Football today can be a brutal industry. The shelf-life of managers and players is shorter than ever before in the current results-based culture we find ourselves in. Dip down the leagues and you’ll see a recurring theme; longevity. Clubs, particularly at non-league level, are perhaps more forgiving than others, largely due to the fact they don’t have the finances to partake in the endless merry-go-round of staff and players as the likes of Chelsea have ridden in recent years.
Dave Phillips knows a thing or two about longevity. He is now into an unprecedented 25th year as part of the medical team at Dartford FC which is a world away from the glamorous lifestyle usually associated as part of life in the football industry. It is not uncommon for some of the big clubs to take to the skies for more than driveable distances for away games, a life Phillips would often dream of on a wet Tuesday night in Grimsby.
“I’ve done away games to Grimsby and Gateshead on a Tuesday night, getting back at three o’clock in the morning when we played in the Conference Premier (now the National League). You’ve got to love what you do but also you’ve got to love the football club that you’re working for.”
One thing that has never dwindled throughout the years of applying muscle tape and deep heat is his love of the club. “It’s a very community-orientated club here and many who work in the backroom do it because they love the football club and want to give something back to the area. I’m very proud of being a small part of the history of this club,” he added.
Football has changed immeasurably on and off the pitch in the last few decades but the struggles of being a physio to semi-professional players remains the same. Squads are smaller and time is limited, making the physio’s job of getting players back on the pitch as soon as possible critical. “We only see them two or three times a week for a couple of hours which is difficult. Really, we want to be doing the full rehabilitation process but if you’ve only got a couple of days a week to do it it makes it harder and longer for the injury to recover.”
Phillips added, “We can’t say ‘I need to see you tomorrow’ because they’re working all day in the city, for instance. But you learn to adapt to the hours that you’ve got and to work on them in the most efficient ways that you can.”
For many clubs at this level, financing a squad of players and staff is difficult enough without considering costs for medical equipment. For some of the ‘big’ clubs the outlay on apparatus is merely a drop in the ocean but, for Phillips and his team, the Darts’ supporters association provides a vital lifeline.
“We are very lucky here because we have a very hands-on supporters association. We have got equipment like ultrasound machines and GPS trackers that a lot of clubs haven’t got. We haven’t got anywhere near what they would in the higher leagues.”
“The biggest aid you’ve got is your hands […] the injuries and bodies haven’t changed”
“When we have an injured player we can’t always afford to send away for a scan, for example, so often we self-diagnose,” he went onto say. “In the Premier League they’d be sent straight for an MRI or CT scan without any thought to it.”
To the laymen it sounds like a tricky and frankly unenviable job. But whilst treatment options have continued to evolve, Phillips always remembers a comment by one of his former tutors when he attended night school at South Kent college to get his qualification, that has stuck with him to this day.
“They always said that the biggest aid you’ve got is your hands. Even if you don’t have all the new technology at your disposal there’s more knowledge about human anatomy than when I started and the injuries and bodies haven’t changed.
“Our job as physios of using our knowledge to get players back on the pitch as quick as possible is still the same.”
Even after all these years, it’s not clear Phillips is committed to hanging up his vinyl gloves anytime soon. “Every year, for the last ten years, I say to my wife ‘No, that’s the last year’. I am getting a lot older now days and with all the travelling it did get a bit too much and I told the club I was retired. But that only lasted for about three months – in the close season as well.
“I probably do as many hours now than ever – my wife says I do more now. I’ll still do nearly every home game and some away. I’m always mysteriously busy for Torquay or Truro away though!”