Steve Kemp: Fixing up Wolves and Three Lions

Wolves’ most recent senior England internationals are Steve Bull, Matt Jarvis and Conor Coady.

And the current lead men’s England physiotherapist Steve Kemp, formerly of Wolves, can draw a line through them all.

Kemp worked with Bull as a student on a six-week placement, was the Head of Medical at Molineux when Jarvis won his England cap against Ghana, and is now part of the England backroom team looking after a squad which has included Coady over the last 12 months.

All of that covers a timespan in excess of 20 years in which Kemp has very much put in the hard yards both in his initial studying and continual self-improvement alongside accumulating vast experience to become one of the many integral cogs of Team England.

“One of my first experiences as a physio was working with Steve Bull when I was on a six-week placement as a student at Wolves,” he recalls.

“And I can vividly remember being threatened that we couldn’t go for lunch until I’d done a one-arm pull-up.

“That was Bully, and others who were injured such as Tony Daley and Neil Emblen, in what is now the manager’s office at Molineux but used to be the gym.

“We’d do stadium runs up and down the stands, so it was proper old school!

“Then there was Jarvo, one of the many great players and people who were at Wolves when I was there, getting his England cap, and now Conor who has been involved for just over a year now.

“I wasn’t with Conor at Wolves, but I worked with him when he was in the England squad for the Under-20s World Cup and now of course with the seniors.

“Working with him I can always see how passionate he is about Wolves and that is something we have in common when we meet up and talk – I suppose that shows my bias as well!”

Kemp first started working within the England set-up in 2012 after four years heading up the medical department at Wolves.

Players of Wolverhampton Wanderers celebrate with the trophy after winning the Coca Cola Football League Championship in the dressing room.

That followed an earlier stint at Molineux between 2004 and 2006 when operating as a first team physio with both spells offering progression in a career which demands so much diligence and hard work even before having the chance to land one of those type of positions.

Kemp completed separate degrees in Sport Rehabilitation and then Physiotherapy at the University of Salford, later completing Masters and postgraduate diplomas in further specialisms and is now studying for a PhD in ankle ligament rehabilitation at London’s Imperial College.

Growing up he was adept in several different sports but not spectacularly enough in any to consider a career, but it was whilst nurturing that interest in his first degree that the ambition to work within sport medicine first materialised.

“There was a moment in a cadaveric lab where I was holding and manipulating an ankle that it all dropped into place in a strange kind of way,” Kemp recalls.

Dave Hancock, who would later also work for England, but initially a physio with Wolves and then Blackburn, Leeds and Chelsea was a key and helpful figure for Kemp arranging placements not just at Molineux but also Ewood Park and later recommending him for a permanent Academy position with Leeds.

It was in 2004 that Kemp received the call from then Wolves head physio Barry Holmes to join up and work with the first team but not long before he had spread his wings to pick up valuable experience working with Busan Icons in Korea.

“I was always fortunate to have lots of good placements with lots of good physios offering lots of good opportunities,” he explains.

“And that job I got for a few months with Busan Icons was a great experience.

“It was while I was waiting to qualify after my second degree and I was offered this opportunity with Ian Porterfield who was manager and Drew Jarvie as his assistant.

“Jamie Cureton signed for them at the time and Andy Cooke who had been at Burnley, but apart from that it was mainly local players and, looking back, I don’t know how I did it.

“I knew the words for ‘pain’ or ‘no pain’ and would prod the players and find out what hurt and what didn’t and move on from there!

“I was only there for a few months but it was a great life experience, travelling to some huge stadiums as it wasn’t long after they had hosted the World Cup and they were really pushing the K-League.

“It was a good chance to go out on my own and do something completely different.”

Then moving from Busan on to Wolves, communication was far easier but perhaps the dynamic of the dressing room was slightly more of a challenge.

Any dressing rooms at a professional club can often be a brutal place – sink or swim especially for a young and aspiring physio – but Kemp quickly grasped the importance of keeping his head above water.

“That treatment room when I first arrived at Wolves when I was newly qualified included the likes of Matt Murray, Joleon Lescott, Dean Sturridge and Nathan Blake.

“At that time Barry would go out when the first team were training and I would be left with those four characters in the treatment room.

