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Health and Fitness

'I felt like a rocket out there!' - How a sprint coach made Phil Foden faster

09:00 WAT 17/01/2022
Phil Foden Manchester City sprint coach GFX
The Manchester City and England ace employed the services of Liverpool-based Tony Clarke to make him quicker and the results are there for all to see

It was a low-key conversation in a Liverpool coffee shop which ended up changing Tony Clarke’s life.

“I suppose you could say I became an overnight success,” he tells GOAL, smiling. “But it took me 25 years to get there!”

Clarke – nicknamed 'Madness' on account of his apparent childhood resemblence to the 1980s ska band – is a coach at the famous Liverpool Harriers running club, which has produced the likes of Steve Smith, Anyika Onuoura and Katarina Johnson-Thompson, among others.

A talented long-distance runner himself, he combined the role with his day jobs, organising dance events while running a vending machine business.

At the Harriers, he worked with high-class athletes, Olympians and Paralympians, as well as coming across various footballers, rugby players and boxers out on the track.

Then, in late-2019, came a chat with Owen Brown.

Brown is the representative of Manchester star Phil Foden. He and Clarke go way back, and meet regularly at Antonio’s in Liverpool’s Metquarter.

Jamie Carragher will often join them, as will Liam Smith, the former world light-middleweight boxing champion, or Bradley Orr, the former Blackburn and QPR defender.

“We put the world to rights,” laughs Clarke. "They should have a camera on us, it'd be TV gold."

Anyway, on this particular occasion, Brown began talking about Foden and his dribbling prowess, only for Clarke to interrupt.

“I told him ‘He could be so much quicker, you know?’” Clarke says. “I explained why, and that was that. I thought no more of it. We carried on with our day.

“Anyway, a few days later, the phone rings. Unknown number. ‘Hiya, it’s Phil Foden.’ I was like ‘Alright, mate, whatever!’ But then he mentions Owen, so I know it’s him. 

“We ended up chatting on the phone, I explained what I meant, that I felt he could be quicker off the mark, and he said ‘OK, can I come down and see you?'"

Foden and Clarke met on a cold evening at Wavertree Athletics Centre, where Clarke sought to correct the imperfections he had spotted.

“It was his first three steps,” he explains. “His stride was too long. He needed to shorten it so that his foot landed underneath his body, underneath his hips.

“If you overstride, you land on your heel. So, essentially your foot stays on the floor for too long. I felt if he could change from a heel-striker into a front-of-the-foot striker, it’d add so much.”

And so, over the course of eight sessions, they got to work.

“We started with some really simple exercises,” he says. “Ladders, footwork drills, working on his stride.

“The first thing you notice with Phil is that he wants to learn. I’ll be honest, I thought he might show up for one or two sessions and that’d be it, but he understood what I was saying, what I wanted him to do.

“After a couple of sessions, I started showing him videos of NFL players. Short distances, accelerations, change of direction. 

“I told him 'Imagine a clock face. You’re at a standing start, and I want you to go to 12, one, two, three o’clock and so on. What do you need to do?'

“You watch the NFL players, and it’s the feet. They move first, pointing in the direction they want to go. Then, the arms start pumping, and off they go.

“Phil, if he wanted to change direction, he’d sidestep first and then turn his body. But if you do that, you’re not using your quads, hamstrings, glutes. You’re not generating any power or momentum.

“So, we did a load of ‘Hexagon’ drills. He’d be in the middle, rattling his feet, and I’d shout ‘two o’clock’, ‘nine o’clock’, ‘six o’clock’, and off he’d go.

"We worked on that change of direction with his foot, then pumping the arms so that the legs would follow.”

Lockdown, of course, would disrupt their progress, but Foden remained keen to continue the improvement he had seen from those initial sessions.

“He asked me to come up to his house and do some work with him in the back garden,” Clarke says. “And when I say back garden, it’s more like a football pitch!

“We’d do some more speed and agility work. He has a goal up, and we’d have a bit of a mess around there.

