Anyone who watched English football in the 80s & 90s will know the name Tony Daley. A lightning fast wide man who terrified defenders the length and breadth of the country. Capped seven times for the national team, he played the majority of his career for the club he supported as a boy, Aston Villa, a place where the fans consider him a cult hero.
Although retired from the game he’s never left it. Having earned himself a sports science degree he began working in fitness & conditioning roles for various clubs, notably, at another of his former team’s Wolverhampton Wanderers.
And he practices what he preaches, with a body that men half his age would give a small fortune for. Currently, he’s giving even more back to the game he loves with Pro Level Performance. An innovative program he and his ex-pro friend Dave Barnett thought up to help young players with the many different facets needed to make it in the sport.
We caught up with Tony to talk about his fantastic soccer school, memories of his playing days and the strict diet that makes him one of the world’s fittest fifty-one-year-olds.
The MALESTROM: Tell us how Pro Level came about?
Tony Daley: It came on a bit of an off chance, I’d just left Wolverhampton Wanderers and was looking for employment in terms of going back into clubs. A good friend of mine, who I’ve known for over 40 years, since we went to school together as kids, Dave Barnett, he’d just finished his work line and we came together and had a drink and started talking about football, what we could do, how we could save the world basically.
All of a sudden we looked over at each other and said: “we can do this”. So our thoughts were to supply training to academies for young pros, in terms of giving them that initial training that they require from outside the academy. So we take academy staff and players and young professionals and we supply strength and conditioning, technical and tactical work and also speed and agility. Maybe that particular person isn’t getting that at their particular club or academy, purely because of staffing, so we fill that gap.
We work on the cognitive side as well, we’ve got a great facility with equipment where we can enhance cognitive behaviour. So in terms of being able to focus better and have mental toughness, things that perhaps aren’t as underlined at that age. You can be at the academy from eight years old, then get to sixteen and have been told what a great player you are, then all of a sudden, they say that you’re not being given a contract because of this or that.
We give them real world skills to be able to cope with those situations. The programs we supply to them cover all those things, so it’s a four-step programme with training for their cognitive, speed & agility, nutrition and strength as well, we combine all those and produce a bespoke programme for those individuals.
TM: How much of it is encouraging these kids to look at the bigger picture? There’s so many of them that want to make the grade in football but don’t, it’s about giving them some backup…
TD: Exactly. And it’s not knocking academies, because I’ve been involved with them for fifteen years. The problem is they’ve got so many people there, those that want to make that difference, to get that edge, need that additional training. But it’s not just the physical side, it’s the mental side as well.
If you’re suddenly told as an academy player that you could be the boy wonder, or girl wonder and you get to 16/17 and all of a sudden you become involved with the first team, and you’ve never experienced that environment and then you’ve got a manager screaming in your face and players demanding that bit more, can you cope with that? The better players can, but we give them all that mental capacity.
It’s through research as well, we have technology that tells us where they’re at with their focus and we work out how to improve that through different tasks and discussions. Then at the end of the 13-week course, we’re able to test if that focus and mental resilience has increased.
TM: You mentioned nutrition before. How hard is it to get youngsters to think right about food? Some will have challenging home lives, there are lots of different factors to think about…
TD: First of all it relies on the parents, especially if your working with a child from 12-16 years old, it’s what the parent feeds them. We have a big input with the parents in terms of meal plans we put on for them, talking to the child about types of food, we don’t blind them with science, we just give simple information.
It’s important to tell them that by changing the way you eat slightly, that can improve your performance. It’s all about that extra edge. If you want to secure a contract in terms of being a scholar, or whether you are a scholar and want to become a professional footballer, we give those players that extra 1 or 2 %.
We’ve worked with the likes of Tyler Roberts who’s just gone to Leeds from West Brom and numerous Wolves players and Blues players as well. They’re good examples for us to give to the younger academy players in terms of where they can reach through our help.
TM: What are the young players you work with like? Have they changed from your early days?
