Romelu Lukaku was heading to his seat in the Finch Farm canteen with some bagels when Everton’s nutritionist noticed something wasn’t quite right.
‘Where’s the protein on it?’ He whispered into Lukaku’s ear.
So back now Inter striker Lukaku went for some poached eggs and that’s when his breakfast ticked all the right nutritional boxes. The diet of footballers has come a long way.
Matt Le Tissier-style grab-and-go McDonalds days on the way to training – although that’s not hurting his performance – Steve Boldt scoffs at nine dinners or Steve Howe breakfasts, lunches, or dinners on the way back from the game. And enjoying the beer. Dinner is long gone.
In pursuit of marginal gains, feeding footballers is now a science with no stone unturned and the ban on condiments, a familiar move by new managers, is just the tip of the iceberg.
Cristiano Ronaldo famously takes care of his body with the advice of a nutritionist.
Don McLaren, the country’s first professor of sports nutrition, previously advised Liverpool
Don McLaren, the UK’s first professor of sports nutrition, said ‘nutrition can make as little as 10 per cent of the difference between when you get it wrong and when you get it right’. ‘It has become much more important.’
It’s no surprise, then, that this is one of the areas in which Manchester United’s new manager Erik ten Hague has tackled alcohol during match weeks, overhauling the club’s menu and insisting that Trying to get their stars in shape before the new season. Eat meals prepared by the club instead of meals served by personal chefs.
A nutrition adviser to clubs including Liverpool, Everton, Manchester City and Bolton, McClaren worked in the game from the mid-90s until 2015, a period when football began to pay real attention to player nutrition.
Essential to any change that nutritionists have longed to implement for years.
‘It’s pointless if the manager doesn’t fully buy into it,’ said McLean.
At Liverpool the late Gerard Houllier and Rafa Benitez ‘acquired a nutritionist much more easily.’
Sam Allardyce was the first English manager he remembers wanting to explore the benefits, while Scott David Moyes was also open-minded.
When McLaren first started advising clubs, they didn’t have much to work with.
He explained: ‘They had canteens that didn’t have enough cooking space. There was only one lady with a helper and she was very limited in her kitchen in terms of what she could cook, which was really just messing things up.’
It was not surprising these days that players would skip meals at their clubs and instead head to nearby eateries, leaving no significant opportunity to ‘carb up’ in the process after training. .
Now, many clubs, especially in the top two divisions, boast facilities on a par with the restaurants that players of previous generations ran.
And while the variety of food on the menu may not surprise, it’s the level of detail that goes into their menu that is most remarkable.
Before they step into their canteen for breakfast or lunch, athletes know how much they need to eat.
It is predetermined by the day of the week and factors such as how far away they are from their last, next game, their recent workload and the players’ caloric needs are influenced by factors including their position and size.
Former Arsenal defender Steve Bould once ate nine dinners in one meal.
There are also some big eaters in the Premier League with eye-opening appetites, such as the London-based defender who often goes for lunch or dinner on the go with two dishes or a plate high with his main meal. Seen with piles. Top a coffee serving of pasta or rice.
All player meals are planned in collaboration with the club’s nutritionists, sports scientists and chefs.
That staff is now full-time, a stark contrast to when the clubs had just one, and sometimes just a student intern, who went to managers, players and chefs to give culinary advice.
Portion control is now an increasing consideration with some clubs providing food to players rather than allowing them to fill their shoes.
Forward-thinking Norwich have gone even further with the level of detail, assigning a value to each food item on their menu and allowing each player to have a total meal price.
Some club managers want their players to finish eating two hours before training starts so that their food is fully digested, a factor that led a former Premier League manager to the night before games. was prompted to ban red meat.
Romelu Lukaku was reportedly struggling with his diet before his move to Inter Milan saw him flourish under a new plan.
From cereals, porridge, breads, yogurts, juices and other hot and cold items, almost anything is available and in any combination from a wide array of cooks on hand to meet the needs of cooks.
