Manchester United players with Sir Matt Busby in 1971.

How United used to train: the 1970s

Ahead of the new pre-season period, we're looking back at how Manchester United used to train in decades gone by.

While the black and white photos of the 1950s and 1960s had been replaced by more colourful images in the 1970s, and football was heading towards a surge in popularity, training grounds and methods had not moved on so much.

United legend Sammy McIlroy is well qualified to look back on that era, having served the club throughout the decade of glam rock and flared trousers. The man who was famously Sir Matt Busby's final signing as manager of the Reds notched up 419 appearances and scored 71 goals before departing for Stoke City in 1981.

Wilf McGuinness and Sir Bobby Charlton take part in an early 1970s training session for Manchester United.
Wilf McGuinness, then the United boss, speaks to Bobby Charlton during a 1970 training session.

“The buzzword of the time was stamina,” explained the Northern Ireland international. “It was accepted that unless your players could last 90 minutes (and more) it was pointless them being on the pitch, because clubs didn't have the luxury of large squads like they do nowadays.

We were sent on countless cross-country runs around Heaton Park, right from the first day back on pre-season. It was arduous stuff. There was nothing scientific about it, burning off the summer excess weight.

“Black bin-liners were the order of the day for anyone needing to lose a bit of weight. You'd shove one down between your bare chest and training top and sweat more off that way - it was primitive, uncomfortable, but effective.”

McIlroy and his team-mates would train morning and afternoon for six days a week throughout the season, although players quickly adapted to the routines.

“Players often ended up enjoying those sessions. Although the methods were basic and a far cry even from those employed nowadays by lower league clubs, people felt fit very quickly.

Sammy McIlroy in action during a Manchester United match in the 1970s
McIlroy in match action for United during the 1970s.

“We were all in love with the game, and you'd have to be when the most adventurous thing in training was jumping hurdles or shooting balls through them for target practice.

There were no dietitians - the nearest to that was Jack Crompton, one of our trainers, talking about 'getting the ice-cream out of our bellies'. It wasn't unknown to tuck into meals of steak and chips between training sessions.

“The gritty training complemented the state of the pitches on matchdays. The no-nonsense preparation meant we were powerful machines who could cope with any surface. There were certainly fewer injuries back then as well.

Sir Bobby Charlton warms up during a 1970s training session with Manchester United
Charlton warms up during a 1970s training session.

Bobby Charlton, Lou Macari and George Best were some of the best when it came to working hard in training. Even those who weren't good at training were still fit, although I remember Jimmy Nicholl and Jimmy Kelly once struggled on a run from Heaton Park to The Cliff, where we used to train in Salford.

"When they finally trailed in, they were dragging each other over the line. Bill Foulkes was so disgusted he sent them back out to do the circuit again!

This article first appeared in a back issue of Inside United, our official magazine.

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