Thursday 22 February 2018

Meet the Irishman who sculpted Cristiano Ronaldo into the athlete he is today

Declan Bogue

Mick Clegg's journey of the human body began when he was, in his words, a "crap guitarist in a cabaret band," playing in the chicken-in-a-basket circuit around various Yorkshire villages in the early '80s.

The band was called 'Stroller' and they played the pop standards of the day, but nothing of his own favourites like Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin or Deep Purple. They had some band photos done and when they came back, he was shocked to see that, "my arms were skinnier than my guitar strings."

Fast forward 30 years later and he becomes the man who facilitates some of the best footballers in the world reaching their true potential as athletes as Manchester United's power coach, working out of their Carrington gym.

He's over in Belfast for a series of meetings for Kingsbury Medical, a company he has a consulting role with, when he sits down with us to share his thoughts on the wider world of strength and conditioning.

After the band pictures prompting an awakening, he began attending a local gym in Ashton-under-Lyne. His day job was as an electrical fitter for the Central Electricity Generating Board and when he began researching training, he could apply an engineers' mind to the process.

His father also worked for the Board and as a result he attended 13 different schools as a child, as far down as Kent and Bristol, and back up to Lancashire. It forced him to develop an outgoing personality and never to be afraid to talk to people.

So when the fellow gym members would approach him with queries in the gym, noticing his own steady gains, he was only too glad to give his time. After a time, the owner of the gym said: "Listen, you're obviously quite knowledgeable for a skinny little get. But people really like you and they are always asking you for advice. Why is that?"

He replied, "It might be because I am a bit of an entertainer, I played the guitar, in a band.

"So he said, 'Look, I want to give you a job. I would love you to work here twice a week and just do what you do.'

"That's what I did. I worked there for 18 months or something like that and ended up."

Ended up at Manchester United.

Before all that, there was the Taekwondo. Oh yeah, he got skilled up in that, too. He brought his son Michael along to attend classes. The instructor moved on and he began taking classes, incorporating weight lifting into the sessions. After a time, he had a weightlifting club and the Taekwondo had receded into the background.

He's been in his current Olympic Sports gym for 32 years now, an old converted mill of 11,000 square feet that had the entirely novel idea of a running track indoors.

His sons Michael and Steven showed an aptitude for training that despite their small size, ended up as weightlifting champions before they both signed for Manchester United.

The sporting talent doesn't end there. Two other brothers are renowned weightlifters. Shaun competed in the Commonwealth Games last year in Glasgow. Mark has lifted at the European and World Championships.

But it was Michael and Steven's power that brought their father to the attention of Alex Ferguson. Once United opened their present day training complex at Carrington, Mick senior was appointed as one of the first generation of Strength and Conditioning coaches in the Premier League.

His first star pupil was one Ryan Giggs. Until, "A young kid called Ronaldo turned up one day. He looked at all the different players. He looked at the amount of time and effort that Giggsy was putting into it and thought, to be better than him, guess what I have got to do? I will work cleverer."

He continues: "So for the five and a half years that I worked with Cristiano, he just succeeded above everybody else in the time, the amount of training he was prepared to do, the amount of looking after himself with his diet, his sleep and all the rest of it.

"He put the whole plan into action, he had a pathway to greatness and he followed it. That's the difference. He decided he was going to work harder than everybody else. But working hard isn't always about pushing weights or doing sprints or stepovers, it's about doing the whole thing together."

The "great generator" of the group, he maintains, was Roy Keane because of his constant willingness to learn and take on new ideas.

When Clegg first went to United, his first appointment was with one Roy Maurice Keane.

He begins: "The first professional that I worked with was Roy. He was overcoming an injury and the physios said, 'look, can you help him with certain types of training?'

"I had a chat with him and asked what he used to do to try and understand where he is from, what he did in the past and he used to do some boxing.

"So we went down and did some boxing in the gym and of course he loved it. The lads who were watching him all joined in and that's what started it off really."

That's not to say that boxing suited everyone. You begin to understand something about Clegg's holistic approach to the individual when he explains Paul Scholes' regime.

"He did a certain type of training in that gym, specific to him that made him an unbelievable player and my personal favourite. He did speed and reaction. Not the speed of sprinting 40 or 50 metres, he wasn't very good at that.

"Now, you put him in a four-metre area, nobody could touch him, for his speed and reaction was ridiculous."

And he simplifies the metamorphosis of Cristiano Ronaldo from petulant diver to one of the best two players on the planet.

He asks: "How many times in his early days did you see him fall over? How many times does he do it now? None, because he has strengthened everything up. All these things came together to create his body.

"You have got to remember that he was trying new things all the time. He spent at least 40 minutes a day on his own, practising his own things, his own techniques.

"The reason he did that is because there was no pressure. So he works on all these different skills, then he has got to try and do it under pressure. He takes it into training and he tries things, probably makes loads of mistakes."

Clegg continues: "But when he has a certain degree of proficiency in this new trick, then he goes onto the pitch. Against lower teams in his early days he was incredible.

"He was perfecting them against the lower teams. Against the top players in the world it was bloody difficult. It was right towards the end when he perfected everything, he was brilliant."

"Creating skills like that and a body like that takes time. And everybody wants it now. But Cristiano knew not to be put off if people moaned. He weren't bothered. Most players would have stopped doing what he was doing."

Those that didn't put the work in at the gym were soon found out. A good example of this is how Jonny Evans is a Manchester United player of nine years standing.

Clegg was a fan of his attitude. He takes up the story.

"I remember saying to Jonny about Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidić who were the (centre-halves) partnership.

"I asked, 'Where do you see yourself playing, Jonny?' He said, 'Centre-back for United.'

- "'Centre-back for United? Why do you think that?'

"He said, 'That's why I am working hard, that's where I want to be.'

- I said, "'Rio Ferdinand is a very famous man. He's very rich. He's got a reputation. Vidić is the same. Now what you are proposing to me, that you, a young lad, are going to take what they have and throw it out and take their place. Can you imagine they are going to let you do that?'

"He said, 'Well, I just have to be good', and I said, 'No, you've got to be better than them. To be better than them, you have to think in terms of what you have to do.'"

He adds, "And the great thing is Jonny's got there. He's done so well. They have gone now and he is there.

"When I look back on that talk I had with Jonny that day, I think he thought, 'I really am going to have to work my potatoes off.'"

As the old saying goes, hard work beats talent, when talent doesn't work hard.

Belfast Telegraph

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