“Let’s just say it was a baptism of fire!

“I got huge amounts of stick, but I think I got some credibility for dealing with that and it has certainly stood me in good stead and prepared me for the rest of my career.”

The interruption to Kemp’s overall six years of service came in 2006 when another player he had met during his placement at Wolves, Paul Simpson, was managing Preston.

Thanks to another Wolves influence and a recommendation from goalkeeper Michael Oakes, Kemp was approached to become Head of Medical at Deepdale and run the department which he did for two years, stepping up his development and experience.

And that meant that when opportunity knocked two years later to return to Wolves, in a similar role, there was no hesitation.

“Mick (McCarthy) had arrived at the club when I was serving my notice and for the first six weeks we got on really well,” says Kemp.

“At that stage he wanted me to stay but that wouldn’t have been fair to Preston but when the opportunity came up a couple of years later it felt like the right time to come back.

“And my first season back was the Championship-winning one which is right up there as one of the highlights of my career.

“What Mick and ‘TC’ (Terry Connor) did as they do everywhere they go is to build a club with a fantastic spirit and everyone pulling together with a culture which develops around the team.

“There were such good players and good people at the time and I think back to the likes of Kights (Michael Kightly), Wardy (Stephen Ward), Jarvo (Matt Jarvis) and so many others and there are so many who I stayed in touch with afterwards and so many fond memories.

“And in terms of what we achieved on the medical side, I was fortunate to be working alongside people like Matt Perry (club doctor) and Tony Daley (sport science) and that Mick was as encouraging for the progress off the pitch as he was on it.”

And so, that progress on the pitch was accompanied by equally substantial strides forward on the medical side.

Whilst financially it still had to be achieved on a budget, the investment following promotion to the Premier League allowed the department to develop and improve and, in doing so, ensure the squad became fitter and less prone to picking up the more avoidable type of injury.

Wolves became the first club in the Premier League to have their Sport Science laboratory accredited by professional body BASES, with Chris Kamara visiting to give the facilities the once-over for a feature screened on Sky’s Soccer Saturday programme.

“It was good that with some investment following promotion the club wanted to move forward and Jez (CEO Jez Moxey) was also keen to back that,” Kemp explains.

Michael Kightly of Wolverhampton Wanderers, turns back the seat of Steve Kemp Physio of Wolverhampton Wanderers.

“The new training ground had been open for a couple of years or so and we were able to develop that further and increase the staff numbers a little bit.

“We aligned the Academy with the first team, opening the doors to the younger players and encouraging shared staff and high standards at every level of our fitness and medical provision.

“With the likes of Dr Perry – a fantastic mentor for me at Wolves - and Tony we had some excellent people in this area who were able to take things forward and the lads responded which meant the club was able to forge a really strong culture for that aspect of the game – everything definitely shifted in the right direction.”

Whatever the improvements made to any medical department – and Wolves have further pushed on significantly in recent years with a major investment into staffing and facilities – unfortunately some injuries will always remain unavoidable as an unwanted and painful part of football.

There are many good times and there were for Kemp at Wolves.

But for every picture of the squad and backroom staff celebrating the Championship title success of 2008/09, there are many far darker days with players which take place behind the scenes.

And are never seen.

As a physio, or head of a medical department, you are not just a practitioner to support a player’s health and rehabilitation, you are also often a sounding board and a confidante.

With players such as Murray – who was eventually forced to retire – and Kightly, who suffered interruptions to his Wolves career which affected his Premier League impact, Kemp lived every second of the difficulties and frustration which ensued.

“As someone I worked with from my first spell at Wolves Matt is someone who I had a strong working relationship and friendship with,” says Kemp.

“I think he had 17 operations in total, and I remember he used to say that I had seen more of his body than his partner had!

“When I look back regret is not the right word because we did everything we could and so did Matt, but there will always be the feeling that he didn’t have the career which he really deserved.

“Maybe he just needed a bit more good fortune, and he was a great keeper who still had a great career and has gone on to have another one since he finished playing.

“But that sits heavily with me, thinking of just what might have been.

“And Kights as well, the Football League’s Young Player of the Year, who had so much potential at that time but whose influence for Wolves in the Premier League was affected by injury.

