I was struggling with the thought of relegation as a manager for the first time in my career but not to the extent I was feeling that I’d failed. Simply, the thought process that less than 2 years after managing in the Premier League, I found myself at a great club with fantastic potential but we were beginning life in the third tier of English football.
This was something I believed that I had to overcome quickly; but also make the players understand that we were starting a new venture that would hopefully see us achieve a quick return to the Championship and possibly beyond…, not an easy task!
Understanding yourself has always been a big part of my life and ultimately, my changing room needed to understand that we may think “we’re Preston North End”, but actually we are playing football next season a long way away from where we both wanted to be and also believed we should be.
We knew it was going to be an almighty combined effort to get anywhere near to achieving this, hence my thoughts led me to think of a different way of looking at life, psychology and more importantly the upcoming pre-season.
The process was quite simple, the planning of pre-season is always about times, dates, games, hard work, discipline and ultimately preparation. What could be more applicable to all of these words than military precision training and… the SAS.
I contacted a company in Preston who we (myself and Sam Allardyce) had worked with at Bolton Wanderers, Advance Performance, and they gave me the contact details of a Regimental Sergeant Major in the forces based in Arbroath. I proceeded to get in touch with the RSM and we made arrangements to meet.
Brian Horton and I went up there on the train from Preston to Glasgow and then over to Arbroath. We met the man in charge of an arm of the SAS that you wouldn’t think existed but it’s actually being used throughout the world of business, industry, sport, you name it, to fine-tune and hone in on, discipline, teamwork, bonding, togetherness and ultimately separating the winners from the rest.
This turned out to be an opportunity I couldn’t resist and we set about planning for a 5-day stay which would culminate in a game and then a final week of training in preparation for the forthcoming season.
An Arbroath ‘Adventure’
We arrived in Arbroath at a train station which was a little out in the sticks and we were greeted by four or five army guys who put us quickly into trucks and drove us to the barracks. We were then herded into a squash court which we were told was actually our sleeping arrangements… for 25 players plus staff so around 40 of us in total.
However, we were then given a second squash court because of the limited space and the size of the squad etc. We were living here for 5 days and 4 nights… LUXURY!
We were told what to wear and to be in the gym area in 15 minutes to which we received our welcome instructions. I always remember one particular instruction during the session that followed stating you weren’t allowed to touch your face or wipe off the sweat, any little touch was punished with 10 burpees, 10 press-ups or 50 sit-ups… for everybody. Welcome to team discipline!
This was the SAS’s belief in teamwork, always supporting your teammate and never letting them down, whatever the circumstances.
They believe in recreating life or death situations to see how you, as an individual, were prepared to go and to what lengths you would take to win a game, win the battle, win the war.
The challenges became more and more intense and sleep deprivation was a tactic they used to see what we looked like under pressure. I remember the loudest klaxon blaring in the squash courts at 3am and we, all 40 of us, had to be ready, in full gear, with our beds made up, showered and ready on parade outside, in line, within 8 minutes.
After this, we had to go back and get back to sleep until 2 hours later when it was the same thing again!
One of the days training was spent entirely on the beach. No sun lotion in sight, or sun loungers or even swimwear for that matter. It was full gear with footwear to match and we were introduced to the ‘sweatbox’.
This was the biggest, steepest sand dune on the edge of a cliff at the top and we were, yes, you guessed it, at the bottom. We had to do that, up and down, 40 times.
One thing to understand when you try to go up a sand dune is that the majority of the sand comes down so you can imagine: 40 people, up and down it 40 times, this sand dune became the steepest sand dune ever, it was almost vertical in the end.
We all then entered the 6ft high waves of the North Sea in June/July time. It sounds nice but I’m telling you, having been born on the North East coast, the North Sea is never warm. It was freezing and we were told to link arms in our teams and march into the water, lie down and hold until the next order which just happened to be murder ball!
Not an easy thing when you’re now freezing, soaking wet and told to do battle with tractor tyres, rugby balls and anything else they could use as a ‘ball’ target for two teams to battle for and with.
You might be thinking “there’s not much football here” and you’d be right but, a real test of trust was to follow the next day after what was, by the standards we’d had in Arbroath up to that point, a reasonable night’s rest.
Woken at 5:45am ready for action at 6am on parade, next up was the real SAS test. We were taken up to the top of a hangar about 100ft high and would be placed face down with a rope wrapped around our waists and a harness. We would then be dropped to just 1ft off the ground and it was the job of a teammate to hold them there and stop them smashing face-first into the concrete below with just a pair of leather gloves on to stop rope burn and help with grip.
The demonstration by the SAS Physical Training Instructors (PTIs) was enough to put me off the squad doing it purely down to the fact the risk and reward element was too high for me to believe it would have had the effect required for a team of footballers who were just looking and learning how to trust each other.
However, the Forward Offensive Base strategy which was reenacted behind enemy lines in Iraq was unbelievably real to the extent people were captured and interrogated to see who would crack first and this, from an informational point of view, was priceless to understand which of the group would fold under pressure.
They tell you that regardless of the situation, people revert to type and they describe it as “when you squeeze an orange, orange juice comes out.” Quite a simple analogy really. It’s like me saying “when you squeeze me, the real Phil Brown comes out”.
All in all though, the physical demands of our time in Arbroath were great strength and conditioning training from all different aspects but I maintain and always have done that the mind is the most powerful tool in your armoury and yet the most undertrained part of the game.
Don’t forget to listen to my podcast episode with Jake. I talk about my time at the club in a more detail… Enjoy.