This revealing interview with ex- Everton physio Mick Rathbone originally appeared in Issue 1 of The Merseysider magazine.
THE BEAUTIFUL GAME?
David Moyes said he was ‘Everton’s best-ever signing’. The former Everton physio tells The Merseysider about his experiences in football, and writing the book that everyone in the game has been reading.
In the few months since its publication in summer 2011, Mick Rathbone’s The Smell of Football has picked up quite a head of steam. It was nominated for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year award and is already being hailed as a classic of football literature. ‘I’ve even been told that on the last England tour, all the lads on the team bus were talking about it,’ laughs Mick.
The success of the book is not surprising: anyone with an interest in football is likely to find it a compelling read. By telling his own story with incredible candour, Mick evokes in a way few others have managed the often brutal reality of football, both at the highest level and in the lower leagues.
Mick Rathbone’s life in football began as a defender at Birmingham City (then in the old first division), which he joined as a 16 year old apprentice in 1975. He’d followed the club from the terraces as a fan, but what should have been the fulfilment of a boyhood dream became instead a lesson in what Mick now calls ‘the power of catastrophic thinking.’ He found himself crippled by nerves, especially when in the presence of his hero, the club’s star forward Trevor Francis. Not only was he unable to hold a coherent conversation with Francis off the pitch, on the field of play he couldn’t pass to him: if he looked up and saw his idol waiting expectantly for the ball, his legs immediately turned to jelly and he lost all control of his feet.
Mick enjoyed playing for the reserves but perversely came to dread being selected for the first team, where he rarely performed at his best. In the book he spares us none of the humiliation he suffered at the time, including a 4-1 defeat at Anfield when he was deployed to mark Steve Heighway, who scored a hat-trick. The fixture was shown on Match of the Day (which only featured one game in those days), and Mick developed such a phobia about the programme that when Birmingham were playing at home he would drive to St Andrew’s on the Friday afternoon, to check if the camera crews were setting up for the match. If they were, it would mean the sleepless night he would be having anyway would be even more tortured.
Mick received precious little sympathy from managers or other players at the club, but he’s philosophical about it now and bears few grudges. ‘To be fair, a friend who knew me then and who’s read the book says nobody would have believed that was how I was feeling. I kept it to myself and nobody really saw it – maybe they just thought I was a rubbish footballer,’ Mick wryly observes. He was capped for England at youth level and has some interesting thoughts on the missed opportunities at Birmingham. ‘If I’d been handled in a more sympathetic way, I think I would definitely have done better. But not having that innate self-confidence is like not having enough speed, or the ability to read a game – it’s a crucial component that’s needed if you’re going to succeed at the highest level, and I didn’t have it.’When Mick dropped a division and went to Blackburn Rovers in 1979 he blossomed as a player and remained there for eight happy years. ‘When I first went there on loan,’ Mick remembers, ‘I was staying in a guesthouse and on my first night I went to a nearby pub. A couple of blokes came over and bought me a pint and I realised I was a star to these people. Then on the Saturday we were playing Wrexham and I woke up in the morning with that old feeling of wanting to play. Once the game started I found myself shouting for the ball, and by the end I was hoarse. It was a really emotional time because I went from thinking “you’ve had it, you’re gone” to “yeah – you’ve done all right”.’
Mick admits in the book that during his early period at Blackburn his newfound enjoyment of life went rather too far. His partner in crime during this spell was the Blackburn midfielder Russell Coughlin. When training finished at lunchtime the rest of the day would follow a set routine of heavy drinking at their favourite pubs, accompanied by the occasional game of pool. After last orders the pair would head to the chippie for the ‘full mog’: steak pudding, chips, peas and gravy. Coughlin would buy an uncut loaf of bread on the way, hollowing out its middle then tipping the entire contents of the full mog into it.
Mick’s excesses were reined back when he married his wife Julie, who he says ‘saved my life, my career, my self-esteem’. Mick played nearly 300 games for Blackburn, moving in 1987 to Preston North End, where he had a good couple of years before injuries started to take their toll. When he retired from the game in 1991 he found himself ill-prepared for life after football. ‘I was 33 with a wife and two kids, and I’d been playing and getting a regular wage since I was 16. Then it all suddenly stopped. There were businessmen who used to hang on my every word in the bar after the game, and I thought, “They’ll look after me, they’ll get me a job.” But the phone never rang.’
