Lockdown has offered plenty of food for thought and for most people stuck indoors all day it’s not long before thoughts turn to food. But while many of us have spent the past weeks fine-tuning banana-bread recipes and pondering the earliest acceptable time to raid the alcohol cupboard – with waistlines widening across the country as a result – Premier League players have been entitled to no such indulgences.
Instead they have had to maintain strictly regimented intake which, until a couple of months ago, was pretty much put on a plate for them. When lockdown came into effect, the remit of a Premier League nutritionist suddenly became a lot harder. To keep a squad of two dozen elite sportsmen on a fine-tuned high-performance diet is a tough enough task in itself, let alone doing so while banned from having real-world contact.
“Things changed so quickly that there was no time to transition or think about how to deal with it,” says Mayur Ranchordas, the head of nutrition at Wolves. “One day we were in Greece playing in the Europa League and next minute we were locked down.”
Like most clubs Wolves would usually provide players with two meals a day – breakfast and lunch – at the training ground, plus cooked food to take home should they want it. “All those options suddenly stopped because we weren’t allowed to keep the kitchen open. So we decided to provide every player with a weekly food shop: individualised food parcels with their groceries for the week. We then put guides together, with infographics on protein and carbohydrate intake and so forth, and sent them out over WhatsApp.”
Ranchordas says the results are not to be scoffed at. One player has apparently lost 4.5kg of body fat, and consultation sessions have been undertaken via Zoom for players concerned about gaining weight during the impromptu off-season. “A lot of the lads needed recipe books delivered to their house and we’ve sent videos out on how to cook certain meals – the club chef has got involved too,” he says. “But I think it’s worked really well – a huge education. You almost have to force yourself to learn.”
From Jamie Vardy’s vodka-and-Skittles nightcaps to Kirk Broadfoot’s exploding-eggs fiasco, footballers’ culinary adventures have often been marked by infamy. But it’s rare to find any person in their early or mid-20s well-schooled in the art of healthy cooking, let alone someone whose every meal is provided by trained specialists.
“I’m not sure I’d trust many of our players to cook for me,” jokes Everton’s performance nutritionist, Lloyd Parker. “Although from what I’ve seen from Gylfi [Sigurdsson], his meals always look very good. He gets his fish fresh from [his native] Iceland.”
To save Everton’s squad from the prospect of two months of beans on toast, Parker and his staff have been working closely with the private chefs employed by some of the players, many of whom have been offering contactless home delivery in accordance with government guidelines.
“We try not to be too prescriptive with regards to food anyway,” Parker says. “Instead we try to educate players in the principles of what they should be eating.” The effects of lockdown have varied hugely. “For the players with families, it’s been fairly straightforward. They’ll typically cook and eat as a household anyway. For the players that don’t have a family set-up, who maybe live on their own, it’s been a lot more difficult. The younger boys are often the ones that struggle a bit more and those are the ones we’ve concentrated one getting the right nutrition.”
Each player has been training at home and submitting daily results to the coaching staff, with Parker’s team crunching the numbers and advising accordingly on food intake.
At West Ham the approach has been slightly more hands-off. Pre-prepared meals have been available to players but most preferred to have fresh fruit and vegetable boxes delivered. “Each player has been given an individualised nutrition programme,” says their sports nutritionist, Matt Jones, “with set targets depending on age, height, body composition.”
Players have largely been entrusted to cook their own food and meet the targets. “It’s been a monumental shift,” Jones adds. “Many of them didn’t really think about cooking prior to lockdown and now some are really interested in it.”
Jones has been kept up to date with the squad’s endeavours via photos sent over WhatsApp, with Mark Noble the best performer. Shakshuka-style eggs on sourdough toast has been Noble’s breakfast of choice and Jones reserves special praise for the captain’s salmon and sweet potato fishcakes. He gives Pablo Fornals the dubious honour of “most improved” chef and – in a judgment that may come as a minor shock – Felipe Anderson gets top marks for consistency. “Initially I think it was quite daunting for some players but they’ve definitely used the time well.”
Again, players have been spoken to frequently – a continuation of the mandatory nutrition education programme West Ham put every squad member through – and Jones believes they have been well served. “And it’s reflected in the condition they’ve returned to training in: most if not all are in very good shape, healthy and ready to perform.”
When they take to the field in a fortnight’s time, the proof will be in the pudding.