The Big Interview: Mick Rathbone

Mick Rathbone turned his hand to writing when penning his autobiography The Smell of Football in 2011
Mick Rathbone turned his hand to writing when penning his autobiography The Smell of Football in 2011
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Footballer, physio, manager, sports scientist, fitness guru, mentor and motivational speaker – Mick Rathbone has crammed plenty into his 57 years on the 
planet.

He played more than 400 first-team games at four clubs, a handful of them under the watchful eye of the manager who had led England to World Cup glory in 1966.

‘Baz’, as Rathbone is widely known in football circles, was later to turn to management himself.

That was almost by accident, bearing in mind he had initially gone to Halifax Town to be a physio

There is enough material in that little lot to write a book about – actually, he has already done that, so you can author to his list of job titles.

‘The Smell of Football’ was a best-seller when published in 2011 and Rathbone has plans to pen a sequel, when time allows, over the next 12 months.

A warm and engaging character, a quick call to him this week to chew the fat about Preston’s clash with Blackburn Rovers – two clubs close to his heart – turned into a long chat which took me bang up to date with what he has doing since we last spoke five years ago.

It was widely known that at North End and Everton, he became one of the country’s leading physios and sports scientists.

Rathbone has since worked at Manchester United and with England.

He looked after the fitness and well-being of England’s Under-17s for three years and then the Under-20s for a further two.

His final game with the young Lions came last Sunday, against Canada at Doncaster’s Keepmoat Stadium.

Now he will concentrate on mentoring young players as well as running a sports injuries clinic.

Rathone might have gone beyond his mid-50s but 
here is a man in top physical shape.

As physio and conditioner, he led by example, running with the players he was keeping fit and more than likely out-pacing them.

Anyone who used the gym in the Bill Shankly Kop at Deepdale when Rathbone was PNE’s physio, would have come across him hammering the treadmill most afternoons.

“I’m 57 now but sometimes I only feel about 55,” he 
joked.

“I look after myself, I run every day and keep in good condition.

“I enjoy doing that – being out working in the fresh air with players was a big part of what I did at Preston and then Everton.

“I have just finished working with England, my last game was last weekend.

“For three years I worked with the Under-17s which was absolutely fantastic.

“Players such as Raheem Sterling, Nathan Redmond, Jordan Pickford and Nick Powell passed through that age group.

“In 2014, England won the Under-17s European Championships in Malta. That was a good time to finish at that age group and I then got asked if I would like to work with an older age group.

“The Under-20s was being set up as a bona fide age group at the time and they wanted me to help give them some stability.

“Aidy Boothroyd was in charge of them and then when he went to the Under-19s, Keith Downing took over and I worked with him for the last year. Dele Alli and Luke Shaw were two of the players who have played in the Under-20s.

“I did five years in total with England and now it is time to move on to something new.

“It was great going to random places like Georgia and Bosnia, seeing different parts of the world.”

As well as working with England, Rathbone did a two-year stint at Manchester United – although in a slightly different role than the fitness and medical one we have been used to seeing him do.

He was there with his former North End team-mate Warren Joyce.

“I worked with the Under-21s at United, players like Ben Pearson and Liam Grimshaw who are now at Preston, Adnan Januzaj, Tyler Blackett, Michael Keane.

“I was more a sports psychologist there. Warren 
Joyce was the United Under-21s coach and when I first went there, I’d go out on the training pitch and do some of the conditioning and football work.

“Doing that, I got to know the players and they got to know me.

“They would then come to see me away from the club, one-to-one, if they had any problems or needed to unburden themselves of something.

“I think it proved successful and a lot of the lads I worked with have gone on to play for United’s first team.

“My time at United spanned the last few months of Sir Alex Ferguson, David Moyes’ time in charge and then the arrival of Louis Van Gaal.

“With something as big as Sir Alex’s retirement, to be there on such an historic occasion as his last day in charge, was being in the right place at the right time.

“When David Moyes came in, it was not nice to watch on helplessly as things went wrong through no fault of his own.

“He and his staff were my friends from Everton and to see how things panned out wasn’t good. The Dutch people came in after that and to be fair, they were nice 
guys.

“I was at United just under two years.”

