Since I started this blog, many football fans have commented on how little they actually know of what goes on inside the dressing room or on the training pitch. They just turn up on a Saturday (Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday… thanks Sky) and watch their team, because that’s what a supporter does. Louis Van Gaal was quoted on Monday as saying that United will just have to “work hard in training” to turn things around. Working hard in training should be the bare minimum, a pre-requisite if you like. But it’s a throwaway phrase and gives no indication as to HOW you work hard in training, so I will attempt to give a small insight into a training week, from both the coaches’ and players’ viewpoint, because believe me, they are entirely different perspectives.


Different managers will have different ideas on how you should play and how you should train. Two whom I worked under, had played for the same manager for many years – Jock Wallace – and yet their approaches to the game were at opposite ends of the spectrum. Alex Miller and Alex MacDonald were two “winners” alright, but there, the similarities ended.

Miller was a thorough coach and an excellent tactician. We were very well organised and knew exactly where we should be on the pitch. We were drilled and disciplined and that came from many hours of what is commonly known as “shape” which means setting up your shape (4-4-2) against the reserves, running through repetition after repetition of what would happen at certain times on the pitch, and endless drills of what your shape/positioning should be. I loved it. Many players resented it and got bored, but it made us a better team and much more difficult to beat. Those who never bought into it, tended to be the ones who’s attitude to training wasn’t great anyway. There are also drills when you set up against no opponents and work through where you should be in relation to where the ball is, and how you can position yourself to avert danger. This in particular can develop your sense of reading situations and in this instance it changes from “shape” to “shadow” (for obvious reasons).

Alex was years ahead of his time when it came to preparation. We were working with Brian Ewing back then, who is now head of Sports Science at the SFA, and his ideas and developments were implemented to the letter. Blood testing, aerobics, swimfit sessions, fitness testing, weights sessions were all integrated into our training programme. This was 20 years ago don’t forget, some clubs don’t even do that now, although I’m willing to bet the entourage at Manchester United is as large and as contemporary as the best, but it won’t matter if the players don’t apply themselves and buy into what you are trying to do. Top players usually do, that’s why they are at the top.

We trained hard, and we made the best of what we had. And we didn’t do too badly on the back of it. It was intense, physical training, lots of small sided games at a high tempo, “match” tempo. We did double sessions which were virtually unheard of at the time, where we would work on our shape in the afternoon. Those “shape” sessions went on to become a big part of my coaching philosophy.

Alex wasn’t always popular with the players, he was a disciplined man, and some players can’t work with that level of intensity. He didn’t care, he was an incredibly driven, motivated, individual who went on to work with Liverpool at the highest level. I wasn’t surprised in the slightest.


Alex “Doddie” MacDonald was a magnificent man. A leader, who had won everything possible with Rangers, his 5′ 5″ frame gave no clue to the desire and toughness of the man. It was a privilege to play for him. My football allegiances were entirely different to his, and make no mistake, there were times when he wouldn’t let you forget it. PC wasn’t a term Doddie was very familiar with.

He didn’t coach in the most literal sense. MacDonald was a “man manager,” his philosophy was that if you were playing against someone, then you had to be better than them, one-versus-one. Not necessarily a better player, but for that 90 minutes, you had to be BETTER than your opponent. They weren’t to play, but you were. You had to run faster, fight harder, be stronger than him and as long as you gave your all, his backing was unswerving. We had good players at the time, Jimmy Sandison, who in truth was a much better footballer than he was ever given credit for, Kenny Black, Gary Mackay, Owen Coyle, but nothing typified Alex MacDonald more than those players who would have run through a brick wall for him. He had an eye for that type of player, you know, the one that everyone hated playing against.

My first game was away at Falkirk and I was on the bench. We came in at half time a goal down, but had been awful. Doddie launched into them, his face red and twisted with anger, they hadn’t worked hard enough and that was a cardinal sin for that man. A tray of cups went flying in the direction of Stevie Cooper, who was no shrinking violet and in response Stevie picked up a flip flop and threw it, not at the manager, he just threw it. It hit the wall just above my head. He was saying sorry to the manager before it had even left his hand. I looked up at Alex and he looked at me as if to say “don’t even think about opening your mouth”. I said nothing, which was unusual for me, but in my head I was muttering very quietly “I think I’m going to like it here.” We managed to salvage a point.

At Airdrie we hardly trained and there was no emphasis on sports science and certainly very little “shape” done. Yet everyone knew where they should be and what their responsibilities were. It was a simple philosophy, if the guy nearest you scored it was your fault. If you weren’t marking someone, you better do it quick or you’ll be on the end of Doddie’s red faced “hairdryer.” And if you kept doing it, you didn’t play. Simple. As long as we worked as hard as we could, we would get Sunday and Monday off. The Monday was in truth a consequence of the wee man’s penchant for the Rob Roy Social Club on a Sunday. That aside, his players had so much respect for him he could have turned up for the first time on a Friday and still no one would have cared.

Tuesday was a “running” day, where we did all our fitness work. We’d start with a 30 minute Fart-Lek, a physically demanding run where the pace, dictated by Kenny Black, who was a fitness fanatic, went up and down in periods varying from 10 seconds to a minute. Fartlek was Swedish for “speed play” so contrary to popular football belief, it was not so named because it made you breathe out of your arse. After that it was four sets of 60-yard runs, 16 in total. Flat out. And the piece de resistance, eight half laps of the pitch. A brutal, physical day, but eased with knowledge that we had Wednesday off to recover. Yip, no sniff of the ball ‘til Thursday when we played small-sided games, crossing, finishing and shooting practice.

Friday was a short morning where we’d have a team briefing and a quick rundown of our opponents, a few short sprints and a 15 minute five-a-side. We were a full time club training part time, but let me tell you, with the respect we had for the manager, we worked harder in those few hours training a week, than some did in double the amount of training time.

The Van Gaal way

So the answer lies in how WELL you train. It doesn’t matter how much or how little you train. As long as you are doing enough to keep your fitness, the key is getting the best out of your players on a matchday and tailoring training to suit that. It’s in spotting and signing the right players who will buy into training and playing YOUR way. Because whether or not you are doing it correctly, it will only be judged by your supporters on how many games you are winning.

Mr Van Gaal has his work cut out at Man United, it might well take £200m to make what looks like a faltering squad, winners again. I wonder if he’ll do “hard work” the Airdrie way… Time will tell.

Onto this week’s Tips. We were undone last week by an under strength Celtic team selection and a dubious red card at Queen of the South, so here’s hoping we can finally get off the mark with a winner.
First up its Aberdeen to get back to winning ways at home to my old team Partick (8to13), Albion at home to Queens Park (4to6) and Morton away at Forfar (11to10). Fingers crossed for a 9/2 winning treble in the last chance saloon.

David Farrell


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