There was a time when hearing the name ‘Wimbledon’ would have had Phil Hayward thinking that Wolves were in line for a potentially tricky cup tie against a team from the lower divisions.
Wolves’ highly respected former head of medical services is now working for himself as an elite sports physiotherapist and performance consultant, which included spending the first half of this week at SW19 this Wimbledon fortnight.
That’s because part of Hayward’s new and varied portfolio is as an integral part of ‘The Team’ of former tennis World number one and three-times Grand Slam champion Andy Murray.
Hayward is sharing clinical duties with Murray’s long-standing physiotherapist Shane Annun, who was keen to condense his previous full-time role to spend more time with his family.
Annun, as Murray’s regular long-term physio and confidante, is understandably continuing to accompany the Scottish ace to the Grand Slam events such as this Wimbledon fortnight, but that’s not to downplay Hayward having a little more interest – and sense of sporting nervousness – about the 2022 Championships.
As it was, an impressive first round performance took Murray through to last night’s second round where, despite not really dropping his standards too much, he found the powerful serve of American John Isner too hot to handle and exited under the Centre Court roof.
“I do enjoy tennis and was planning to be there for all of Andy’s matches at Wimbledon,” said Hayward, speaking before the start of the tournament.
“I guess now I am seeing things from the inside, working with Andy, knowing what a good guy he is and how hard he works to get himself in shape to compete, watching him is more stressful than if I was just watching as a fan.
“It’s a bit like when I was at Wolves and watching the games when you were more worried about the players avoiding injuries than being able to follow the action!
“Being part of the team, seeing Andy play and even just when he is practicing at that kind of level it’s pretty incredible when you consider what he has gone through.
“It’s crazy sometimes to think he is still playing at the standard he is with a metal hip but working with an athlete like him is an exciting challenge and one I am thoroughly enjoying.”
Football, where Hayward was exclusively focused for around 15 years including over a decade at Wolves and most recently with LA Galaxy, still forms a chunk of his current responsibilities.
He worked on a consultancy basis with former Wolves colleagues Rob Edwards (manager) and Kevin Foley (coach) as Forest Green clinched the League Two title last season, and will be returning to the New Lawn under the club’s new management in a ‘high performance consultant’ role for the new campaign.
He will also be working with elite level players and athletes at the studio he works out of not far from Lilleshall near his Shropshire home, helping them on the road back to fitness, in particular with rehabilitation from complex injuries.
That’s a part of the job Hayward still cherishes, as football was where it all began in terms of kickstarting his journey into the world of physiotherapy and sports medicine.
In his early teenage years there were dreams of becoming a professional, dreams which were pretty quickly shattered by a hefty dose of realism.
“On reflection I was nowhere near good enough to be a footballer, but you don’t think that at the time, do you?” he laughs.
“I remember thinking I probably didn’t have much of a chance of becoming a footballer when I couldn’t even cement a regular place in my school team.”
Assessing potential other options first nudged Hayward into the realms of sports science, but, in those days, jobs and opportunities in that field were rare.
Around the same time, he suffered a knee injury whilst – checks notes – rollerblading, and a keen interest in the treatment and recovery process pushed him instead towards physiotherapy.
“I’ve always been a fairly social type of person who likes chatting to people, learning from and understanding their personalities so I started to think that being a physio with that higher level of interaction might really suit me,” he explains.
He completed a degree in physiotherapy at Manchester University, later adding a Masters in Manual Therapy at Coventry, whilst also adding to his experience by volunteering at a hospital within the local NHS.
A placement including covering matchdays with Bradford Bulls in rugby league also paved the way for a position with Oldham, then a semi-professional team in the second tier of the oval ball system.
“I was probably way out of my depth, barely six months after qualifying working with senior players at a high standard,” Hayward reflects.
“I was learning on the job to a large extent, but it helped that I was also at the hospital as I could lean on people and ask colleagues for advice.
“It was a big challenge but, looking back, that wasn’t a bad thing as it helped me improve my skills very quickly.”
Hayward then also landed his first footballing role with Bolton Academy so there was a time when he was working full-time at the hospital during the day, two nights a week at Bolton, three nights at Oldham and matches with Bolton on Saturday and Oldham on Sunday.