"I’ve got some videos of him on my phone whipping free kicks into the top corner, landing balls in this trampoline net from 30 yards. Ridiculous!”

By the time City returned to training, post-lockdown, Foden could feel the difference.

“He said in one of the first sessions back, Pep Guardiola commented on his sharpness off the mark,” Clarke grins. “So, he told him he’d been working with a sprint coach, explained what we’d been doing, and Pep said ‘Keep doing it!’

“The first game back, he came off the bench and scored [against Arsenal]. Then, in the second, he scored two and was man of the match [against Burnley]. He rang me five minutes after the end and was like ‘Oh my God, mate, I felt like a rocket out there!’

“He could see the improvement, and I think everyone can now. He is lightning off the mark now, and he can sustain it for 90 minutes too.”

For Clarke, those few months proved transformative. It was Foden, among others, who encouraged him to go full-time with his coaching.

He helped set up an Instagram account, @needforspeed100, and the endorsement of one of the Premier League’s biggest stars meant more clients would follow.

Clarke now works with a host of footballers, from youth team players such as Manchester United’s Charlie McNeill, Manchester City’s Lewis Fiorini and Wigan’s James Carragher (son of Jamie), to Liverpool Womens star Missy Bo Kearns and established mens professionals such as Lee Peltier (Middlesbrough) and Jon Flanagan (HB Koge). 

Snooker legend Ronnie O'Sullivan drops in occasionally too. Conor Coady, the Wolves and England defender, is another client.

“I’ve known him since he was at the academy at Liverpool,” Clarke says. “I went down to Kirkby to observe him for 10 days, a long time ago, and his flaws were obvious.

"He landed flat-footed, and when he ran, he looked like he had his hands in his pockets. There was no angle to his running stride, so he was not generating enough momentum. 

“We did loads of work on that, ladders and drills to reduce contact time and get him pushing through quicker, driving the arms. 

“I kept in touch with him right through, sending him drills and ideas. Then, in the summer, just after the Euros, we got together for a few sessions. We did the Hexagon drill I’d done with Phil, working on his foot positioning.

“He said afterwards 'F*cking hell mate, for two years, Nuno [Espirito Santo] has been telling me there’s something not quite right about your feet, and now it all makes sense!’ 

“I sent him a Hexagon to his house and told him to use it once or twice a week. I told him 'Just move your feet, different directions. Consistency, repetition.'

"He sends me messages now that he’s been working on it. That’s Conor, the ultra professional.”

It’s clear, from an hour in Clarke’s company, that he loves his work. He speaks with passion, and has a story for every occasion.

He studies other sports – particularly NFL – religiously, and keeps a record of the fastest players in the Premier League.

Foden, he says, is desperate to reach No.1 on the list, but competition, from known speedsters such as Sadio Mane, Adama Traore, Kyle Walker or Allain Saint-Maximin, or from surprise inclusions such as Leicester’s Caglar Soyuncu, who topped the 2019-20 list, is fierce.

“It’s changed the way I watch games,” he laughs. “I’m a Liverpool fan, and I look at someone like Trent Alexander-Arnold and think he can be quicker. He’s another over-strider.

“I’m a bit worried about [Ibrahima] Konate too. If a forward gets close to him and takes off, he’s done for.

“People think if you’re tall, you naturally don’t have acceleration. But who’s the fastest person ever? Usain Bolt. How tall is he? 6ft 5in! 

“I’d love to work with Trent on shortening his stride. I’d have him running up little steep hills, 10-15 yards. The same with Konate, same with the young lad, Rhys Williams. They’re unbelievable athletes, but they can be quicker. 

“It’s good to be quick once you get into your stride, but in the Premier League it might be too late by then!”

He adds: “It’s speed endurance, doing it for 90 minutes. You look at what players do now in a game. They can run up to 12km, they’re doing 40-50 sprints, and they’re doing thousands of accelerations and decelerations. 

“So, if you’re improving speed endurance, improving acceleration and deceleration by even half a per cent, it’s huge. That’s what Phil was able to do, and the benefits are there for everyone to see.”