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Remembering Jimmy Headrige : 'the best in the business'

30 July 2021

In the close season of 1966, Middlesbrough Football Club appointed Jimmy Headrige to the club’s backroom staff.

Born in Glasgow in 1939, he served in the Parachute Regiment during his national service. He played professional football for Clydebank, and it was at this time that he first got interested in the treatment of sports injuries.

Forced to retire at a young age with a severe knee injury, Jim wrote a letter to Middlesbrough’s medical officer and vice chairman Doctor Neil Phillips, asking if there were any positions for an assistant trainer. His own injury, he wrote, had given him a great interest in the treatment of injuries and he was now seeking employment in that sphere, with a football club.

Harold Shepherdson had now become assistant manager to Stan Anderson and Micky Fenton had retired, leaving physiotherapist George Wright the only member of the treatment room staff.

Dr Phillips replied to Jimmy’s letter, informing him they may be interested in offering him a position and inviting him to attend an interview. He and Wright spent a day at the club with Jimmy and although he had no experience, they were both very impressed with him as a person. More importantly, Wright believed he could work well with Jimmy on a day-to-day basis and was prepared to act as a tutor and train him in the ways of a qualified physiotherapist. For his part, Jimmy was keen to learn.

Doctor Phillips recommended to the board that Jimmy be employed as reserve team trainer. It was one of the best appointments he made at the club.

Jimmy’s enthusiasm for learning every detail of all aspects of sports medicine, was exceptional and George was experienced and well qualified to teach him – the two worked well together. With Dr Phillips, the club had three staff looking after and caring for players’ health, injuries and overall welfare.

It provided the Middlesbrough manager and players with an exceptional medical service and introduced a strategy of care for all players, routine medical examinations, clinical examinations and heart and lung function tests included.

During his time with Middlesbrough, Jim saw service in Divisions One, Two and Three - and the Central League during his two years as reserve team trainer-coach. He was part of manager Stan Anderson and Jack Charlton’s staff who would win the Second Division title and with it promotion to Division One in 1973/74 season.

Blood tests would be carried out at regular intervals and immunisations and vaccinations would routinely be kept up-to-date. Prevention of injury was the focus, with training warm-up sessions to include stretching exercises a novelty in those days.

Injured players would have a personalised, active, full-time programme of rehabilitation. Injured players would not have afternoons off; they would be in for treatment. Special diets for the players were introduced, as well as stretch routines, something unheard of at the time.

Jimmy went on to complete all the necessary qualifications in both coaching and physiotherapy. After two years, he was promoted to first-team trainer and physiotherapist, becoming the youngest physio, aged just 28, to hold such a responsible position in the Football League.

The programme notes following his appointment read: ‘George Wright, our trainer physiotherapist, has taken up an appointment with Arsenal FC and takes with him our best wishes for the future. To his successor, Jim Headrige, we offer our congratulations on a well-deserved promotion. A quiet Scot, Jim has impressed manager and players alike with his approach to all aspects of the game and we are confident that with his qualifications and football know-how the “back-stage” is in competent hands.’

He worked on injured players seven days a week, morning and afternoon, to help them get much closer to match fitness. They also had a first-class medical centre consisting of an emergency medical room, a private consulting room and separate treatment area with a remedial gymnasium.

In 1966, the building of such a medical centre at a football ground was considered quite revolutionary, so much so that Dr Phillips was asked by the FA to write an article on its development for their magazine. It was also suggested to him other Clubs could follow the development.

During his time at Middlesbough, a young apprentice, Alan Smith broke his leg. Whilst out injured and being guided back to fitness by Headrige, he also developed an insight into the treatment and management of injuries.

The Scot encouraged Alan to become a trainer and physio and to complete the necessary courses. He went on to serve Darlington, Blackpool, Rotherham United and Sheffield Wednesday, along with England U21s and the senior team at four major tournaments.

