Friday, January 21, 2022

Have Sir Alex, Arsene Wenger and the rest learned the health lessons from the past?

Whilst reading up for a piece on the pressure on football managers I came across a fascinating piece of scientific research from 2002. It certainly shows the level of pressure that our managers experience. Whilst many of us envy the jobs that these men have, they experience levels of stress that are not only higher than most, but are also potentially life threatening.

Back in 2002 the then Leicester City manager Dave Bassett and the then Bolton Wanderers manager Sam Allardyce took part in an experiment for the ‘Tonight with Trevor McDonald’ television programme.

The two men were wired up to heart monitors during what turned out to be a tense relegation struggle. The game had everything that a relegation battle often contains and finished in a 2-2 draw. Three players were sent off and Leicester threw away a 2-0 lead conceding the equaliser in injury time.

Frighteningly the results from the heart monitors showed that both managers came dangerously close to suffering serious heart problems.

During the match, Allardyce’s blood pressure and heart rate hit potentially dangerous levels.
At one point, his heart rate reached 160 beats per minute. That was four times his normal resting pulse.

Bassett’s results were just as disturbing. His blood pressure peaked at 190mmHg, he also suffered irregular heartbeat as the game reached a climax and his heart rate topped out at 120 beats per minute.

The heart specialist who analysed the results, Dr Dorian Dugmore, said,

“The bottom line is that week-in, week-out these guys could be putting their hearts on the line. Getting your heart rate going at these sort of levels would normally only happen if you had done a vigorous work-out in the gym. These managers are reaching those levels simply through watching a match. There could be a serious risk involved and the result could be a heart attack, a cardiac arrest or severe angina. It’s far more dangerous when stress causes the response because the adrenaline tends to narrow the arteries and that could contribute to risk of heart disease. Your heart needs to be fit to withstand those surges of pressure. Many managers are former players and if they don’t take care of themselves, they will be at significant risk.”

After the results were known Bassett told the BBC, “It was a very interesting experiment. The results were half what I thought. But I enjoy what I do and, to me, it’s worth the risk. It’s how you feel yourself, and I feel fine. Obviously, if a doctor tells you to give up smoking or you die, you give it up. If I didn’t feel right and somebody told me it was affecting my health, I would have to take that into account.”

Allardyce said, “Programmes like this do make us more aware that we should look after ourselves a lot better. But it’s easier said than done with the stresses of the job.”

The question is whether the game and managers in particular have learned the lessons that they should have done from this experiment. With the amount of money in the game now, some six years later, I would imagine the level of pressure has only gone up from where it was then.

Back in 1985 Scotland’s great and well loved manager Jock Stein collapsed and died from a heart attack on the final whistle of a World Cup qualifying match against Wales at Ninian Park in 1985. You would have thought that Stein’s death might have served as a sombre and timely reminder for managers.

It seems that the lessons were not necessarily learned.

Since then, the then Blackburn manager Graeme Souness underwent by-pass surgery, the then Luton boss Joe Kinnear suffered a heart attack before a game against his old club Wimbledon in 1999, and whilst manager of Peterborough Barry Fry has also experienced a heart attack.

When manager of Liverpool, Gerard Houllier underwent eleven hours of life-saving surgery after he was taken ill during Liverpool’s Premiership clash with Leeds at Anfield in 2001.

But as the cost of success and failure continues to rise, the experiment undertaken by Bassett and Allardyce six years ago starkly demonstrates that another manager could pay the ultimate price unless action is taken to avoid it. I wonder what steps have been taken since 2002 to give managers the support, help and advice they need to stay healthy?

It would be interesting to see a similar experiment carried out at the top of the Premier League. Is Arsene Wenger as calm as he normally looks? Is Sir Alex as wound up and agitated as he normally looks?

Whatever the results showed, I’m sure they would show that these men are potentially also putting their health in danger each time their team plays a game.


Graham Fisher



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