TD: Not at all. I mean technically there’s no issue. For instance, we take players at district level, we want players who want to excel at whatever level they want to reach. So from district level upwards. The standard of the players is really good.
We’re not going to make little Johnny into Ronaldo, that’s not our aim, we’re going to make you the best footballer that we can with our help. It’s also showing them what academies are looking for in terms of physicality, technical ability, focus, the ability to take things on, cope with pressures, all those things we deal with.
TM: Just focussing on you for a moment. You’re in ridiculous shape. Have you always had this enthusiasm for training and fitness?
TD: Absolutely. Mine obviously came because in the latter part of my career I had lots of injuries, I was always into my fitness, I was one of the stupid players that actually enjoyed pre-season, with the running and the physicality. I was also always interested in how the body worked, how to make those marginal gains.
When I was injured the physio hated me, because say I had a hamstring injury I’d be asking “what part of the hamstring had I done? How can I improve it? What’s the anatomy?” It’s been a natural thing for me to go into this, I went to university to do my degree and my post-grad as well. It’s something I really, really enjoy.
TM: What’s your training regime? I imagine it’s pretty grueling?
TD: You say grueling, but it’s something I enjoy as well, pushing my body each time. It suits me. If someone’s coming to us for training, it’s tailored to the individual, whatever’s the right program for them, but for me personally, I train 6-7 days a week.
I do put my body through quite a bit, but that’s something I enjoy. It’s still about making those marginal gains, especially the older you get the harder you have to train, It’s as simple as that. Fortunately, it’s something I really look forward to.
TM: You have to be up there as one of the fittest and most in shape 50-year-olds on the planet?
TD: Well thanks for saying that, but it’s adding to the quality of my life. I’m still alive, I’m still healthy, I feel like I felt when I finished my career, if not fitter in terms of the physicality side. The knees might be a little bit dodgy, but in physicality, health, wellbeing, I’ve never felt any better. So for me personally it’s been great.
TM: What’s your current diet like?
TD: Again this is speaking for myself, there are things people could implement if they wanted, but it depends on that person. In terms of strictness, it’s something I’m used to, I have to stress that, I don’t see it as a chore, it’s my way and I love it.
So I fast on a Monday from 6 am up to twelve o’clock not eating, I fast for 16 hours every single day, so that includes from eight o’clock the previous night to twelve the next day. Then usually I’ll train fasted, sometimes I don’t, I might train later on in the evening, it depends on circumstances. When I eat after fasting I don’t touch carbs whatsoever, I get them through vegetables.
On a Saturday that’s my cheat day where I’ll eat absolutely anything I want to and enjoy it, whether it’s chocolate or a cheeseburger or fish & chips, I’ll eat guilt free. That starts at five o’clock on a Saturday till five on a Sunday, then from there, I’ll fast for 24-hours till Monday at 5. So just fluids.
I’ve been doing that on rotation for about four years, don’t get me wrong it was my birthday last week on a Thursday and I ate what I wanted to and had a drink guilt-free. So I won’t say that I can’t do until Saturday, I’ve got to the stage where I’m really relaxed with it, as it’s part of my life and regime now.
TM: Did you have a drink to celebrate?
TD: Oh yeah, let’s get it straight I’m not a drinker at all. I had two glasses of prosecco and I was the happiest person in the world. Then two cocktails but at 8 pm it’s time for me to go to bed (laughs).
TM: Aside from yourself, what’s your take on the importance of diet for others when trying to get fit?
TD: Exercise and training, will give you those extra gains, so how you train is critical, it might give you a 2% difference. So for example in a game, you’ve got two equal sides, it could be the 93rd minute and a defender makes a last-ditch tackle right at the end to prevent a goal, or a midfielder has run 40 yards to get on the end of a cross and score to win the game.
If you haven’t got the fitness levels through a correct diet and not being at your most efficient in training and looking after yourself, that could be the difference between winning and losing a game. Or getting a contract and not getting a contract. Small margins, small gains. For me those small margins are critical.