Hot breakfasts are popular choices among athletes and coffee machines, especially before training.
Lunch is served after the training. The quality, especially at the highest level, has been described as ‘unbelievable’.
Chicken, fish and vegan/vegetarian dishes can be eaten with carbohydrate sources such as pasta, rice, potatoes, plus vegetables.
To keep things fresh, popular specialties such as fillet steak, salmon teriyaki, black cod or honey and mustard are occasionally added to the menu.
Fruits, nuts, vitamin drinks, herbal and fruit teas are also available on demand.
‘They can get any recipe they want,’ said a source with Ben Chelwell exposing Reece James’ lunch of chicken, pasta, broccoli, pineapple, strawberries and mayonnaise last season.
McLean says that Steven Gerrard and Eric Dier were among those most receptive to his advice.
When players are away from their clubs, the onus is on them to stay disciplined and it takes trust.
Club experts are just a message or call away though, encouraging players to ask questions and get involved.
MacLean said, ‘I remember a young Steven Gerrard and Eric Dier being young lads who listened intently. ‘They asked for some guidelines for breakfast, dinner and said we’re going to print it out and put it in the fridge.
Phil Neville was at the end of his career when he came to Everton. We changed his diet and he thanked us for it. Sometimes his diet was a bit too carb-focused and we needed to reduce that, for example add a bit more protein.’
Sloane Dustin’s preference for having a rump stack on each training day was another McLaren adapted to introduce more variety.
‘He was very receptive.’ said Maclean. ‘Young players are more likely to come in and listen for longer periods of time to establish themselves. Older players want to listen because they want to prolong their careers.’
Sloane Dustin (left) enjoyed a rump steak after each training day.
Clubs providing a takeaway service for their players and even their families is now quite common. United are now reportedly offering a meals-on-wheels service so players can have food delivered to their homes.
Some clubs organize cookery courses for players and parents to share knowledge.
Technology is also used. Some clubs’ digital displays have translated directions and menus for their overseas stars.
Norwich also have an app for their players and staff with meal plans, cooking instructions and advice on the smallest details like using the right oil.
The use of personal and live-in chefs is a growing trend with the likes of Harry Kane, James and Emile Smith Rowe.
Food consumption around match days is even more important as nutritionists play a key role in fueling athletes during this critical period when large servings of carbohydrates are required the night before games.
In the changing room, athletes often reach for an array of options to provide high-energy bananas, rice cakes, cereal bars, sweets, beet juice, caffeine shots and electrolyte drinks.
Norwich City have an app for their players and staff with meal plans and recipes.
Another important time is after the match.
In keeping with an old belief that sports players can eat as much as they want for 24 hours, it’s not unusual to see clubs receive large pizza deliveries after games.
The boxes were held high in the dressing room after England’s 10-0 win at San Marino in November.
But footballers now insist on limiting nutritional damage to their bodies.
High-carbohydrate foods are still eaten, although more thought is put behind the process and high-calorie meals are allowed after the match.
One Premier League captain keeps it pretty simple, opting for just a bottle of whole sugar, Orange Lucozide.
For home games, clubs have more room to lay on dressing room spreads on healthy but still hearty foods like chicken nuggets, burgers, chili, sushi, fruit pots and protein shakes.
Sam Allardyce was one of the first British managers to embrace the importance of nutrition.
After away games, players return on ships or buses with kitchens where their meals can be prepared and served.
Some clubs also create goody bags that include vitamin drinks, cereal bars and healthy crisps, among other items, for players to work out when it suits them.
Cooks and/or nutritionists usually travel with the teams and sometimes before to make sure the food is being prepared or eaten.
Some stars feel they have a high metabolism and burn enough calories during the week to indulge in the occasional takeaway.
The problem now is how much they are monitored – no longer weekly as was once the case in some clubs but now, in some cases, every morning.
It’s not just their weight being checked, but other indicators of their condition, including fat and muscle percentage. United players will now have their BMI checked monthly.
And the numbers don’t lie – and the results do come – making it harder for players than ever before.