Mick Rathbone is a former professional footballer who made his football league debut for hometown club Birmingham City as a 17-year-old in 1976.
Psychological difficulties and poor form meant his boyhood St Andrews dream ended prematurely, but Blackburn Rovers gave the full back a chance to reinvigorate his footballing career. Under Bobby Saxton, he enjoyed eight successful years at Ewood Park and made nearly 300 league appearances. Following a succession of injuries towards the end of his Rovers career, the club allowed the defender to leave and join Preston North End in 1987. However, Rathbone’s injury curse soon struck again, and despite enjoying a brief spell at Halifax Town (as a player and latterly caretaker manager) he opted to pursue his interest outside of football upon retirement, physiotherapy.
Armed with a degree in the subject from the University of Salford, he rejoined Preston as a physiotherapist, where he spent all of six years, the latter of them with emerging manager David Moyes. Preston’s success under Moyes caught the interest of Everton and the Scot was appointed Goodison Park boss in March 2002 to help the club escape relegation from the top flight.
Rathbone linked up with Moyes again at Everton and became the club’s Head of Sports Science, spending eight years in all with the Toffees. In what was a modest footballing career in the lower leagues, which had the potential to have been better, it is Rathbone’s time at Everton for whom he is most fondly remembered. Nicknamed ‘Baz’, he brought out his autobiography ‘The Smell of Football’ in 2011, which has been shortlisted for many top accolades.
Q) Are you surprised by the success of the book?
“You always hope it’s going to go well when you get a book published. Nobody knows me, I’m not a Premier League player who could write anything and get it published but you’re halfway there when the publishers are fighting for you. I’m really delighted with how the book has gone and that it has been really well received as a worthwhile piece of work talking about my confidence issues as a young player.”
Q) The book takes us back to your days as a player with Birmingham City and the confidence and anxiety problems you faced. Do you think players who are playing in the modern game today suffer with the same kinds of issues?
“I don’t think players today get the same lack of confidence problems and it has probably faded out a little bit as they are treated very well when they are coming through as a young player. That said, it’s still quite daunting for today’s players to run down that tunnel in front of 75,000 people. Every pass you make, every yard you run is looked at but players now have become used to it.”
Q) You recollect vivid memories of your time at St Andrews in the book, what was it like looking back at that career-defining time for you?
“I remembered every moment and incident. It was cathartic to go through it all, it was nice to share it and write it all down. The fact I remember it so well shows what a profound affect that time in my life had on me.”
Q) The first Everton link in the book comes at the very start with Phil Neville’s foreword. Did you always have him in mind to write it?
“It meant a lot to me for Phil to write it. The publisher said to me that we needed a foreword for the book and they said we’re ask David Moyes to do it. I felt this wasn’t right really as I’m really close to David and he’s already talked about a lot in the book – so it didn’t make a lot of sense that. So I thought who’s the most respected, renowned player out of the current crop at Everton? It had to be Phil. I had a great relationship with him and he tied everything in with the book, which we weren’t really expecting. What he wrote was quite personalised and quite moving really.”
Q) Would you have preferred to play in the era you grew up in or the Premier League as it is today?
“The game has changed but I don’t think the players today are happier than I was at Halifax Town on £200 a week. From what I can see, Premier League players aren’t. If I could have retired at 33 with a few million in the bank, relaxed and played golf for the rest of my life I wouldn’t have had any of the satisfaction of having to work very hard for everything. There’s no part of me in anyway that wishes I had made more money as a footballer and been more famous.”
Q) You’ve had the opportunity to work under some famous managers during your career, people like Sir Alf Ramsey for instance. Who did you most enjoy playing under?
“Bob Saxton without a doubt. In my seven years or so at Blackburn Rovers it was like a family. We had the same team and that was my best period as a player. I got settled off the pitch as well and Saxton was like a father figure to me. The guy had the warmest glow.”
Q) Did your time at Ewood Park help you to banish the confidence issues you experienced at Birmingham?
“It was a great period especially after what had gone on before. My previous mindset that I didn’t want to cross that white line and you’re never going to play well again had gone. I had been jeered by the fans and I had got to that stage where I didn’t want to do it anymore. Then, all of a sudden, it all clicked into place at Blackburn. I suddenly wanted the ball and it was a great time. The feeling in the bath after the game when you won was magical.”
Q) The book is a refreshingly honest account of your feelings and emotions as a player, and more latterly as Head of Sports Science at Goodison Park. Did you set out with this intention?