TM: Did you have the same approach to nutrition during your playing days?
TD: I’m not going to lie to you, in those days nutrition wasn’t really a thing, it didn’t really come in until the end of my career. You could eat what you want, you’d know the importance of course of having your carbs before the game and everything else, but during the rest of the week you could eat sandwiches with white bread, you could have a chocolate bar and crisps because you’re training so hard.
But everyone was doing that at the time, you could have a lager mid-week or after a game, but as soon as one team starts doing something, changing diets to get that edge, that 2 or 3%, they’re the teams that start to shine. Arsenal for instance when Wenger came in. As a rule, all the other teams then have to catch up, so they start doing it and that’s how the process goes. For me at the time nutrition wasn’t a big issue, but it so much is now.
TM: What other changes have you seen from when you first started in the game apart from training and fitness? Even the pitches are quite different now…
TD: The game’s more advanced, it’s better, for all the reasons we’ve been talking about, in terms of fitness and nutrition. Technology is playing a big part now. It was great being involved with Wolves using GPS for managing training loads.
It’s about preparing your players, recovery is so key now, getting the balance between those players that haven’t played and have in terms of training load. GPS and heart rate monitoring are critical to that. Technology has come on leaps and bounds. Also with physio, players coming back from injury and preventing injury which is key, all those advancements have changed the game so much since I played.
I will say something though, when I played, when it comes to fitness, I wouldn’t say there are any players now that are any fitter than some individuals that played then. They aren’t any quicker or have more ability. What it is you have now, are more players with that fitness. Before you might have played against a big centre-half who couldn’t run, or full backs who were a bit sluggish, but nowadays look at the likes of Stones and Kyle Walker, they’re machines and great all-round athletes.
So there are more fitter players. My point is the fittest player you can find now, there would be someone just as fit in my day, but there might only be one or two of them, whereas now there’s probably 40 or 50.
TM: Pace is still key, you were rapid in your day. Would you relish playing in the modern game where full-backs can’t kick lumps out of you?
TD: I enjoyed the time I played in, I have no regrets. I think it’s great now if you just look at the pitches we played on, the stadia and pitches now are fantastic. When you do a warm-up with the players on today’s pitches you think this is awesome. Wembley used to be the best pitch you could play on back then, but each club is playing on better pitches than that now.
TM: How did you get your break into football?
TD: For me, I was fortunate to play for my local team, I was scouted at Villa, the team I supported as a kid as well. From age fourteen I was on schoolboy forms there, turning apprentice there at sixteen and then progressed really well and became professional at 17 and made my debut at that age as well. It was fantastic, I never looked back. Playing for the club you supported as a lad as well was awesome. That was my progression.
TM: You have a great camaraderie with the club’s fans, how does it feel to be a legend of such a big iconic club?
TD: It’s humbling. It’s a great honour. Going back to Villa now after my career, I go as a fan, It’s quite funny, I have to check myself sometimes. I’m shouting “that’s rubbish, what a rubbish pass”, and then I have to think, hold on a minute, I know the game, I know the score and reality kicks in. But I see why fans get so passionate, seeing it from that side now as well.
TM: We’re quite nostalgic about football kits, and you played in one of the best, the Villa ’89 kit. You must have fond memories of some of those strips?
TD: Absolutely. Some great kits, the one for me was making my debut in the Henson kit. That was awesome, you see pictures of it now and it’s totally retro. I think Villa has some great kits, I loved the one you mentioned as well.
TM: What do you make of the new Villa manager in Dean Smith and obviously John Terry’s appointment as assistant? Could they be a good combo for the club?
TD: I think so. I mean its got all the right ingredients. If we look at Dean Smith, straight away, professed Villa fan, ticks the box, the fans will give him time, he knows what the club means.
