FAIRYTALES IN LEICESTER, TICKER-TAPE IN TORONTO: AN IN-DEPTH TWO-PART INTERVIEW WITH TOM WILLIAMS
- Sports science expert lived life at the core of two stunning title triumphs
- Part of the 5,000-1 Ranieri Foxes then eyed a new challenge in Major League Soccer
- Helped Greg Vanney to MLS glory with Toronto FC then followed his gaffer to Los Angeles Galaxy
FROM football fairytales in Leicester to ticker-tape parades in Toronto.
Tom Williams' expertise in sports science and strength and conditioning has placed him inside two incredible title-winning seasons.
Now the knowledgeable and driven Welshman is with his former Toronto FC gaffer Greg Vanney in La La Land as they bid to revive the fortunes of Los Angeles Galaxy.
I caught up with Sport Careers Agency client Tom for an in-depth two-part interview.
We'll take a glance back at his career to date, look forward to the challenge facing him in LA and explore the influence he can have on modern-day players.
For any football fan who still loves the romance of the game, that English Premier League title win for Claudio Ranieri's 5,000-1 Leicester City outsiders five years ago will always be an upset to cherish.
Tom was on the inside of one of the greatest sporting shocks of all time and he smiled: "When I look back on it all now I just remember how much I loved watching how Claudio cleverly took all the pressure away from the players in that title season.
"The media loved him because he came across as this quirky old loveable uncle.
"That was a STRATEGY, he knew about his perception and he did it deliberately.
"It was a great time at Leicester City, truly unforgettable, and they had such a forward-thinking staff.
"Yet after we won the title it just felt like the right time to try something new.
"I had been in English football for so many years and it was time for a new challenge."
Williams' journey began as an Academy coach at Derby County back in 2006 and he spent a decade building his reputation.
That chapter in his story culminated in the Foxes' glorious run to the title and in the wake of it all Tom was starting to look further afield.
He revealed: "I had been doing a lot of research in the off-season with NBA and NHL teams, just educating myself.
"I was reaching out to people in those organisations because I wanted to figure out how they coped with four-game weeks and the hectic travel schedules they have between games.
"Working in English football, with the fixture congestion we faced, their methods fascinated me.
"Saturday, Tuesday, Saturday was a common schedule for us and I wanted to speak with others in my area to find out how they structured their work.
"One guy who got back to me worked at Brooklyn Nets in the NBA and was actually from Leicester.
"We had dinner and we hit it off and he then went on to take a job at the Toronto Maple Leafs.
"He came back to me and said that Toronto FC, who were part of the same Maple Leaf Sports Enterprises organisation as the ice hockey team, had a gap and he had thrown my name into the hat."
The next two weeks of Tom's life were a whirlwind of interviews, meetings, airports, flights, dinners and even an impromptu staff kickabout that helped to frame his future.
By the end of a dizzying spell Williams was the Head of Strength and Conditioning and Sport Science at Major League Soccer franchise Toronto FC.
The process of landing the job, helped by his detailed and slick Sport Careers Agency CV, will never fade from his memory.
He smiled: "I went through a crazy interview process. I have never experienced anything like that.
"I went from Manchester to Berlin to Toronto, got there late in the evening and got the tour of the club with my wife next morning.
"I sat down with the General Manager Tim Bezbatchenko, who is now the GM at Columbus Crew, and he asked me four very simple questions.
"The last question was: 'Do you play football?' There was a staff game going on downstairs and he wanted me to play in it!
"I got some boots, played and then I was told I needed to get on a flight to Los Angeles to go and meet the Performance Director.
"So I flew over to LA, had my meeting and dinner then flew back to Toronto back to Berlin and back to Manchester all in the space of THREE DAYS!
"It was madness and I thought this job better be worth it. It was."
From Day One Williams has found life in the MLS a fascinating challenge as a sports scientist trying to ensure players can hit their peaks on game days.
The game in North America is now evolving rapidly, standards are higher, the level of professionalism rising.
Tom reflected: "In Major League Soccer when I arrived we had no chartered flights, you were on a commercial aircraft with Joe Bloggs and getting on with it with the delays and the flight times and the transfers.
"It was interesting to me how you cope with all of that from a performance point of view.
"Back home I used to complain about long bus rides and now we were making six and a half hour flights for away games.
"For NBA and NHL teams here that is just a way of life, get on a flight, get off it, play a game, go again. It's relentless."
In that first season in Canada Williams once more found himself at the heart of another astonishing football story.
The Maple Leaf nation only has three professional franchises, TFC, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps who reared the staggering talent that is Bayern Munich's Champions League winning left-back Alphonso Davies.
Yet in a never to be forgotten campaign, inspired by former Juventus playmaker Sebastian Giovinco, goals from Jozy Altidore and ex-Barcelona midfielder Victor Vazquez downed Seattle Sounders 2-0 in the MLS Cup Final.