“Well when I started writing it I thought I might as well write the truth and get it off my chest. I was fortunate to be able to write about everything in a self abusing kind of way because I came through it all. If I had walked away from football, sure I couldn’t have told the story in that same way. However, I got through it and that made it a lot easier to tell the story.”
Q) Having worked with David Moyes at Preston North End as a physiotherapist and then following the Scot to Everton, you have both known each other for many years. What is your relationship like with each other?
“David has had a massive influence on my career and it’s an enduring friendship. Sure, we’ve had a few arguments and run ins down the years but that happens when you’ve got two passionate people and you want to win. We’ve always joked about it afterwards, remain good friends and still keep in regular touch. I left Everton under a bit of a cloud but it was time to go and it had been difficult. Myself and David came through a lot together when we were at Preston.”
Q) And as a manager, you must place David in high regard?
“He’s the best in my opinion and I couldn’t speak highly enough of him. His energy, effort and decency to do his best in every facet of the job is remarkable. To be out in the rain when some managers would say let’s play head tennis indoors, to drive down to watch a game at Chelsea and get back at 3am when he could have just sent a scout – his work rate is unbelievable. I used to think of myself as the most energetic guy ever but when you think of David, he’s on another level. I don’t know how he does it, I really don’t.”
Q) What do you make of how Everton are doing this season?
“It’s really difficult isn’t it when you lose 5% each season in the players that have gone like Steven Pienaar and Mikel Arteta. Are the players that have been brought in as good as those? Of course not, how can they be. I still think the team is good, full of international quality players and really strong but will become weaker if top players are replaced with free transfers or loan deals. Despite Everton having the best manager and best managerial set up they are going to find it more and more difficult each season without investing.”
Q) The team spirit at Everton is always talked about as being one of the key factors for the club’s success in the Premier League in recent years. You were a part of that for a long time, what was it like?
“Yes the team spirit was crucial and David drives that. He installs in the players that they are not to be beaten, he doesn’t want them to give a yard and wants the players to keep trying. He doesn’t let the team ever let things go, keeps them working right to the end and will never throw the towel in.”
Q) You were as popular as they come in the Everton dressing room! Why do you think this was?
“Well I got on great with every player and they knew they could always talk to me if they had a problem. Though, at the same time, I wasn’t going to the BBQs, phoning them or going out for a drink. I always kept that fine professional line and kept a bit of distance. I think that was why it worked so well. I don’t really keep in touch with many of the players now but I get on well with everyone. The medical team at the club now is excellent and doesn’t breach that professional line. I think that’s how it’s got to be.”
Q) In the book you talk about how the 2009 FA Cup Final was the career highlight for you. What was that day like?
“It was a magical day. I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s when the FA Cup Final was the big day and it was really one of the only games live on television. To watch all the build up as a kid was fantastic and then to be a part of it was fantastic. I was down in the hotel in my suit and shoes, the helicopter was flying over, people were out on the steps saying goodbye and the coach took us along Wembley Way. For me, to be a part of that institution was special. In terms of the Everton fans that day, it’s the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen in my life, on a par with stepping out against Villarreal in 2005. We only saw the fans for about 30 seconds along Wembley Way before we were driven underground but it was a sea of blue. I could only see Everton fans and the hairs stood up on the back of my neck, it was unbelievable.”
Q) Do you wish you were playing for Everton that day?
“Yeah definitely, I might have been too nervous though!”
Q) Having spent eight years at Everton, what does the club mean to you?
“It was the pinnacle and there’s no other word to describe it. I don’t want to wear my heart on my sleeve as I didn’t play for Everton, support them when I was growing up and I don’t want to say the hand on heart and all that kind of stuff. However, for me Everton is a special club. My lad, now, who’s at Manchester United’s academy always has his Everton shirt on. There is something special about Everton that I’ve never experienced at any other club. I think Everton fans are the luckiest people in the world to be born an Evertonian and to follow the club. In a way, the fact that they’ve got no money and they’re struggling almost strengthens the bond. Everton is an institution; it’s more than just a football club. To be born a follower of that club is amazing.”
Q) Looking back are you proud at what you have achieved?
“I think if you become a professional footballer then you’ve done pretty well in the first instance. It’s hard to become a physio and work in the Premier League but I’m grateful and proud to have had the opportunity. I’m not gloatingly proud as I’ve been very fortunate to meet some very good people along the way.”
Click below to listen to the audio version of Stuart Appleby’s interview with Mick Rathbone.
* Note: distortion in sound and audio quality due to disruptive phone line signal during interview recording.
This interview was also published in the Everton Supporters Club London Area (ESCLA) Fanzine.