This article was published in the Official Dunfermline Athletic Football Club Match-Day Programme on Tuesday 21st November, 2017, versus Greenock Morton.
Thanks go to DAFC for allowing me to publish my interview on my website.
This is Gary McColl’s third season at East End Park and the club’s Sports Scientist took time out ahead of tonight’s match against Morton to talk to us about his worst job EVER; his American soccer career and a little bit about Pars, too!
McColl was someone who was always interested in sport, particularly football, from an early age:
“I would like to think I was an active kid. Football was always my main passion and main sport – I began playing it when I was 6 or 7 at local Boys Club level. From the start of high-school, I started to develop more of an interest in the health and wellbeing side of things: over time, this has developed to a stage now where I can be involved with both my passions and combine them with the job I am doing right now.
When I was younger, I was a really average footballer – I was never a part of an academy or anything like that. I didn’t really consider going professional because I never saw myself as being good enough, so it was never an option.”
After leaving school and completing a course at college, Gary got an office job before jetting out to America to study.
“There was a company who sent players out [to America] – they gave you a trial and if they felt you were good enough, they would then contact lots of coaches and Universities in the USA and depending on what that coach is looking for, they would then come to you with an offer of what they are willing to give you in terms of paying for the scholarship and your studies within the University as it is really expensive for tuition and accommodation over there. I was 21 when I moved across – that is slightly older than most as usually you would head to Uni at 18 or 19 – but I had done a couple of years at college here before I began working an office job, doing sales I think, for about a year but I absolutely hated it! One of my friends told me about the scholarship scheme and I was sold instantly.
It seems a lifetime ago now – I had one or two reservations but it was mainly excitement as it was a new adventure and something different for myself. At that point, to be honest, I just wanted to play football – but, in the long-run, the studying which went on alongside it was clearly beneficial! Any footballer, who doesn’t make it professionally by the time they are 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, I would wholeheartedly recommend doing something like this. It was amazing, in my opinion, but I absolutely loved it. It made me better as a player as I was training full-time for the first time ever but it also made me grow as a man and as a person: you had to mature quite a lot, learning how to live by yourself and things like that.
The course I done at college in Scotland was Sports Coaching, so I transferred a lot of the credits over. The school I was at in America, they refer to it as a “Liberal Arts College” and typically, what you would do is spend two years studying wide-ranging subjects; they’d give you a broad education on things like sociology and American history – things which weren’t related to your degree, basically. In the last two years, you then focus on your degree but because I had transferred over my credits from college, a lot of the classes for my Exercise Science degree were already covered, so I ended up doing random classes to get my degree! There was two parts to my degree; the Exercise Science part and also a Sports Management side of things, as well. You could choose either, but I ended up doing both so I have had a well-rounded education, I suppose!”
McColl could have stayed in America.
“I realised there were opportunities across there too late! I must have been home for about a year and a half before I ended up going back out there to play full-time. There are different kind of VISA’s and different routes you can take to get into employment or further education. Things turn out as they turn out but looking back, I do regret it as I could have stayed. I played with Des Moines Menace in the Premier Development League, which I believe is the third or fourth tier of American soccer. It is essentially a summer league and the majority of the players are college or University students. Most of the teams are part-time but a handful, including the one I played with, are full-time: it was ultimately an unsuccessful trip as I played a handful of games, got injured and never played again!”
Having had a taste of playing and training on a full-time basis, did this give Gary an advantage when becoming a Sports Scientist?
“Having that background knowledge of being a player on the team side of things – such as having an insight into what the players are going through and how they might feel – as there are some people who give Sports Science a bad reputation, still, these days by saying we don’t understand as we are coming from an academic side of things, but, I feel it definitely helps as it allowed me to see how the footballing environment works.”
After coming home from the USA for a second time, McColl ended up joining Hearts Ladies.
