Behind the scenes: Niall Clark gets technical

With Hammers enjoying a break from the rigours of Premiership football this weekend, we spoke to the Club's Head of Technical Support, Niall Clark, to gain an insight into the physical condition of the players at this stage of the season, find out what is planned for the remainder of the campaign, and to reflect on the success of the sports science department following Niall's arrival last summer…

Q: Has this two-week break come as a help or a hindrance for yourself and the players Niall?
A: It's definitely a help. To be honest, the break is more important psychologically than physically. Even though people perceive playing football every week as being the best thing in the world, it can still become mundane if you are doing the same things every week and, mentally, the players need to take a break.
At the moment, it's nice to reflect on how well we have done so far and what has been achieved, as well as looking forward to how we can kick on from here. It's nice for the boys to get away from the day-to-day involvement, refresh themselves, have three complete days without any football and come back ready for the last 12, 13 or maybe more games that are left.

Q: People may say that, given our fantastic run of form at present, it would have been better to play on Saturday and keep the momentum going. What is your response to that view?
A: I feel the benefit of having a rest far outweighs the momentum we have gained recently. That won't go away - the memories are fresh, when you look at the league table you see that we are still in a good position, and sometimes you can find yourselves in an even better position by not even playing. We've also got several international players who are going away on duty this week, and it's nice to give them a rest before they travel. So from my point of view, it's fantastic that we've had a break, and it benefits everyone - not only the players. It's also important for the staff to get away for a couple of days, and I'm sure everyone will return from their rest feeling refreshed and ready to go again.

Q: What training methods and approach are the players working to at this stage of the season?

A: At the moment, we are going through what is known as the prophylactic phase, which basically means to prevent and protect. The players are given plenty of rest, but not complete rest. A perfect example is this two-week break - we've had a total break mentally from the demands of Premiership football but, physically, the players trained on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday last week, and will have a normal week of training leading up to the Everton game next Saturday.
The intensity has been strong, and I've actually overloaded aspects of training, such as the strength and power work, because the recovery time is longer. The players have moaned about that, of course! But they've had the luxury of three days complete rest, and this week we will lower the intensity, ready for Saturday's game and the final push. From now on, it will be purely maintenance and recovery.

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Q: Presumably, it's more about conditioning the players now rather than improving their fitness?

A: That's right - long gone are the days of running miles and miles just for the sake of it. Physically, the group of players we have here are phenomenal athletes. The ProZone statistics and data prove that, and from my point of view, it is fantastic to be working with these guys. It's not only one component either. For example, Nigel Reo-Coker is not only strong - he is also powerful, quick, and has great aerobic base, flexibility and reaction time. The players are all excelling in every component of general fitness but you've also got to be aware of individual needs, and when they do need to rest. The old mentality was work, work, work, but that is not the case any longer, because the only time you benefit from exercise is when you rest - that is when your body adapts to the work you are doing.

Q: Much has been made of the trend we have developed recently for coming from behind to win matches and finish games strongly, is this the result of the fitness regime and philosophy at Upton Park?

A: I think it's simply all connected to the practices and management we have in place here. The manager has given me full control of the intensity and duration of training and Peter Grant takes everything on board and allows me to do the fitness sessions through the football - because everything we do is football-related, there is no running for the sake of it. So the players enjoy it, and they have all shown the right attitude from day one. They have put the effort in, responded to the challenges we have put in front of them, and have been reaping their rewards.

Q: You must be delighted at the physical performance of the players so far this season?
A: The actual performance of the team is obviously very satisfying, but what I take the biggest amount of pride from is the low number of injuries we have suffered this season and how many players have been available to the manager. Apart from the busy Christmas period, when we suffered a couple of muscle strains and a couple of impact injuries - Nigel's ankle and Danny Gabbidon's gashed knee, we've had absolutely nothing all year, including pre-season.
So from my point of view, that is the biggest achievement. We've got a relatively small squad, so it has been vital that, 99% of the time, the manager has had a full squad to choose from. That is massive in the Premiership. You look at the likes of Newcastle, Manchester City, Spurs, Bolton - they've all been full of injuries. Yet our physiotherapist, Steve Allen, hasn't had a single player in his treatment room for the past two weeks. That gives me an enormous sense of pride.

Q: How have the players responded generally to the new ideas and techniques that you have introduced since arriving at the Club last summer?

A: From the players' point of view, I've got to be honest, it boils down to success. If they feel fitter, look good, are playing better, and the team are winning on a Saturday, then they love me.
I made a big decision to come here after five years at Reading because, when I joined, West Ham were favourites for relegation from the Premier League. People thought I was taking a chance, but I wasn't, because it all comes down to trust, and I trust the manager more than anyone I have worked for. I knew I was coming into the right environment and I knew that I would be working with someone who would allow me to carry out my role in the right way.
To be honest, it doesn't surprise me that we have done so well this season. It's all down to hard work and application, and the management and players deserve a lot of credit for the way they have approached the challenge.

Look out for more from Niall Clark on later this week…