It was bedlam at BMO Field that memorable night and Tom recalled: "I remember thinking to myself that I had now been at Leicester when we won a title and then TFC when we clinched the MLS Cup and these are things that I may never experience again.
"From a learning standpoint I respected what we did to get there, from recruitment to how we travelled and planned every week.
"We tried at both those clubs to take control of as many small details as possible down to how their families are getting to the final big matches.
"A lot of that stuff falls on my desk and I try to make sure I have a relationship with EVERY player on some level.
"I need to know what they are worrying about because it can affect their performances.
"I have learned then how much the small details matter."
Scratching the surface of a polished professional like Tom is an intriguing process.
Who has influenced him the most? Which coach gave him the most lasting lessons?
There are key answers throughout this interview and one manager with a core of decency he will never forget.
Tom stressed: "I learned so much from Danny Wilson when I was at Sheffield United because he always did right by people. No questions asked.
"That's something I try to, to be authentic and trustworthy and honest with players.
"Danny was like that every single day, I never once saw him come into a dressing-room and lose his mind.
"He would go into his office, take a breath then come out and be constructive with the players.
"The club at that time were going through a tough transition period. They had the biggest wage bill in League One and there was huge expectation to get back into the Championship.
"The pressure was massive and when we didn't go up he fought tooth and nail to keep people in their jobs. That's the biggest learning influence."
These days Williams is a key component in LA Galaxy supremo Vanney's coaching machine.
Tom operates in an ever-changing area of modern football that is now seeing ground-breaking advances with Artificial Intelligence aiding the study of load management on players and the analysis of performance.
In Scotland newly crowned Premier League champions Rangers use the Zone7 system which they feel helps curtail injuries and predicts when the strain is beginning to tell on their players.
Tom devours the learning on each system and he said: "Zone7 is a great idea, still in its infancy but a terrific example of how Artificial Intelligence works.
"It helps clubs who have the system monitor and try to prevent injuries and think about their load management.
"I was actually talking to Greg about Tesla cars the other day and how they work. If one Tesla in South Africa hits a dog then every Tesla in the world knows about it.
"This is Black Box Thinking, the main computer in Tesla knows about the accident and you need all that information to get better.
"Artificial Intelligence in sport will get there but there are a lot of things to learn before we get there.
"Sometimes an injury happens in sport because of factors OUTSIDE of the game.
"If a hamstring goes we look at what the player did in training but it could be the player has just become a father and he is holding the baby at night with his hips turned sideways and he didn't have a good sleep.
"You could have a player who chose to buy a Lamborghini where they are basically sat on the floor with their legs fully extended to drive.
"Those factors aren't taken into account by AI, you have to know the PEOPLE. Players are human beings."
The team that Vanney constructed around him to win that title in Toronto has largely now relocated to their next challenge in Los Angeles where coach Greg starred as a player.
One of those studious professionals is Jim Liston whose work with innovation projects helps give the players Williams interacts with another crucial edge.
Tom pointed out: "There is now a new world opening up in Virtual Reality in sports science in the cognitive space.
"When you have fixture congestion and it's a three-game week and you have to travel all round the country is there a way to better teach decision-making?
"With some VR companies now you can take the game footage, upload it into their software and you can be IN the game as YOURSELF.
"By that I mean you can swivel your head and see everything that was going on in the match.
"Think of that as a youth player. You can go into our striker Javier Hernandez's view of the game and pause and stop and see why he made the decisions he did.
"You can live the moment as Chicharito and ask the youth player what he would have done.
"Right now the process is a little unwieldy but there will come a point when you can clip goggles on and sync with your phone to do that.
"I foresee a point where we will be on a plane as a team and all the players will clip goggles on watch the game back in virtual reality.
"Video analysis will go to a different level, here is the choice you made but you will be able to look at the other options that were available.
"That's the next level and whichever firm cracks that will help take us a huge step forward."
As we chat on Zoom there are palm trees behind Tom blowing gently in the Los Angeles winds as well-heeled shoppers scurry past the window.
It's a world away from his gritty roots and where he started in the hard-scrabble world of English football's lower leagues.
Tom looked back and confessed: "My first job in the sports science area of the game was at Mansfield Town and there wasn't much AI going on. We had one heart rate monitor that we had to share each day.
"I used to get six quid a day to get snacks for the players because there was no food at the stadium.
"I would go out and buy two bunches of bananas and a bag of nuts. Different levels!"
TOM WILLIAMS ON THE SERVICE HE RECEIVED FROM SPORT CAREERS AGENCY
"The CVs help so much from Sport Careers Agency, I shudder when I see some of the ones I am sent now when we are hiring because I know how good mine looks.
"It has been done by an expert, the CVs get you through the door and get you interviews.
"I have never applied for a job since I became involved with Sport Careers and NOT got an interview. That's a good stat!"