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Spend five minutes in the company of Chesterfield’s new strength and conditioning coach Mal Purchase and you are left with no doubt that the ex-SAS serviceman knows exactly how to construct and maintain an elite professional athlete. Revolutionising the club behind the scenes, Purchase is establishing a grounding in sports science to rival that of Premier League teams as he strives to see the club achieve to the degree of his unrelenting ambition.
“When you start your work for a football club you’ve got to be like a supporter, you’ve got to give everything you’ve possibly got.” began the 51-year-old. “When you come here you’ve got to have blue blood running through your veins; you’re the same as them and you’ve got to give everything you’ve got for this football club.
“Chesterfield’s a good club and you run it professionally like everywhere else you go, you don’t treat it any differently – you just do the same as if you were working in the Premier League, nothing changes. This club can go further yet, there’s a lot more to it. I haven’t come here to sit in mid-table, we want success and we want to go up straight away.”
Purchase’s career to date has seen him travel far and wide with a remarkable term in India with Premier League side Bengaluru, following spells with Doncaster Rovers and Wolverhampton Wanderers.
But it was at the Racecourse Ground with Wrexham where he learnt his trade in the game.
“My route into football started many years ago when I was in the gym in Wrexham. There was a footballer called Joey Jones who used to play for Liverpool; he used to come and watch me do boxing in the gym and he used to join in with us,” Purchase recalled.
“He used to referee a few fights that we would have up in the dark room, so there was a bit of claret spilt every Friday afternoon when we used to be in there.
“This was at the end of his career really and he invited me to come and do some training at Wrexham so I’d go and train the footballers on their fitness and I worked with Brian Flynn there.
“Brian Carey [Chesterfield’s assistant manager] was there as a player and I used to train him many years ago.”
While overseeing the fitness training at Wrexham, Purchase met a player who would go on to succeed as a strength and conditioning coach after a short lived career as a player.
“I went off and did a bit of work with Damian Roden at Manchester City looking at their set up and what they were doing.” he Purchase.
Influential in Purchase’s approach to fitness coaching, Roden is now head of fitness at Stoke City and a leader in the field after heading departments of sports science at Bolton Wanderers, Blackburn Rovers, Manchester City, Australia and Wales.
“The sports science was starting to take off in football then; from the early stages in sports science in football I was at the start of it so I have seen how it’s progressed up to where it is now. The systems that we’ve put in place here at Chesterfield – with the Stats Sports, all the GPS monitoring – we’re right up to date with all the top teams in the top leagues.
“I’ve got many friends who work in football who work at the top level all over the world and anything that is new which comes on to the scene, we’re the first to know about it so we try and we test them and if they’re suitable for the football team then we run it out there.”
The day to day monitoring of players through the use of technology installed at the club by Purchase has proven invaluable in his effort to eradicate any guesswork surrounding the players’ fitness levels.
“We’ve put a lot of sports science base in to the club now where we don’t guess.” He explained. “We test for speed, for power, with monitoring on the GPS of every step of every single day. We go through everybody’s figures. All players get different figures and we know where their parameters are so we know exactly what we’re looking for in each player.
“When it comes to rehabilitating players, we know exactly what speeds they can run at, how many accelerations and decelerations they do in training and for that specific position and player, we know exactly what to give them; we know what he is for when he comes back.
“There’s no more guesswork in it. People always said it was a fit team at Chesterfield but you’ve got to measure fitness or else we will never know the real answers. Now we’ve got real scores for the sprints and agility and so we’ve measured performance; nobody would know that Usain Bolt was quicker than Carl Lewis if we never had timing gates so now the evidence is there and we know now whether we’re a fit team or not.
“We’ve got a lot of people now running over nine metres per second [20 mph] whereas when we were here for the first two weeks we didn’t get anybody over that. We had to put a lot of biomechanics in and a lot of conditioning, a lot of speed and agility drills and now we’ve had nine players who can run over nine metres per second. You test in training and you compete, that’s the way we work.
“I must say that this season is the best pre-season that I’ve had because we’ve got no injuries. All the players have completed the six weeks of training and, with the help of the GPS, the nutrition that we’ve put in, all the conditioning work and the rehabilitation work we’ve put in daily, the manager has a full squad to select from.
“But just because we’ve got no injuries doesn’t mean we take the foot off the gas; every day we’re on it, we have to work really hard to keep a clean bill of health at the club.”
Purchase returns to English football after a period in India, where his successes with Bengaluru saw him face Sven Goran Eriksson’s Guangzhou R&F in the Asian Champions League.
The Whitchurch born coach had to call on his wealth of knowledge while working in India, with soaring temperatures and high humidity affecting player performance.
“A friend of mine, Ashley Westwood, who I worked with at Wrexham before he was the assistant manager to Michael Appleton at Blackburn, asked me to come to India.” He recalled.
“We went over there and took all the sport science with us; it’s obviously very hot over there so all of your testing has got to be spot on.
“It really does test your degrees skills when you’re playing in 120 heat and we’re trying to play a pressing game, so all your knowledge comes in on the nutrition, on the loading phases and cooling the body temperature down in high humidity because the sweat system doesn’t really work then.
“You’re using all the ice towels, trying to get them on the pitch every 20 minutes just to cool the body temperature down and getting the correct amount of fluids in.
“We started off the league very well and we continued to progress. We changed all their nutrition habits that weren’t very good to start with and we made them physically fit and strong and powerful and we won the league.
“After winning the league we won the federation cup then we qualified for the Asian Champions League and we got out of the group stages at the first attempt. We were very successful in India with a new team and it just shows you what you can do when you take sports science to a country like that.
“It was a really good test. A lot of teams that go to World Cups and you see players cramping up and things like that, but that never happened with our team and it was well documented in the press out there how fit we were and they were alarmed how we never got any injuries – they couldn’t work out what was happening.
“We just brought all the best sport science and it shows you it works.”
And Purchase is confident that the systems are in place at the Proact to mirror the success he enjoyed in India.
“We’ll do things properly at this football club and we’ll run it like a Premier League club because that’s where we want to go. There’s no reason why Chesterfield can’t get there. I think with teams like Bournemouth and Watford getting up there and obviously Swansea ten years ago were playing in the lower leagues and they’ve got up there so I think there’s that carrot which has come back again.
“I think a few years ago it seemed to be lost again where it was impossible to get in the Premier League but now I think a few teams are starting to believe again that they can get there and Chesterfield shouldn’t be any different. They should start believing that they can get there. There’s a lot more science in the game now and there’s no reason why we can’t get there.”