Jim had by this time become one of the main tutors for the FA and trained and inspired many a physio both professional and in non-league, me included.

The backroom staff in a football club not only have specific tasks, but they also play a part in creating a dressing room atmosphere which, win lose or draw, produces a spirit of determination which is so important if a club is to achieve success.

It must also ensure that things run smoothly in all conditions like his gaffer Jack Charlton said following the 1973/74 promotion year. He said: “I told Jimmy Headrige that I wanted to know everything that was going on.

“Some people think that managers don’t need to know everything but I wanted to know the lot and often he would come up to me and say 'I think you should have a word with such and such a player or this player needs sorting out'.

“That way everything is nipped in the bud because I knew what was going on.”

Jimmy would later move on to the Arab Emirates to take a physio coaching role, before returning to England and joining Bolton Wanderers in 1978.

During his time at Bolton, Jim dealt with many serious injuries that included a significant knee injury to former Everton and England midfield player Peter Reid, who paid an emotional tribute to his physio on receiving the P.F.A Player of The Year Award In 1985.

“I would like to thank my first club Bolton Wanderers who are going through a sticky patch at the moment, but they will be back.

“I had a lot of injuries at Bolton and without the help of one-man physio there, the late Jim Headrige, I would not be standing here with this award.” He then lifted the trophy looked to the sky and said ‘Thanks Jim.’

In 1981, very soon after joining Manchester United, Jim was headhunted by Ron Atkinson, who made him one of his best signings when he persuaded Jim to move to Manchester United.

Sadly, though, just a few short weeks and days before the new season was due to start, he collapsed and died whilst at training at the Cliff. He was just 42.

When the news broke, Alan Smith, who was now physio for Blackpool, United’s opponents in a final pre-season game that evening at Bloomfield Road, was asked to look after both teams.

Smith was experiencing the raw emotion of events as he had been looking forward to meeting his mentor when the sad news broke.

In a benefit game against Bolton Wanderers held on August 24 1982, exactly 12 months following the tragedy, Atkinson paid this glowing tribute to his physio in the matchday programme.

"When I first arrived at Old Trafford, I asked for, and was granted my own staff around me. Jim was at the top of my shopping list, I’m proud to say he accepted the invitation.

“It was awful what happened – the night before the friendly game I’d got all the staff and their wives together in a hotel, we’d all had dinner together because we had three or four new staff members.

“I thought it was a good way of getting everyone together and his wife and daughter were still at the hotel, waiting for him to pick them up and take them home, back to Blackpool.

"Since his untimely death, I’ve been asked on more than one occasion 'just what was it about him that made him so good?' Obviously, as I said earlier, he was for me the best in the game, but more than that, he had this tremendous ability to get on with people.

"Soon after he arrived here, we were off on a pre-season tour of Norway, and to see experienced international players in such awe of the man was remarkable. I had tried once before to get Jim to join me at the Hawthorns. On that occasion he turned me down.

"He had only been with us for a few short weeks together here at Old Trafford. I cannot recall a man, at any level, who so quickly won the respect and admiration of his colleagues. Make no mistake, Jim was the best physio in the game — and I mean no disrespect whatsoever to the man he replaced, or indeed the man who succeeded him."

In the words of Jimmy’s wife, Margaret, joining Manchester United was "the fulfillment of a lifetime ambition."

He left Margaret and three children Karen, Lynn and Gary. Jimmy Headrige was regarded as pioneer in the treatment of injuries, rehabilitation and fitness and also developed an interest in injury prevention.

In 2015, I was able to recognise him when his family was presented with a posthumous award by The Football Medical Association for Jimmy’s outstanding contribution to Football Medicine.

Receiving the award from Ron Atkinson was a poignant moment for all. The fact that the entire room rose to give a standing ovation as the award was presented said it all.

There is no question that for many, not least Jim’s family, this was the highlight of the conference awards evening. It was a fitting tribute as well that the FMA recognised a colleague who is “gone but not forgotten.”

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