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Former Chelsea coach Ade Mafe: Tales from the Premier League fitness revolution

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On preseason fitness regimes, how Chelsea trained in 1996, and how Rui Faria revolutionized football fitness

Chelsea Training Photo by Ben Radford/Getty Images

Ade Mafe is a personal trainer and former Chelsea Football Club fitness coach. He coached at Chelsea from 1996 until 2005 and then at Millwall, MK Dons, West Brom and Watford. Mafe was one of the first fitness coaches in the Premier League. He's worked with world class players and coaches like Claudio Ranieri, Roberto Di Matteo, Gianfranco Zola and José Mourinho. Before his coaching career, he was an accomplished sprinter. At age 17, he competed in the 200m at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, and later got a bronze medal at the 1990 Commonwealth games.

The following is an excerpt from an interview with Josh Schneider-Weiler on the Football Autobiography Show. The podcast focuses on long-form interviews with football's most interesting players, managers, backroom staff and writers. In this episode, Mafe talks about the key piece of advice he received from Carl Lewis, about how fitness training has evolved in the last 20 years, about the impact of Rui Faria and José Mourinho, and about missing the first goal of the 1997 FA Cup final because of Eddie Newton’s socks.

Interviewer: So how did you end up at Chelsea at 1996?

Ade Mafe: I think I retired from Athletics at 26. I broke a bone in my toe. And then I thought well okay, now that stopped, now that episode of my life has stopped, I need to start a new chapter. I wanted to go into fitness. I was living in Bayswater, working in Kensington. Fitness coach for three, four years. And then just out of the blue I got a phone call, saying to me "your boss says you are the best, want to come and work for Chelsea Football Club?" They told me what they needed me to do, I said yes I can do that, and that's how the next chapter was started. And for 10 years, I was at Chelsea Football Club, and for 17 years I was in football.

Interviewer: So they said they had you with a plan in mind, what did they want you to do?

Ade Mafe: My job brief was to warm the players up, for training. To warm the players up for games. To cool them down if they needed to cool down. Take care of all the physical abilities. And if they went in the gym and wanted to do anything, help them out. At that time there were no... I think there was one fitness coach in the Premiership. A lot of players getting their fitness from other forms of exercise. So a good runner, would be a good midfielder. A good sprinter would be a striker. Nowadays, you can garner your fitness from football with the advent of the GPS and so on and so forth. The whole emphasis has changed, the rehab is more important. They analyze a lot more, analyze players a lot more. They find that players don't use their glutes as much when they run. Science has gone into it and broken it down, and it's a completely different game from when it was back in the day. If you had the ability to play football, that was the most important thing, the fitness you can work on it, but you had to have the ability to play football in the first place.

Interviewer: And so at the time when they give you this job description, who is making the fitness plans at these clubs previously? When you saw their plans, or their fitness at the time, in 1996, what did you think of it?

Ade Mafe: It wasn't wrong really, to be fair. I think the manager had a fitness coach in Italy, because he was an Italian player.

Ruud Gullitt the Chelsea manager

Interviewer: This is Ruud Gullit?

Ade Mafe: Gullit, yeah. He had a fitness coach in Italy, and followed that model, when he was appointed Manager of Chelsea he wanted to follow the model. I don't think there was a fitness plan. In those days most fitness plans came from the manager. If the manager wanted to get his team fit, he would just run them. And they used to do things like suicide runs, you know?

Interviewer: Were there any other things you noticed about the current fitness plans, or the way they went about fitness that you thought were a little either outdated or just could be improved when you first came in?

Ade Mafe: Oh when I first came in you could see there was a big scope for improvement, definitely.

Interviewer: In what ways?

Ade Mafe: Just the player attitude. I remember once I was rounded off and told "this is not a Chelsea Athletic Club, this is a Chelsea Football Club." So you know that the attitude of the players was not as much into physical fitness as it is now for instance.

Interviewer: When did you notice that teams were catching on to the importance of having a fitness coach? Obviously in Italy you said that it was more common at the time, but there was only one at the Premiere League around the time you came, when did other teams start to catch on?

Ade Mafe: I mean I obviously can talk about Chelsea but the advent of foreign players, and the success of those type of teams, and then other teams started looking at what these guys are doing different that they don't do, and so they started thinking that we better employ, we better employ. Before you knew it now every team in the Premiership has a fitness coach, or someone who's on the fitness sports science department, getting players back from injuries, as quickly as possible, increasing the performance of your team.

Interviewer: While you were at Chelsea, who is the person that you almost didn't need to get fitter? That they were just so naturally fit?

Ade Mafe: Gianfranco Zola, I don't even have to think about the answer to that one.