“I initially spent a year and half trying to get fit so I could go back over there to play again but it just never materialised so I decided at that point to go back to University and do my Masters and try get back into football that way, by becoming a Sports Scientist or a Fitness Coach. During my course, I started off as an Intern with Herriot-Watt University and they have connections with Hearts who train there. I had the chance to shadow coaches who trained there so I started off with the Scotland Women Performance Centre: the girls there were playing with the national side or the Under-19’s but were also studying full-time. They would train 3 or 4 times a week. Then I was involved in a couple of other, different, sports before I was then offered the opportunity to take the lead with Hearts Ladies. I really enjoyed that as it was the first time I was completely in charge of a group and that lasted around 6 to 9 months before I started doing work with Hearts’ Academy.
I was really naïve back then – albeit, I am not the finished article now as you can always improve – but, in terms of what was expected and what to do overall as a Sports Scientist and that is why I wanted to do that Internship. A lot of my career has been about learning by experience. You always know about these things but in professional sport, you need to be aware that you can get tested for banned substances, so, from my point of view, it was about trying to cut through all the advertising and marketing and saying “what is actually beneficial and will make a difference to the players during the week and on a match-day?” and then it was about how do I implement this; I think I have become better at this over time.”
The 30-year-old joined the backroom staff at East End Park in the summer of 2015.
“The move came about when the manager got the job here and he was looking for a Sports Scientist. I was recommended to him by a mutual contact who was working at the Academy beside me but had worked beside Allan before in the past, too. From there, I met the manager and we spoke about what was required before agreeing to come on board. If I am honest, I didn’t think I was ready for a full-time, first-team job at that time, but it got offered to me and I couldn’t really turn it down as it was too good an opportunity – it has probably been the best decision I have ever made, too! Due to winning League One so convincingly, I was able to take things slowly and easily, in terms of what I wanted to do with the players, so I was lucky in that respect as it allowed me to learn on the job: as long as you learn from your mistakes, you will only get better and I have definitely done that and will keep doing that.”
When ‘Gaz’ came to the club, he knew exactly what was needed to implement his ideas and improve the club:
“At Herriot-Watt, they had great facilities – and this was before they spent millions of pounds turning it into the Oriam – and when I first came in, there was an emphasis on the type of things I was going to do with the players in the gym so I knew instantly we need some kind of facility with regular availability if I am to improve the players. We did have that facility at Pitreavie, but, now we have our own gym and that is a game-changer for us! At that point too, they had already purchased the heart-rate and GPS system which I think is vital for monitoring what the players do in training and in games. From the off, I was able to take that under my wing – these were the two things I initially felt were essential when I first came to the club.”
With tonight’s game coming just three days after our visit to Hampden Park to play Queens Park in the William Hill Scottish Cup – and with another match on the horizon on Saturday – how does this impact the role that Gary has with the players?
“I wouldn’t say it makes my job any easier or harder, it just makes it different. For example, because of the three games in a week, we got the players in on Sunday and for the guys who had played, they stayed with myself and we went through a recovery session in the gym to try help accelerate that recovery process. We can’t have intense training sessions this week so yesterday we just got the group together and done a light session and that will be similar, but slightly tailored, for the remainder of this week to make sure the players are ticking over, fresh and they are ready to go against Dumbarton.
The Directors, Chairman and the Manager all buy in to what I am trying to do at the Club. We are always looking at how can we improve things; how we can be more efficient; how can we help the players further and that will allow the guys to play the best they can. They are always trying to refresh things and improve upon it. I have been fortunate so far that they have been so willing to help me do these things as I believe it will be a huge benefit.”
“I am always trying to read things, watch things, meet people and take as much in as I can. You will always find wee things that you like and you go “hmm, how can I incorporate this into what I am doing?”. Generally speaking I have my own ideas but I am always looking to learn and to tweak so I can improve and in turn, that will make the players better. There is so much scope to work as a Sports Scientist or a Fitness Coach or a Strength and Conditioning Coach in so many sports, not just football. I have had many different experiences in my career so far – especially if we include that office job in selling and purchasing which I absolutely hated, but these were always stop-gap jobs whereas now I am doing work but it doesn’t feel like I am as this is my passion and I enjoy it so much.”