsu.
“Everybody has to come together to see how the gaffer’s philosophy aligns with the physical demands of football itself.
“Lee is very intelligent. When we deliver this data to him, he understands it.
“Year on year, you just want to be better. We’ve done well for the last four or five seasons, and will continue to improve.”