In the world of non-league, extraordinary efforts and minimal acclaim tend to go together. A club’s success on the pitch, or just continuing to run from one season to the next, owes in no small part to the dedication of many who may never have so much as a sliver of the spotlight shine upon them. Taking pride of place on that list are the physios.
It might have been FA Trophy runners-up Bromley who earned the Wembley day out, but near neighbours and current ground tenants Cray Wanderers had their own 2017/18 season to remember. Finishing third in the Bostik South, the play-offs yielded a semi-final loss to Walton Casuals, though their continuing bid for a multi-purpose stadium on Flamingo Park means that hope springs eternal for a club closing in on 160 years of history.
The support systems at clubs are in so many ways what make non-league, and at Cray, that is every bit the case. It takes a unified effort to keep the whole operation running smoothly throughout a season, for any club, and the role of a physio is one which should never be taken for granted.
Away from the sports science teams and vast resources at the elite level, like the many players who juggle full-time jobs with their Saturday and midweek on-pitch adventures, it is a labour of love for non-league physios. Communication and compassion are key, not to mention the necessary academic grounding, but there are aspects of the job that can only be truly appreciated once experienced.
As Cray’s physio Ally Maloney explains, those are the sides to it that never really get easier.
“The toughest part is telling a player that they won’t be fit for a match. It’s always hard breaking bad news.
“One thing that anyone who knows me will say is that I wear my heart on my sleeve. It can take a lot out of you emotionally, but it feels a bit robotic to be any other way.”
Detaching yourself from the emotional investment is made all the more difficult when it is your local club, as is the case for Ally. The south-east Londoner has undoubtedly served her own footballing apprenticeship, working within the game for around a decade, with various clubs benefitting from her help and expertise.
“I’ve always been in a house that was football mad; everyone watched the game on TV and Match of the Day and Soccer AM religiously. I’ve always had a passion for football and knew I wanted to have a job that somehow let me be involved – I was a rubbish player so that option was out!
“I fell into non-league football slightly accidentally. My brother had an injury and went to see the physiotherapist at Cray Valley, Alex Gallego, who seemed to see some potential in the shy little 20-year-old physio student.
“He took me under his wing. The rest, as they say, is history.”
Last season especially, she shared in the highs, with the Wands given approval by the London Borough of Bromley for their revised ground application, with community facilities and affordable housing part of the proposal. That has since been referred to the Greater London Authority, with updates expected soon, but in any case, Tony Russell’s team are a tantalising prospect ahead of the new season.
The Kent side topped the lot for league goals in the Bostik South last time around, with 112 in 46 games putting them nine ahead of anyone else (Thamesmead Town coming closest). Although you can never fully sit back and enjoy as a physio, Ally has been able to savour the show-stopping strikes as much as anyone on the terraces in recent times.
“I think my favourite moment was probably Michael Power’s goal against Moneyfields away. That was a bit special, although to be honest, there have been some amazing goals scored this year.”
The ‘luxury’ of being able to gear her efforts solely towards her work with the team is not one Ally currently gets. In a typical week, she will work five days as a full-time NHS employee, with 2-3 days of that week spent on treating players (almost as if there aren’t enough days to fit in, you might say…).
The extra mile is one she has walked on countless occasions, though she sees it as part of the buy-in to being part of non-league.
“The biggest extra lengths I go to are probably related to getting lots of calls / texts at all hours of day and night. I would mention the lifts, but to be honest, having to put up with my bad driving, the lads are the ones who suffer!
“In terms of sacrifices, I don’t really think of what I do for Cray in those terms; it’s just a part of what everyone in non-league does. I miss a lot of social meet-ups, birthdays, and then no holidays during the season, but I just think it’s part of being committed to your team.
“I think football has been life-changing for me. It’s made me more confident and given me the ability to work on my one-to-one rehab skills like no other job.
“Honestly, I have a lot to owe to non-league – it’s made me the person I am today.”
The commitment is beyond question with Ally, with the ‘all for the love of the game’ sentiment one she carries close with her. You find that throughout the set-up at Cray, perhaps most interestingly last season in the case of striker Charlie MacDonald, the former Brentford star who made several appearances for Charlton Athletic in the Premier League, still playing at 37 in the eighth tier in 2017/18.