The mentoring Rathbone did at Carrington is something he has carried on with.

“I’m doing a lot of work with players on that side of things,” he said.

“Agents have been in touch asking me to work with players away from their clubs.

“Through their own efforts and hard work, they have done really well.

“They tend to be younger players who have maybe got into a first team early and then dropped off a bit.

“It is carrying on what I did at United – that is my interest now.

“I’ve set up my own sports injuries clinic at my house in Blackburn, something which I’m going to give a push to and get advertised.

“I also do talks on confidence, which is a big thing considering I didn’t have any confidence at all when I was a young player.

“Just the other week, I gave a big talk at St George’s Park about confidence to a room full of people.

“I stood up and spoke for about 45 minutes, yet if those people in the room had seen me five minutes before 
I went on, they would have seen sweat pouring off 
me.”

That lack of confidence to which Rathone refers, was a topic he covered in depth in his book in 2011.

A promising young player with his home-town club Birmingham City, he froze with fear every time he came into contact with the Blues’ first-team players.

It was an extreme version of anxiety, one he overcame with a move away from Birmingham to Blackburn in 1979.

Ewood Park was his home for the next eight years before a tribunal-fixed £20,000 fee brought him to PNE in the summer of 1987.

Despite suffering a broken arm and cheekbone during his time at Deepdale, Rathbone still managed almost a 
century of appearances for Preston.

He retired from playing, trained in physiotherapy, and managed Halifax before returning to North End as physio and conditioner in 1995.

For nearly seven years he was on the PNE staff, before taking up an offer from Moyes to go to Everton – a job he did for eight years.

Reflecting on his own early struggles as a player, Rathbone said: “It was a great release to come away from Birmingham, away from the killing fields so to speak.

“Looking back, I can say that I worked under Sir Alf Ramsey there.

“Going to Blackburn saved me as a footballer. I had eight years there and played 300 games in a different era.

“People keep telling me that it was a better time to play back then. It probably wasn’t but it was different.

“Players were more accessible, we lived in the town where we played, walked the dog in the park, went to the local snooker club.

“I’m sure in the early 1980s, people were saying to the players who had played in the 1960s that it was better in their day.

“I go back to Blackburn two or three times a season and they always look after me.

“I know Derek Shaw well and until recently, he was there as chief executive.

“When I visited, I would walk past the cabinet where the player of the year trophy I won in 1981, is kept.

“I left Blackburn to come to Preston in 1987, it wasn’t called a Bosman then – it was freedom of contract.

“Bobby Saxton had just left Blackburn and I thought it was the right time to leave.

“I had four years at Preston on the plastic pitch, then came back a few years later having just qualified as a physio.

“The club was started to stir again thanks to David Moyes, Baxi and the supporters.

“We nearly got promoted to the Premier League, which is where I would dearly love to see North End get to one day.

“At the Millennium Stadium we lost 3-0 to Bolton and didn’t play well on the day.

“I remember seeing Colin Hendry before the game and shaking his hand.

“My hands were sticky with nerves, Colin’s were dry.

“It was just another game for Bolton but for us it was a step too far that day.

“I was physio for seven years at Preston, I watched the infrastructure grow and the new stands go up.

“In that time we moved from training at Moor Park to Myerscough, and then on to Springfields.

“Everything gradually got a lot better.

“The building of the gym in the Bill Shankly Kop was massive for me in terms of the work I could do with the injured players.

“Leaving to go to Everton in 2002 was a really difficult decision.

“But what would most people do if they are offered a job with more money and at a higher level?

“There is always a time to move on and accept another challenge – I’m always prepared to move on and try something else.”

There was a brief return to North End for Rathbone in the 2010/2011 season.

During Phil Brown’s time as manager, he worked part-time on the staff.

Said Rathbone: “I came to help out PNE physio Matt Jackson with the long-term injured players.

“With me working with those players, Jacko could focus more on the day-to-day stuff.

“I had four or five players to work with and I really enjoyed that spell.

“Jacko is a great bloke and a fantastic physio.

“Preston North End was a big part of my life and it was great to be associated with them as a player and then on the staff.

“To have played for Preston and Blackburn, both of them founder members of the Football League, is an honour.”