“Maybe now as things have moved on and with us all being more experienced it could have been a different story but as a physio you do feel every single bit of an injury.

“You want those players to succeed so much, you live and breathe every minute of it, and it is a great job when you see them do well but it is very hard when they don’t or they don’t get back within the timespan you wanted them to.

“It was really rough with Kights and I remember travelling around the world with him meeting experts and trying to help find a solution – it was the same with Matt.

“And with Joleon in my first spell, there was quite a surreal moment when we went out to see the renowned specialist Richard Steadman who was on holiday in Italy.

“We were in this five star hotel with Richard’s wife reading a book on the balcony and Joleon doing single leg squats in the bedroom while he was being examined.

“You go on some strange journeys to try and help players get back but you are always ready to do whatever you can to make it happen.”

Kemp left Wolves in 2012 with the club back where they were when he began – in the Championship after relegation followed three successive seasons in the Premier League where for so long they battled manfully and successfully to keep their heads above water.

But there was plenty of mitigation for moving on, as Kemp was switching from club to country, initially in a role which was split between working as a physio with the England team and running rehabilitation for the PFA based at St George’s Park.

It was in 2016 that Gary Lewin, the head England physio from whom Kemp had learned so much, moved on after 20 years in the position.

That saw Kemp moving up on a permanent basis, although he had already had to step in for Lewin in bizarre and hugely unfortunate circumstances during the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

“That was something else you really couldn’t write,” says Kemp.

Matt Murray and assistant physiotherapist Steve Kemp

“Gary’s studs got caught between the astro on the side of the pitch and the grass as he was rushing on to get some water bottles out to the players after a goal.

“It was reported at the time that he tripped on a water bottle itself which wasn’t true.

“Gary had dislocated his ankle, which was a horrific time for him, but obviously we then had to carry on and were fortunate that we had a strong medical department out there.

“With England we travel with two physiotherapists, three soft tissue therapists, an osteopath and two strength and conditioning coaches so we always have a strong team and all work closely together.

“Everyone is able to adapt where necessary and I took on the lead role and we were able to fly another physio out.

“Having to step up out in Brazil was obviously mixed feelings with disappointment for Gary but for me it was a unique experience.”

Kemp has now worked at four senior major tournaments with England as well as others at youth level including that Under-20s World Cup in Turkey in 2013 when Coady was captain.

There was that semi-final of the World Cup with Croatia in Russia in 2019, but never of course have the country got closer to winning since 1966 than in this summer’s delayed European Championships staged across Europe.

England played all but one of their fixtures at Wembley, including the final, where agonisingly they were defeated on penalties by Italy.

Yet the over-riding feeling across the country amid the painful disappointment was one of immense pride, a much-needed boost after the struggles linked to the pandemic of the 15 months previously.

From the outside looking in there was also a sense of a hugely united Team England around a group of fiercely ambitious players whose will to win was matched by a humility and acknowledgement of the enormity of their influence during such a difficult time.

Kemp confirms that to be the case, also explaining that the recent progress – a semi-final and final in successive tournaments – is very much the continuation of a long term plan which hasn’t yet reached its conclusion.

“Working within the England set-up is always going to the pinnacle for so many people involved in football and that is the same for me,” he says.

“There weren’t many clubs or opportunities I would even have considered leaving Wolves for but I feel really fortunate to now be involved in one of the most successful phases of English international football in history.

“This is certainly the most sustained period of success of the England national team and it feels like we are on a good trajectory and still heading forwards.

“When I think back to Wolves, I remember being there on Mick’s first day when he went around the whole club saying hello and introducing himself to everyone.

“And I was also there on his very last day when he went around again to make sure he said goodbye to everyone and in my time in football I am not sure I can think of many managers who would have done that.

“But another of those who would is Gareth Southgate, and I think I have been lucky to work for two managers who really value that sort of culture.

“Of course football success is all about the team and what they do on the pitch but both of those managers also understand there is a team behind the team and put a lot of energy in to make sure everyone feels valued and a part of it.

“I have enjoyed working with all the managers at England but I think the culture that Gareth and Steve Holland have developed within the senior squad is as good as any I have known.

“It always helps when you are winning games but I think there is something more behind it with so much credit going to the development of St George’s Park and the strategy set up in 2012 to aim to win a tournament within the next ten years.