Talk about putting a shift in!
“My then girlfriend, now wife, used to say that she never ever saw me,” Hayward recalls.
“But for around a year or so I was working those seven days a week as I felt the only way to get a full-time job within football was to gain as much exposure as possible and get my foot in a few doors in the hope something would come of it.”
The hard work, perspiration and determination ultimately paid dividends with Hayward landing a full-time position within Wolves Academy back in 2008.
He had actually interviewed for a first team role with Preston several months earlier, with later Wolves head of medical and current England Men’s lead physiotherapist Steve Kemp.
The interview went well, but at that stage he didn’t have the right level of experience, albeit he had certainly made a good impression with Kemp, whom having moved to Wolves then invited Hayward to apply for the Academy position at Compton Park.
In being successful, there began an 11-and-a-half-year association with the club in which he progressed through the ranks with all the hallmarks of a player emerging from the youth system to make the grade in first team football.
Academy physiotherapist, Head of Academy Medical Services, first team physiotherapist, head of the medical department – Hayward completed it all, including the latter role for seven years with no fewer than six different managers and head coaches following Kemp’s departure for England.
Parts of the graduation process provided a stiff baptism of fire, particularly in ‘winning over’ senior first team players who had known Hayward from his Academy arrival.
“That was another learning curve going from looking after under-16s in a junior role to becoming the guy making decisions about senior players’ careers,” he admits.
“That tested me in a far different way but in that situation, you have to stay true to yourself and be relatively strong in that kind of dynamic.
“I think you need to be authentic in how you approach those situations because people will soon see through you if you are not.
“Don’t get me wrong, there were disagreements when you are talking to senior players, but in those early days it was about explaining that doing my job properly was doing right not just by the player in relation to the short term, but also what was best for the long term good from a career longevity sense.
“There were occasions when that would leave players angry and frustrated during conversations but, at the same time, when they went away, I think they also respected the honesty and being able to understand things from the physio’s perspective with the greater depth of knowledge that we have regarding injuries and rehab.”
For the most part Hayward enjoyed excellent relationships throughout his time at Wolves with an ever-evolving group of players who embraced the need to be professional in their preparation and physical conditioning.
Two spells were particularly significant.
The record-breaking League One success, when Hayward was given freedom by Head Coach Kenny Jackett to set something of a medical agenda.
And then the years under Nuno Espirito Santo, when he worked closely with the new Portuguese backroom staff and learned fresh approaches and techniques, particularly from strength and conditioning expert Antonio Dias.
During both of those eras – the League One season and Nuno’s first two at the helm – Wolves boasted an incredible level of player availability and very few injuries, with availability percentage well over 90%, setting a Premier League record of 98.2% in 2018-19.
“That League One season was in some ways my favourite and most enjoyable,” Hayward explains.
“Obviously when you are winning more games it is more enjoyable but the players were great, many of whom I’d seen come through the academy over the past few years.
“There was a real sense of pride and achievement knowing that our support team had helped those boys achieve their dream to represent their boyhood club.
“The staff too, Kenny was great to work with, Joe (Gallen) was good fun, we had such a small staff compared to later on, but they were all incredible people and we were very close both at work and away from it.”
“The later years with Nuno were different for me as I had moved from being more involved on the clinical side to becoming more of a head of medical services and a performance director overseeing things.
“I really enjoyed that time, leading and managing the department, working closely with Kev Thelwell and the senior leadership team, trying to help support all the staff to do their jobs well and by that stage I was far more experienced and able to deal far better with issues when they emerged.
“You probably never stop learning in a job like this and I certainly did that from Nuno and his staff – those guys brought in so many new ideas which we hadn’t seen before.
“It was revolutionary really, what Wolves were doing then it was what other clubs are beginning to do now, and there are many methods and practices which I have taken on to use with other athletes that I work with – including at Forest Green where last year we won League Two having only used 18 players all season.
“Working closely with Antonio was really beneficial for me from a strength and conditioning perspective, as we adopted new and different methodology as well as having the investment to bring in new equipment.
