LONDON -- There's not much to be said -- well, nothing good -- about the short time that Felix Magath spent coaching Fulham. Seven months in charge, 20 games played, only four of them won. When he was fired earlier this month, the club was bottom of the standings, and was on an 11-game streak without a win. And while all that was going on, Fulham was relegated from the Premier League, down to the second tier Championship.
As coaching records go, it could hardly be worse. But it has been made to appear worse by the stories now circulating about Magath's training methods. They were, of course, tough and exhausting -- no surprise there, Magath is known for his insistence on hard work and discipline. And fitness, too. So here comes the Norwegian defender Brede Hangeland -- who was at Fulham during the first part of Magath's reign -- to tell us the weirdest tale about one of Magath's injury treatments. According to Hangeland, when he had an inflamed knee, Magath recommended that he rub it with a lump of cheese soaked in alcohol.
Magath has agreed -- he did suggest the cheese treatment to Hangeland as an "old wives tale" that has some credibility in folklore.
And who is to say it doesn't work? I will quite definitely take Magath's side in this discussion. Just because a cure sounds ridiculous and unscientific and smacks of witchcraft and voodoo does not mean that it is without value. One has only to delve into the rise of alternative medicine, or to study the placebo effect to realize that there is still a hell of a lot that we do not understand about medicines and their (possible) curative properties. And the same questions about efficiency can also be asked about training methods.
In fact, training methods are notoriously hard to assess. They have, of course, become more and more complicated and sophisticated and, one supposes, more scientific. And, therefore, more effective. Maybe. There was a significant warning put before us over 150 years ago by Edgar Alan Poe, who drew attention to an error that he considered "not unusual" -- that of "mistaking what is only complex for what is profound."
It seems there is a general, almost natural, tendency for us to believe that when something is difficult to understand it must contain hidden depths of significance.
As often as not, the real truth is that it will contain nothing more than the shallowness of b.s.
Think of all the miracle training schemes and fitness programs that are available. How would you choose? Can any one of them point to an ongoing stream of successful teams or star players who owe everything to that one product? Of course not -- because if they could, you can bet they would. And no one does.
It is the same with all the infallible coaching schemes and tactical deployments that are on offer. Can their salesmen give you a glowing list of the championships won, the trophies hoisted?
Has it ever seemed strange to you that, in this vulgarly commercial age when everything is seen as exploitable, the big teams, the winning teams, are never identified as having relied on any of the scores of commercial coaching aids that are on sale to the public?
Possibly because to do so would devalue the work of the club's own coach, but more likely because none of the programs works, or at least works no better or no worse than any of the others.
Each pro club now has a posse of highly qualified trainers and physios. One of these guys will be out there before the game, warming his players up. These routines also serve -- when TV allows us to see something of them -- as a sort of pre-game conditioner for me. They put me in a relaxed, rather genial mood (which admittedly, might not last too long), because I find them amusing.
They look just like kiddy games straight from the playground. Here's this group trotting gently along, then they're in a circle, kicking the ball in turn to a guy in the middle, then they're chasing a guy who has the ball at his feet. At the far end of the field the other team are doing some sort of dipsy-doodle routine where they run short distances while repeatedly stooping to sweep the ground with each hand alternately. When that's finished -- it seems to slow down rather quickly -- then the players go through what looks like a Monty Python Silly Walk routine.
And so it goes -- a stoop here, a shimmy there, a small jump or two, some arm-waving, the occasional hand-clap. Leading the fun and games will be the physio, showing the guys what to do, expecting them to follow along, while some of the players do the devotions with ferocious intensity, and others go slyly and slowly through the motions.
I have to hand it to those physio guys -- they manage to come up with an apparently endless repertoire of neat little routines to keep the players moving. Well, most of them.
Maybe there should be a prize for the Most Original Warm-Up Routine -- that you could probably assess, though I feel certain we'd soon be looking at something like synchronized swimming before the games.
But when it comes to the crucial question -- which is the best routine, which one is superior when it comes to creating winning teams, there is no answer. We know the routines are not perfect, we know that injuries, sometimes quite serious, can occur during warmups. But those are accidental happenings. By and large we can assume that the warmup routines are sensible and well thought out.
Presumably the only reliable way to assess the routines is to look at team performance. At season's end, the championship winner must have had the best training. But that will not satisfy, as there are so many other factors that affect a team's performance. Including blind luck. Probably the closest we can get to an objective measure is the number of playing days that a club's players lose because of injuries. With the caveat that injuries inflicted by opponents are not to be recorded. Then again, maybe they should be included, maybe the best training does allow players to avoid, or to recover quickly from, inflicted injuries.
If we're having trouble assessing the training routines in absolute terms, can we say how they compare with each other?
I think we can. We can be reasonably sure that, at the pro level, routines that are harmful are not used. Any comparison between the rest is almost certainly going to decide that they can't be separated. They're all pretty much equally good or equally poor. Once you've eliminated the demonstrably silly and the obviously harmful, the rest are probably much of a muchness.
So back to Felix Magath. I don't think his cheese poultice treatment, or whatever it was, should be ruled out merely because it offends the modern, tidy, scientific mind. Do we know it doesn't work? It doesn't sound as though Hangeland tried it. Maybe he should have done.
There was a time, back in the 18th century when the old wives in England knew that dropsy (a heart disease, which they may not even have known was a heart disease) responded to an infusion made from foxglove leaves and seeds.
What nonsense was this? Not nonsense at all, as science eventually discovered that the foxglove plant contained a drug, digitalin, which is still an important drug for the treatment of certain types of heart disease.
You never know.