For the most part at least, it is stripped back to uncomplicated enjoyment and belonging in non-league. In terms of wider support for Ally’s profession at this kind of level, though, what is there for her to draw upon and utilise?
“Honestly, the support, from my point of view, doesn’t really exist. I would love for The FA / higher professional leagues to support the medical set-ups at lower-league clubs, even if it is just putting on a few courses or helping with purchasing equipment.
“I think we naturally end up forming our own little support groups and taking care of each other.”
Ally does, however, stress how the progressive nature at Cray is making a difference to her. She also highlights how, while physios may be the ones tasked with easing aches and strains, it is vital they afford themselves the same care and attention.
“As a club, Cray has really had a new lease of life and has started to work towards a more ‘pro football’ set-up. For me, this has given my role so much more depth and structure that I’ve relished.
“I’ve been able to work more on recovery and prehab, which I have a real passion for. Physically, being a physio can be tough; that goes without saying.
“It can be very easy to forget about yourself. You work long hours and can cram a lot of manual work into a short amount of time.
“Footballers’ legs can be unforgiving and you can get a lot of pressure to keep the squad in good shape, particularly when there’s a fixture pile-up. My old mentor Alex (Gallego) drilled into me about soaking my hands, in hot water with moisturiser or in hot wax, after football, as they are the tools of my trade.
“I do core / arm conditioning-based exercise and a lot of yoga to maintain my flexibility. I have to keep in mind that if I am not fit then I can’t keep the lads fit!
“There’s a lot of massage and physical manipulation of players. There’s also a lot of rehab work, which I personally love to do; it’s why I work in sport really.
“It’s tiring but all worth it when a player hits the top corner after an injury. There’s no high like it for a physio.
“I think I’ve rediscovered my love for non-league football.”
On the subject of the rigours of routine juggling for so many in non-league, current Stowmarket Town assistant Paul Musgrove raised the following question in his article on here in March: ‘Working all day long hours, then you race to a game, mentally, are you okay?’
For someone like Ally, combining a full-time NHS role with immersing herself in the highs and hurt of a football team, how much can the downsides like having to break bad news to a player, or even a particularly painful result for the team, stay with her long after she has gone home?
“You can’t help but have a reaction but it’s so important that you take time to understand that it’s okay to not be a rock 24/7. My NHS work means it’s something I experience a lot.
“You don’t get used to it but you get a thick skin. Football is passionate; I’d have to be a robot to not take that off the field.
“I think it can be turned into a strength. I think players appreciate seeing the human side of you.
“I’m lucky I have some amazing friends and family who are always happy to be a sounding board; it really helps get it out of your system. I’m fortunate that I don’t have to go through those sorts of situations very often.”
Ally may be exempt from the most gut-wrenching aspects of pre-season (at least she hopes), but her input will be just as valuable as any other staff member as Cray’s preparations for 2018/19 kick into gear over these next few weeks. It is also worth noting that the match days might have stopped when the curtain came down on last season, but those aforementioned extra calls from players needing treatment certainly didn’t!
While many players and coaches are continuously striving to improve, so too is Ally. Although she is @Little_Physio on Twitter, she says she has grown a great deal through her time in the game up to now.
“I think the biggest thing I’ve learnt in football is to treat the player, not just the injury. It’s so important to ensure that you support and motivate as much as rehabilitate.
“Even your body language can have a negative effect on someone’s rehab. A lot of health professionals don’t appreciate that and I certainly didn’t when I was a less experienced physio.
“You never stop growing in this line of work. I’m excited for what the future brings as I’m certain I’ll keep striving to be better at what I do.”
A club that can lay claim as the oldest of its kind in London, Cray are set to compete in the Bostik League South East during the upcoming campaign. When she thinks of the on and off-pitch adventures to come, Ally is confident the Wands won’t be standing still.
“I feel that Cray is a club on the way up. With (chairman) Gary Hillman really driving the club forward I can’t really see anything but positivity coming.
“The management, (manager) Tony (Russell), (player/assistant manager) Joe (Vines) and (first-team coach) Nathan (White), are also really forward-thinking. The club really has a family feel and it’s a nice environment to be involved in.
“Can’t give enough love to the Cray Massive – there aren’t many more loyal fans out there!”
Interview/article by @chris_brookes