“The players that arrived were excellent as well, bringing a new level of professionalism with the young Portuguese lads shaping their whole lives around football.
“That was in terms of always wanting to know what they needed to eat, when they needed to sleep, grasping any information that gave them the best chance to perform at a really high level.
“We became a far bigger club, with a far bigger group of staff behind the scenes, and so to a degree your impact feels more diluted if I compare it to the League One days, but it was still a really special time in a different way.
“Doing well in the Premier League, going into Europe, playing against the best teams at the best stadiums and getting some great wins – when you work in sport you want to test yourself at the very highest level and those experiences were unforgettable.”
There were many changes and advances in sports medicine during Hayward’s decade-and-a-bit at Wolves, not just with developments in approach and technique or the investment into innovative and revolutionary equipment.
During his time there was also a shift in perhaps the traditional methods of not bringing players back until they were completely free of injury to more gradually easing them back in to training and matches, acknowledging that with close monitoring and appropriate management, they could still help the team, even if not operating at their optimum level.
All of which of course is aided and abetted by a deluge of different data which can shape training load and selection decisions. One particular area where Hayward feels Wolves particularly excelled was in closely managing the load of players to ensure every player remained in their specific ‘sweet spot’ from a training load perspective irrespective of if they were in the starting eleven or not.
One aspect of the job which never changes however is remembering that the alliance between physio and athlete is about far more than just the clinical.
It is the mental side, the emotional side, which is perhaps just as important a part of the job as deciding on treatment plans for rehabilitation.
That is why the likes of Michal Zyro would speak so favourably of Hayward following the horror injury he sustained at MK Dons, why Dave Edwards would highlight Hayward’s role in helping him through several injury problems and why Carl Ikeme would pay tribute to his calm support following his leukaemia diagnosis.
Hayward would deflect such praise as being ‘part of the job’ and promote the role of others such as long-serving Wolves club doctor Matt Perry – a key mentor and friend throughout his time at Molineux – as being equally influential, but that pastoral part of physiotherapy is most definitely a vital trait.
“I would say that side of the job is almost a bigger part than actually treating people,” he suggests.
“You spend a lot of time with injured players, maybe six or seven hours a day, working with them in the gym when they can see their team-mates out on the training pitch.
“They will be downbeat because they are sidelined, and you have to try and keep them upbeat and stimulated to help them with their recovery.
“It’s about building relationships, but those guys you have mentioned such as Dave and Carl, I am sure I didn’t do anything for them that any other physio wouldn’t have done as well.
“Dave had some difficult times with injury so a lot of it was about sitting down having a coffee and a chat, and with what Carl went through you can end up having some very deep conversations.
“I probably built closer working relationships with those guys through adversity than anything I did from a treatment point of view.
“Whenever I’m recruiting for roles now, I often think a physio who is maybe average on the clinical side but a really good communicator who can engage with people is more valuable than one who is unbelievably good clinically but can’t connect with players.
“You can always mentor people and improve the practical and theoretical side, but those subtle soft skills are far harder to develop and are so closely intertwined with a person’s innate personality – they are incalculable skills that you can’t really teach.”
There were many strong relationships Hayward built up during his time at Wolves and he remains in touch with many from the club now, from former sporting director Thelwell to players such as Conor Coady, John Ruddy, Willy Boly and Adama Traore along with most of the backroom staff he worked alongside so successfully.
Eventually, however, he decided it was time for a change, and had an incredible opportunity to take up a senior role overseas.
LA Galaxy in America’s MLS (Major League Soccer) pursued Hayward for a new position as Performance Director, overseeing the performance and medical departments and implementing a new way of working in a slight departure from his role at Wolves.
It was a fantastic opportunity which Hayward grabbed with both hands, signing off at Wolves with that incredible 3-2 win against Manchester City just after Christmas 2019, and heading Stateside with wife Caroline and their three children early into the New Year.
Unfortunately, a couple of months later, came Covid.
Not only did the pandemic affect the season, which eventually returned with an ‘MLS is Back’ tournament where teams spent five weeks isolated together in a hotel at the Walt Disney Resort in Orlando, but also LA Galaxy in particular.