The other point is, look at the places he’s been. He’s just left Brentford, they play some outstanding football, attacking football, the kind the fans like to see. He’s very astute with signings as well as developing players.
With John Terry, a footballing legend, he’s played for his country X amount of times, adored at Chelsea. He’s come to Villa and shown his ability even in his later years, what a leader. The fans loved him, coming back to the club to learn his trade is awesome, so the combination of those two, plus the backroom staff, they have the pedigree to be successful.
TM: Do you think we could see them promoted this season?
TD: It’s been too long. I think this is one of their best opportunities to do that. Especially in terms of the financial backing of the club. Will we see it this January? I’m not sure, but there appears to be money. It’s just about making the right signings.
The team, especially in The Championship is the most important thing. Wolves are a good example of that. They went out, had the money, bought some fantastic players, but more importantly, they gelled as a team. They worked as a unit. It’s not just about having the most money, it’s about getting those players together
TM: Another one of your former teams, Wolves? They’re flying at the moment…
TD: They’ve excelled. It’s been no surprise to me looking at where they were last season, as to how well they’ve started. I still feel for them success is to stay up. If they do that finishing 10th, then that’s fantastic. But even doing it and finishing fourth from bottom that would still be a massive achievement. But I’m not surprised they’ve done so well.
TM: Wolves have got a pacey winger in Adama Traore, who’d have won a foot race between you two when you were a flying twenty-something-year-old?
TD: I remember watching him on TV when he was at Villa and I had to rewind it because it looked like it had been sped up. I think he’s an outstanding player, I was actually gutted when he left Villa.
Everyone talks about him and says he’s erratic, but I’ll tell you something now, if you’re on the opposite side to him and you see him coming, you think oh my God straight away. Because of his pace, his directness, his strength and power. I’ve been really impressed with him and I’m sure he’ll play a big part for Wolves as the season progresses.
TM: The man who managed you at both Villa and Wolves, Graham Taylor, we lost last year. What are your memories of him and the impact he had on your career?
TD: He had the biggest influence on my career without a doubt. His man management skills were unbelievable. There were times when I’d played the first half and I’d been absolutely shocking and I’d walked off the ground thinking I’m going to get absolutely slaughtered here.
And in his half time talk, he’d make you feel like you were the best player in the world. He’d be saying “you need to get the ball out to him, it’s not his fault”, and you’d feel a million dollars going back out again.
Conversely, you could have had an outstanding first half, you’d go trotting In and he’d have that ability to keep your feet on the ground. He’d find a fault in that game and really hone in on that. Not in a bad way to get you down, but to make you think hold on a minute, I need to be on my toes here.
He was also a gentleman, someone you could actually speak to, an experience where you could approach a manager and talk frankly and be honest.
He had that caring side as well. If you lost it was about what you could take away from the game, you could be open and talk to him about it and he’d be understanding whatever the reason. He was also very demanding, so he had the combination of that toughness while being that father figure as well.
TM: What advice have you got for any youngsters out there, wanting to make it to the riches of the Premier League?
TD: I would say to train like you’ve never won a game before and play like you’ve always been a winner, simple as that. Be humble and train and work really, really hard. Enjoyment is key and knowing your levels as well.
The percentage chance of being a professional is low. But enjoy it and achieve the level that you can achieve by working hard at it.
TM: Have you got any fitness advice for our older readers?
TD: I would say enjoy your food in moderation. And with training, you don’t need to go on a ten-mile run to get fit, you can change things by just being that bit more active and being careful with your food choices. That goes a long way to how you’ll be physically and your wellbeing. It’s small changes, as simple as that.
TM: We always like to finish up by asking for a piece of wisdom or a mantra you live your life by…
TD: Smile every day. Waking up with a smile is the most important thing. And go to bed with a smile. It doesn’t matter what has happened throughout the day, there are so many things we can’t control, control the things you can, but everything else, don’t stress about it.
For more info on Pro Level Performance visit: https://www.prolevelperformance.co.uk/
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