Liam Whelan, Dennis Viollet, Ray Wood.

How United used to train: the 1950s

With just days to go until the Manchester United players return for pre-season, we've been looking into what training used to be like through the decades.

We'll hear from a legend from the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and 1990s each day until 1 July, when the Reds descend on the Aon Training Complex for the first day of 2019/20, and we start with Wilf McGuinness.

A product of our famed youth system, Wilf grew up in north Manchester and went on to make 85 appearances for the club between 1955 and 1959, before an unfortunate injury curtailed his promising career at the age of just 22. He later went on to coach, and was eventually named as the man to succeed Sir Matt Busby in 1969, when the Scotsman stepped down after 24 years at the helm.

When Wilf began at Old Trafford at just 17, back in 1953, training wasn't for the faint-hearted, although it did have its upside...

“All the teams trained together at the start of the week, and we'd often split up into groups containing a mix from the first team, Reserves and youth team,” he remembers.

”Even if you were an apprentice, you could easily find yourself playing on the same pitch as some really big names.

Wilf McGuinness and Jackie Blanchflower pose for the camera.
Wilf (left) with United colleague Jackie Blanchflower in 1956.
The Cliff, United's famous old training ground, was a far cry from the state-of-the-art Aon Training Complex, with all its home comforts. There was no shelter from the elements, either - only a sparsely equipped gym and a heavy medicine ball offered solace during winter.

“We did a lot of running,”
McGuinness recalled. ”The fitness sessions would be taken by Tom Curry and Bill Inglis, who'd wear white coats and cloth caps while they put us through our paces. As a warm-up, we'd do four laps of the pitch and then run 10 times along the side of the training ground.


Assistant manager Jimmy Murphy often donned his tracksuit and ran a session on the training pitch consisting of a series of short small-sided matches and drills.

You had to be a bit of a nutter back then,” McGuinness recalled.
“Sometimes we tied the ball to the girders under the stand and took turns heading it. If it was dry, this was okay. But if it was wet, let's say it took a bit of getting used to!
“We didn't have any of the props the players use today, no cut-out walls to practice free-kicks against and no ladders to run in and out of to keep your footwork sharp. The boots we wore back then would have made that a struggle anyway. They were nowhere near as lightweight as the slippers players wear today.”


When it came to training, the likes of Bobby Charlton and, later, Denis Law and George Best took some beating.

“Those three were good trainers - they always wanted to win, and if you beat them in a run, you knew you'd done well. Competition was fierce and players who were bad trainers didn't really make it.”

United players doing their stretches in the 1950s.
Training was always a physical test back in the 1950s.

In the absence of floodlights, midweek matches were rare, leaving Tuesdays free for practice games. More ball and fitness work followed, before Friday offered players a chance to slow down a little although their heads still took a pounding.

“The day before the match we'd often do a few gentle runs followed by a game of head tennis,” added Wilf.

Just like the training, players' diets have changed remarkably over 50 years.

”Our pre-match meal would be a fillet steak,” McGuinness said. “Not the best thing to eat before a big game. A few years later, the lads were given steamed fish and eggs, but it was still a world away from today - there was no pasta in sight.”

This article first appeared in Inside United, the official club magazine.

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