The club is owned by AEG, a massive entertainment company which suffered huge losses due to the pandemic and so had to make cutbacks rather than the investment into staff and resources which had originally been promised as Hayward began the project.
A disappointing season saw Head Coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto fired, and new arrival Greg Vanney then brought in his own man into what had previously been exclusively Hayward’s role.
All parties tried to make it work, but ultimately it proved difficult, Hayward parting ways and deciding to now go it alone but still with fond memories of his American adventure.
“Despite how it ended it was still a great opportunity to go out there, lead the club’s strategy from a performance perspective and have autonomy over the whole programme,” he insists.
“With a young family, being able to go to a different part of the world and enjoy a very different experience was a massive attraction, at least until Covid came along.
“But there are certainly no regrets and especially when you think of how many people were affected by Covid and lost family members, we were actually very lucky compared to some.
“Working at LA Galaxy opened up some different doors for me and I have taken it for the experience that it was – and without it I wouldn’t be able to be doing what I am doing now.”
Hayward’s fresh start with his new company, The Elite Performance Consultancy, not only includes working with elite footballers and athletes but also potentially members of the public, if they have complex sporting injuries which they are having difficulty resolving via other avenues.
“We have invested cutting-edge equipment and the aim is to deliver a Premier League service to individual athletes who wouldn’t be able to access that elsewhere,” he explains.
And a Premier League service is certainly one he is working hard to deliver to Murray during his time with him on the ATP tour.
Hayward spent a trial period getting to know Murray and his team, spending a day at Roehampton watching him practice and working with him and then a week at a tournament in Abu Dhabi before being offered the position.
He has since supported the 35-year-old Scot in competition at Rotterdam, Doha, Dubai, Indian Wells and Miami and will link up again for some of the North American tournaments before the US Open, which begins in late August.
There is also something of a Wolves link because whilst Murray is not a Wolves fan, he did once wear the shirt in practice when John Lloyd, who is a Gold & Black devotee, was Davis Cup captain and took the team to see the win at Charlton in the early part of the Championship-winning 2008/09 campaign.
And Hayward was part of the backroom staff who enjoyed a game at Murray’s home courts in Dunblane when Wolves travelled to Scotland in pre-season in 2013, also presenting the club with a framed photograph to mark his first Wimbledon win which was later passed on to mum Judy.
Those events have been discussed, and the pair do talk football, Murray describing how he had a chance of becoming a professional himself had the tennis not taken over.
What has also become pointedly apparent to Hayward – the aspect of Murray’s personality which has dove-tailed with his tennis talents to underpin such a phenomenal career – is his ridiculous level of competitiveness.
And where has that manifested itself? On the chess board.
“I don’t think it will surprise anyone who has watched Andy play tennis to know that he hates losing,” Hayward reveals.
“And I mean he hates losing, at anything.
“We started playing chess and initially he wasn’t playing so much so I beat him.
“Because of that he got himself on an app and started practicing more, so now I try and avoid it when we’re away because he keeps on winning.
“On one trip we got on a plane and he discovered there was two-player in-flight entertainment so we could play whilst at our seats– just when I was trying to get some rest!
“Well of course he won again and was absolutely buzzing, even taking a video on his phone of the moment of victory.”
With Murray, despite last night’s defeat, having certainly found some decent form during the grass court season, the British tennis fraternity will be hoping that many more of those winning moments remain over the coming months and, so too, does Hayward.
He admits when working at Wolves he found it difficult to enjoy matches due to that tension of wanting teams to win, and it’s now the same with Murray.
Hayward also couldn’t fully enjoy promotion seasons until success was signed, sealed and delivered, not able to rest until the job was complete, and so he finds it difficult to relax until Murray moves to match point and sends down a booming and unreturnable first serve.
But working with such an incredible champion in such a pressurised environment is certainly providing Hayward with a great professional challenge and experience as part of his overall consultancy portfolio as he heads out on the next chapter of his career.
Just don’t ask him for a game of chess!
- When back in the UK – Phil has a limited number of consultations available for elite athletes and is able to see ‘weekend warriors’ with more complex issues. Visit ‘Athlete Division’ at the website – the-epc.co.uk – or see Instagram @physiophilhayward for details.