Salvation came in the form of a PFA-sponsored physiotherapy course at Salford University. After he’d started it, Halifax Town took him on as a physio, allowing him time off to complete his studies.
Mick observes in his book that Halifax, while ‘a terrific little club’, were one ‘whose raison d’etre was to struggle’. The financial situation of the club was so desperate that on payday players would race each other to the bank, believing that the first cheques to be presented had the best chance of being honoured. Successive managers had tried and failed to achieve stability, and a standing joke at the club was that the manager’s name was written above his parking space in chalk. When the manager who’d brought him to Halifax left, Mick was asked to take over.
His approach at Halifax was partly to keep the players’ spirits up with his trademark wit (he began one team talk with the line, ‘I have selected a team I think can get us a result today…and it is AC Milan’). But he also put his heart and soul into the job, and the Halifax Town segment of the book becomes a gripping, match-by-match account of the club’s struggle to avoid relegation from the Football League. We follow the cruel twists and turns of fate, with a win here, an unlucky defeat there, refereeing blunders, last minute goals. You read it hoping for the fairytale ending that you know couldn’t and didn’t happen: the club were duly relegated, and were wound up altogether some years later. Mick stayed on for two more seasons and briefly returned to playing, scoring a sensational 30-yard goal against Dover Athletic.For Mick it was another experience to learn from. ‘I realised the part that luck plays in football – how a game can hang on the bounce of the ball. I’ve no desire to return to management, but I thought the model I adopted – working hard, encouraging the players to want to play – worked, because I got everything possible out of the players and we got some decent results with a real patched-up team.’
After Halifax it was back to Preston as a now fully qualified physio, where he got to know David Moyes, who was then a player but went on to manage the club. ‘Dave and I became very close friends. He was a very strong player, and popular with the rest of the squad. Everyone looked up to him, and it was clear he was destined for great things. He was always focused and hardworking, keen not to shortchange the club in any way.’
Mick describes his seven years at Preston as ‘idyllic’, but when Moyes left to manage Everton and soon afterwards asked him to become head of Goodison’s medical department, it was an offer he couldn’t refuse. ‘Dave was immensely proud to be Everton manager, and I felt the same way. It was an opportunity to work with the best: during my time there we had players like Rooney, Jagielka, Phil Neville, Louis Saha.’
But regardless of the club or the player, Mick’s approach to getting and keeping footballers fit has not changed much over the years. ‘When players were being treated for injuries, I used to tell them “We’re going to concentrate on making you psychologically and physiologically the fittest you’ve been in your life.” I was never a believer in keeping players hanging around all day –you had to keep them fresh mentally, so we got them in, worked them really hard, then let them go.’ He also believes a physio’s greatest asset is being able to run and train alongside the players, and he takes a pride in his own fitness.
Mick thinks he was ‘born to be a physiotherapist’, and for several years at Everton all went well, with the team flourishing on the pitch and Moyes famously describing Mick as his ’best ever signing’. ‘People were calling me a miracle worker, and I’d say a lot of it’s just luck. Then in my last year at Everton [2009/10] we had all the bad luck – a perfect storm of injuries’.
All the years of unrelenting hard graft were beginning to take their toll on Mick as well. ‘There was an element of burn out, psychological as well as physical. And the game was changing in ways I wasn’t always comfortable with. There was an influx of other staff –nutritionists, masseurs, statisticians – and I just didn’t enjoy it as much as before.’
Since leaving Everton, Mick has developed a private physiotherapy practice in Cheshire, and done some work for Coventry and Preston, and with the England under -17’s. He says he still loves football and that if the right full-time job came along, he’d accept it. He’s also of course written his book, which he approached with his usual commitment and determination: ‘There are two seminal books on football – Hunter Davies’ The Glory Game and Gary Nelson’s Left Foot Forward – and I wanted mine to be mentioned in the same breath. I wanted people across football to read it, not just Everton or Blackburn fans, and that seems to be happening.’
It certainly does, as the queue for his book signing at Waterstones Liverpool One in November  confirmed. Football’s sometimes been cruel to Mick Rathbone, but it’s more often been kind, and he’s enjoying the latest twist in his richly varied career.
Mick Rathbone’s The Smell Of Football is published by Vision Sports Publishing.