Meet The Secret Weapon Behind Some Of The World’s Greatest Footballers
Before he became a secret weapon of Manchester City and Liverpool – and specifically the most recent season that saw them both come close to 100 points in the Premier League along with bagging every cup between them – Nick Littlehales was in the mattress game.
He considered it nonsense mostly (“complete nonsense!”) and so was pondering a midlife crisis until he fell into football. The Slumberland factory where he worked was in Oldham. The company ended up sponsoring Oldham Athletic and before he knew it, “Suddenly I’m standing in rooms with Alex Ferguson.”
Littlehales had always been fascinated by the sleep researchers he worked with, but he felt frustrated too: they only focused on the clinical side. Littlehales, knowing the importance of marginal gains in elite sport, wondered why that knowledge couldn’t be used in football. In 1998, he sent Ferguson a letter and, to his surprise, Ferguson replied.
“Nobody else would have,” he says. “But it happens to be Alex Ferguson. He had a mind-set for it. They were pushing the boundaries.”
His first task was centre-back Gary Pallister, who was struggling with chronic back injures. The club were pondering spinal surgery, but Littlehales diagnosed the problem: his mattress was too soft. The new mattress didn’t cure it, “but it helped enormously”.
Impressed, the club set him up in the players’ lounge one day so that any of the squad could ask for his advice. The only one who did: winger Ryan Giggs, then 25. “And he was fascinated. He was one of the very early adopters of what we now class as recovery.”
Littlehales went to Giggs’ home. He changed the ambient light in his bedroom (too much), the size of his mattress (too small: Littlehales contests that, evolutionarily speaking, humans aren’t meant to sleep together, but allows a super king if we must) and got rid of the bedroom TV. Most crucially, Littlehales had come to realise that simply prescribing the usual eight hours to footballers was pointless: with their changing schedules and kick-off times they hardly ever got it. Instead, he spoke to Giggs about 90-minute “recovery periods” he could take after training sessions. Or, as we know them, naps.
“Did he take it on board?” Littlehales asks rhetorically. “Well, he could still play for a Premier League team now.” (Giggs finally retired in 2014, aged 40, as Manchester United’s record appearance holder.)
After consulting with Giggs it wasn’t long before Ferguson was ordering Littlehales to clear out a room at Manchester United’s Carrington training ground so the players could nap between sessions. The coaches noticed the improvement instantly. Littlehales eventually left Manchester United in 2013, when Ferguson retired.
He consulted for Real Madrid, with mixed results. Cristiano Ronaldo was an enthusiast.
“He’s on Instagram all the time, talking about his 90-minute naps,” says Littlehales. He also turns off every screen in his house 90 minutes before bed.
Gareth Bale, who had just joined the club, less so: “We had a chat, but nothing came of it. And where is he now?”
The only Premier League clubs Littlehales currently consults with are Liverpool, who this year finished second in the Premier League and won the Champions League, and Manchester City, who won the Premier League plus both domestic cups.
When Manchester City were planning their new $243 million training complex in 2014, they worked with Littlehales on it and the result was a state-of-the-art “recovery performance centre, not just a performance centre”. For the first time in Premier League history players would sleep overnight at their base before a home game. It halved Manchester City’s use of hotels. And as Littlehales would tell them, “Any time a human stays in a hotel their recovery is reduced by 40 percent.” (This is also down to evolution: researchers think the new environment causes part of our brains to be on guard against potential threats, hence a worse night’s sleep.)
Tottenham Hotspur have since joined them, adding a “Lodge” with 40 sleep rooms last year, but Littlehales is dismissive of their efforts: “Tottenham have made some changes, some investment, here, there and everywhere. But I also know they’re not doing it with any great thought.”
When Jürgen Klopp joined Liverpool in 2015, meanwhile, Littlehales was one of his first calls. Littlehales was horrified by where the team stayed for away games in London – “The St Pancras [Renaissance] Hotel! It’s a bloody train station!” – and so moved them three miles away to a Travelodge. It was less glamorous, but he could kit it out to their exact specifications. “So we spend the same amount of money – but not on the facility, on our impact on it.”
His most recent innovation has seen him recommend to Klopp that training sessions should take place at the same time as the kick-off of their next match, in order to sync the players’ body clocks.
“So if a game was at 8pm we wouldn’t start training until 8 o’clock at night.”
He worries constantly about chronotype: the hard-wired sleep cycle of each person that either defines you as a lark (a morning person), an owl (an evening person) or somewhere in the middle (no one has come up with an animal for this yet). He’ll suddenly realise, for instance, the entire back four for an upcoming game are all owls, but the kick-off is at 12.30pm. Nightmare! “The defence is still asleep!”
As for next season, there is even more work to be done. Last year he also started advising unfashionable Norwich City in the EFL Championship (“Another German coach,” he points out). They duly won the league, gaining promotion, and Littlehales is delighted to note their first Premier League fixture is away to Liverpool – the battle of the incredibly well slept.
In his time, Littlehales has consulted for all manner of sporting organisations, including the England national team and British Cycling, and yet it was only with the publication of his book about sleep in 2016 (titled, simply, Sleep) that people outside sport have started taking notice.
“For virtually 22 years,” he says, “nobody has cared. It’s been lonely out there, way out in front of something.”
Littlehales now works with the police, the NHS, airline pilots, the fire service and several universities. Just don’t get him started on his rival experts: “There’s so much crap out there now! There’s people who do hypnotherapy who’ve become sleep coaches. There’s people who used to sit in sleep clinics in universities who’ve come out and started writing books. All this stuff going on trying to get into this trillion-dollar black hole of sleep.”
When he talks to footballers now, he says, he realises the work has changed. At the start it was simply marginal gains – better recovery, performance, mood, motivation, stamina – from people who mostly slept well. But now the problem is to get them to sleep in the first place.
“The latter years it’d been about protecting people. It’s not the blue light from screens. It’s the information overload. That’s what messes with your brain.”
And so Littlehales, who often camps in his own garden if he has trouble sleeping, has come up with a remarkably low-tech solution: the players should start camping too.
“People say, ‘What do you call that, Nick? Mindfulness? Mind resilience? Joe Wicks’ new body coaching [or] whatever?’ No, it’s just human beings are designed to sleep outside with the sun going around our planet. I’m just connecting the two things up. So let’s just pitch our tents, because you’re going to get better recovery, mate. ‘Really?’ they say. Yeah. Champions League final coming up? Get the tents in the car park.”