“People like Dan Ashworth and Dave Reddin had a big part to play too while Gareth was also heavily involved from the beginning when he was working with the development teams.

England phyiso Steve Kemp (right) looks after England's Kieran Trippier during the UEFA Nations League Group 2, League A match at Parken Stadium, Copenhagen..

“There are England players now who have had success at Under-17 and Under-20 World Cups so they know what winning a tournament feels like and they have that experience and understand the England way.

“That is in no way dismissive to any managers, staff or players involved with England previously, but I think that huge investment and project that was put in place eight or nine years ago is really starting to come to fruition now.”

The England set-up is not the only one where there has been enormous progress in recent times – the world of sports medicine is exactly the same.

As Kemp points out, things have moved a long way from the days of one armed pull up challenges and running up terraces with Steve Bull to the facilities of the modern age and use of GPS technology and wellness data.

What has also improved is the relationships between club and country which Kemp, with the benefit of all those contacts made during his time at Wolves, knows is hugely important.

Prior to the World Cup Kemp and other staff were able to spend time at different clubs working with their own medics with players who were nursing injuries but aiming to be fit for some part of the finals.

“Those relationships are integral to the job and I think it helps that I spent some time within club football and can understand the demands and pressures of club football,” says Kemp.

“And when you think of the progress within football we now receive huge amounts of data ahead of England fixtures where we know where the players are at physically which allows us to support them transitioning onto international camp.”

All the teamwork involved seemed to work perfectly in the summer, the squad growing through the competition to get within a couple of penalty kicks of ending a 55-year wait and becoming only the second ever England team to win a major international tournament.

While there is clearly no one living in the past - World Cup qualifying has already restarted and at a very decent pace where England’s results are concerned - Kemp is confident the players remain focused firmly on first booking their place at Qatar next year, and then trying to go that one step further.

“It is still hard to put into words the experiences from the summer,” he admits.

“With the World Cup in Russia, it was really disappointing to lose in the semi-finals but maybe we over-achieved a little bit in the tournament.

“There was a little bit more expectation around the Euros, and more challenges with the Covid situation and players not seeing their families.

“Credit to the team around Gareth, they set up the environment around the place to make it enjoyable and fulfilling for players and staff who were going to be in camp for a long period of time.

“There was such depth in the squad but also a huge togetherness, and with 26 players involved even those who didn’t play were right behind those who did.

“It speaks volumes of that togetherness that for those who didn’t play and then had to train the day after games there was never any resentment, just a support of all who had started or finished the game.

“Conor was testament to that in how he was throughout the tournament, always supporting and one of the big characters within the squad even though he didn’t get any game time.

“I think when we look back and reflect there is a sense of being proud in what we achieved even with losing the final but knowing that we are still on the journey.

“It’s about maybe looking at how a country like France responded to losing a final and going on to win the next tournament and we have to keep knocking on the door.

“If you are constantly getting to semi-finals and finals then you are know that you are getting somewhere close and there is plenty to be optimistic about.”

Plenty to be optimistic about indeed and Kemp remains proud and privileged to be a part of it.

Life remains very busy not just with England along with other commitments including teaching on the training course which ensures physios are kept up to date with regards to pitchside emergency medicine, so crucial as illustrated by what happened with Christian Eriksen during the Euros.

But even nine years on from departing Wolves, relationships forged at Molineux have never disappeared for very long.

The rehabilitation work at St George’s Park for the PFA saw Kemp come into contact with Jarvis, Ebanks-Blake, Ward and Kightly at various stages of their treatment for injuries.

Kemp was also well known for patching up the war wounds of Jody Craddock during his time at Wolves – “what a warrior but such a gentleman” – and only recently he spotted one of the photographs of him treating the former Wolves captain on the front cover of a science textbook for a sports medicine course.

“I don’t think either of us received any royalties for that,” he laughs.

Kemp is also still good friends with Murray and bumped into Lescott, who is now working within the England Under-21s set-up, at St George’s Park only last week.

The exciting challenges of the Three Lions and the road to the World Cup are more than enough to keep Kemp occupied for the present and the future, but those memories of his history as a Wolf will never be too far away.

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