Preparing players to be future football stars
Ed Baranowski once trained Blackburn Rovers' premier league champions and worked with England captain Alan Shearer but his passion now is preparing young Canterbury players for a potential pathway to professional football.
After a spell with the Wellington Phoenix, the Yorkshireman is Mainland Football's football performance director and he has a bevy of big clubs on his CV.
Baranowski grew up in Bradford in Yorkshire, had a trial for lower league club Bradford City but wasn't signed and found his niche in sports science.
He was "very fortunate to start working in professional football from the off" at Blackburn Rovers - All Whites' captain Ryan Nelsen's former club - in 1990.
Liverpool, Celtic and Scotland great Kenny Dalglish was Blackburn's gaffer and the team was led by England striker Alan Shearer and fellow frontrunner Chris Sutton.
Baranowski signed on as "what was then called a fitness conditioner, nowadays it's more strength and conditioning" and was at the vanguard of a football fitness revolution.
"It was relatively new to football. There were always athletics coaches who came in pre-season, or athletes like [former Olympic champions] Seb Coe, who went to Chelsea or Daley Thompson at Wimbledon," he said.
"But to actually be a fitness conditioner and work with a whole club preparing the pre-season, all the way through the in-season, and develop a programme all the way down to the youth academy and the juniors was, in itself, quite new."
Baranowski brought in innovations "we would deem now to be the norm". But it was novel in the 90s for players to wear heart-rate monitors at training and be monitored "not on their running system but the energy systems we were trying to work".
He treasures his time at Blackburn and a Rovers shirt still adorns his office wall at Christchurch's English Park - alongside a Wellington Phoenix strip.
"We happened to go on to win the premier league [in 1995]. Just as with successful coaches, that's the little bit of a break you need."
Other clubs started taking notice of the Rovers' revival. After "five good years" at Blackburn, Dalglish was head-hunted by Newcastle United and "basically took the whole backroom team with him", Baranowski included.
"We had a good [first season], we made the FA Cup final and did quite well in the league," he said. "But, in the second year, we had a bad start, [Dalglish] brought in some new people after a lot of the older players went."
Results dipped and the Toon Army [Newcastle's demanding supporters] and club directors "had high expectations". Dalglish and his assistants were given the boot.
Baranowski wasn't out of work long. He got a dream move to Leeds United where Dalglish's fellow Scot George Graham had taken over as manager.
"He was impressed with the work I'd done at Blackburn, he knew they were a fit team and he knew Leeds weren't what he wanted, physically, so I literally was quite fortunate to fall out of one [job] and into another," he said.
"As a youngster, I used to go to all [Leeds'] home games with my brother and my father. To actually, get an opportunity to work with them was, to me, unbelievable."
Former Leeds players were on the coaching staff with wing wizard Eddie Gray running the club's youth academy.
After four years at Leeds, Baranowski moved to Manchester City, who were then in English football's third tier. Baranowski was charged with improving "a massive squad of 60 players" and helped them achieve "two consecutive promotions" back to the premier league.
Then he got an offer he "couldn't refuse" from Bolton Wanderers manager Sam Allardyce.
Bolton earned promotion to the premier league and Baranowski rated Allardyce (who later went on to manage Ryan Nelsen at Blackburn and now works with All White Winston Reid at West Ham United) as "one of the key pioneers of sports science" in the English game.
"Sam developed all components of psychology, nutrition and using GPS or a tracking system within training and games," Baranowski said. "Others did a little bit of it but he was the first one, as far as I was aware, who did the whole caboodle."
Allardyce adopted the now-ubiquitous Prozone system, which allowed monitoring of players' performance, ‘to see how much they were running, their sprints and what their rest and recoveries are. You can pretty easily see from game to game, which players are not maintaining, so therefore you need to look at what they are doing. Are they over-training, are they not eating, are they not sleeping? All those things were invaluable as a fitness conditioner."
But after 20 years in the pressure-cooker environment of professional football, Baranowski began to burn out. "The first 10 years in the job were very enjoyable, the last five were a bit more stressful . . . a little bit like teachers now, you had to produce results.
"The enjoyment went out of it a little. It was all about getting [injured] people in and winning things rather than giving you opportunities to build up fitness and get players back gradually. They wanted them back quickly if they got injured, to a point where you didn't agree sometimes with the acceleration . . ."
Baranowski joined Huddersfield University as a sports coaching and health and sports studies lecturer "to freshen up". He did some work with the Huddersfield Town football team and Huddersfield Giants rugby league squad.
Then New Zealand beckoned. "We had been here a few times and obviously thought ‘what a fantastic place'. We just thought ‘let's come out and almost semi-retire'.
His wife got a teaching job in Christchurch and he worked as a sport and fitness tutor at Aoraki Polytechnic.
Then Wellington Phoenix coach Ricki Herbert invited the ex-premier league fitness guru now in New Zealand's midst to work with the A-League club.
At the time, the Yorkshireman said he "missed being involved in football - it's a little bit like an alcoholic missing a drink".
Baranowski soon made an impact - Phoenix captain Andrew Durante described Baranowski as the best trainer in the league and said he'd never been fitter in his career.
Heart-rate monitoring, hydration testing and daily urine samples became regular Phoenix fixtures.
Baranowski also introduced football-specific training - "everything I do is with the ball" - which proved a hit with the Phoenix players.
In his first season, the Phoenix almost made the A-League final, falling at the final playoff hurdle to Sydney FC.
But "living in Christchurch and commuting to Wellington" took its toll on Baranowski and he "did more of a consultancy role" in the second season, primarily in the pre-season.
A role came up at Mainland Football where chief executive Mike Coggan and federation development manager Alan Walker "were looking to build an academy structure".
Baranowski was charged with developing a "structured physiological programme" for boys and girls aged 12 to 16 year-olds to complement its technical, tactical programme as part of the Football Talent Centre (FTC) curriculum developed by New Zealand Football.
Mainland Football has "16 to 18 academies" - 10 in Christchurch and others in Nelson, Marlborough, Mid Canterbury and the West Coast with physical training components centred on "biological maturation not chronological age".
Fitness work is based on each individuals' needs.
"We do an assessment of the whole body changes to see if the body's got any muscular imbalances and see if any muscles are weaker or stronger."
Baranowski sees it as "key component in injury prevention".
"If you are predominantly weak on one side, you'll generally pass and kick and push off your stronger side and never develop the weaker side," he said.
The rationale is to physically equip players for potential pathways to professional football opportunities.
Baranowski wants a Mainland programme graduate to be able to "hit the ground running" if they join academies such as the Wellington Phoenix's new programme or the Chelsea-aligned Asia Pacific Football Academy closer to home at Lincoln.
Maybe he will help develop the next Ryan Nelsen, a Christchurch kid who goes on to English Premier League glory.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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