Interviewer: In what ways was he just so fit?

Ade Mafe: He was just know. He was a bit like Ryan Giggs, he knew what he needed to do, he would do yoga which was really important, he would go out and train, he would go out and practice. He knew what he would do. I think the biggest thing for me was at the end of one season, he wasn't playing, and I don't know what he was doing in the off season, but he came back in the following year and he was just yards ahead in every aspect. And the managers could not ignore him because he was that much better than everybody else that was there.

Gianfranco Zola

Interviewer: Who improved the most that you were really proud of? When you were with them at first maybe were not so fit and then when you started to work with them they got incredibly fit?

Ade Mafe: I think everybody improved, I think they had to improve. I think there was an evolution of football players not just in the pitch but off the pitch as well. An evolution in the wages, an evolution in the lifestyles, an evolution in the competition, the advent of the foreigner, the whole shebang was completely changed. For instance, if you are an alcoholic you would not be able to get away with it now. And still players would come in on a Sunday to train and the whole place would be stinking of drunk wine. Eventually those players they wouldn't play, because they can bring in players who could do it. And those would players would be, not teetotalers, but they would drink in moderation and they would do things in moderation, and some would be teetotalers and some would be looking after themselves, and slowly it started filtering out all the... And this is where you are finding a lot of the British players started to fall back because people were starting to bring in more economical athletes for the money they were getting paid.

Michael Duberry

Ade Mafe: About speed maintenance, there was a player, Michael Duberry, who was a big center half, and he was one of these players that could maintain. But even when he did complain, when we did have a competition and he did run, he just about, and I had been training him for quite a few years in that time. Ten meters acceleration maybe Gianfranco Zola, he used to regularly compete against me, just acceleration from standing start. I think he was more likely the quickest because he has a low center of gravity, it was important to him, his reaction speed and how he accelerated. As I said he was one of the few players at that time that actually realized that physically it was more than just playing football it was your physical attributes that had a big influence on what you did as well.

Interviewer: Yeah. I want to read a quote you gave in a newspaper, in regards to a preseason plan, you said “There will be three weeks of base work, which is kilometer runs, the same as we did last year, and last year we managed to do about 35 kilometers and this year we are going to get up to just under 50 kilometers." So what is a normal preseason plan that you used to do? And how did that evolve through the years from 1996 to 2012 when you were with Watford.

Ade Mafe: It evolved. What we do for preseasons was kilometer runs, just running for a kilometer.

Interviewer: Just one?

Ade Mafe: Yeah just one kilometer, and you do maybe 5, you start at 3 and you maybe go up to 6. And that 50 kilometer total is the total amount that you would do over a preseason. So you would do that in the morning session, so in the morning sessions you would come down, you would put your trainers on, and you maybe do six 1000 meter runs. And then in the afternoon you would play football, you have some lunch and then you would play football. Now, you are playing football in the morning with the aid of GPS, so they know how far you have travelled, and then you would play football in the afternoon. And then the people who were monitoring you would say "Right, that's enough. That is enough training for today, you have done the required distance in your training session."

Chelsea v Fulham - Premier League Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images

Ade Mafe: The one thing I'll say that the way that Rui Faria would use a football, and the way he incorporated football exercises and football demands in a fitness drill, was revolutionary at that time.

Interviewer: Can you just go into a little bit more detail, what was so revolutionary about it?

Ade Mafe: Right, so you would have two groups of players. One group of players 40 yards away, one player in each side has the ball, he would pass the ball up, and when he passed the ball up he would go running towards that ball. He followed the ball that way. So he was getting a 40 yard run that way. The player at that end would track the ball, control the ball, pass it to the coach, go foot and ladders, get the ball back from the coach, run in and pass the ball to the next person in the line. And that person would pass the ball, get the ball, ping it 40 yards. And so they would be constantly rotating round. There were football demands at each end, obviously you had to have players that could put that ball 40 yards.

Ade Mafe: If you got a player that can't do that, the whole drill gets spoiled. You need players that can do that. If you have players that can do that, it becomes a football exercise, but also it becomes a conditioning exercise as well at the same time, because you are getting a 40 yard run and you are getting a sprint with the ball. At that time, I think it was pretty revolutionary, I don't think anybody had seen a drill like that, or would even consider. I mean we saw it and we were straight away thinking "That is not enough". But it was. And his team was preforming a lot better in the last 20 minutes of games, then any other team in the Premiership. So you know it was enough, so you think well maybe we are over-training, maybe we need to look at what we are doing, and maybe what we are doing is a bit too much.

Ed.note: I would like to thank Josh for sending this along to us. Be sure to check out his podcast (this is episode 9) and follow him on Twitter at @footballautobio.