One of the first things Arsene Wenger did after becoming Arsenal manager in October 1996 was change the team’s diet. Within 19 months, the Gunners were English champions and went on to challenge Manchester United‘s dominance over the coming years.
Wenger’s methods revolutionised English football. Soon everyone cared about nutrition – including Bournemouth legend Marc Pugh, who enjoyed three successful seasons in the Premier League and has since become a health coach.
Pugh, who last played in January 2021, launched The Footie Footballer Instagram page in September 2019 to help others with their nutrition and has since gained more than 54,000 followers. “I was really intrigued by nutrition,” Pugh tells Mirror Football.
“When I was a little bit younger, I never got given the information that I know now. It was when we got promoted to the Championship with Bournemouth that I thought, ‘How can I gain that extra edge to my performances, to my recovery.’
“I started to study it [nutrition] at the age of about 26 and I just grew to love it – I learnt so much – and then I did a qualification. Since then, I’ve done another qualification in athletic performance and weight management.
“I’ve learnt so much about nutrition and the affects it has on the body, not just for performance and recovery but for all health and wellbeing. I’ve always said, ‘A healthy athlete makes a good athlete.’ I just became so passionate about it.
“When I signed for QPR, I decided to set up The Foodie Footballer Instagram page and post nice, bright food that will have a positive impact on people’s health and performance… and it just went from there, really.”
On the importance of nutrition in professional football, Pugh adds: “It’s becoming more and more important now. A lot more athletes are taking it seriously, whereas back in the day you could get away with eating the wrong things.
“But, as you see in the Premier League especially, these days it [the game] is so intense, so quick. And there are that many games – you’ve got to recover properly.”
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Pugh is best known for his time at Bournemouth, achieving two promotions and playing more than 300 games during a nine-year spell. The ex-winger is currently working as a nutrition adviser for the development squad, alongside his one-on-one health coaching.
“I’m absolutely loving that [working with Bournemouth]. I go down every two weeks to do practical sessions with the lads in the kitchen and teach them how to cook various things, from healthy snacks to main meals pre-match and post-match.
“They seem to really love it… the reality is you’ve got to look after what you put in your body. I’m a big believer that, what you put in your body will make you a better athlete.”
Bournemouth are flying in the Championship, sitting second in the table – six points ahead of Luton in third with two games in hand. And Pugh is confident Scott Parker’s side can return to the Premier League after a two-year absence.
“They’ve got games in hand, obviously they’ve got to win them. Scott’s done a great job. The expectancy levels went through the roof this season, the second season in the Championship, and they’re expected to get promotion. I’m feeling really confident, to be honest.”
Pugh joined Bournemouth in June 2010, just a month after they won promotion from League Two under Eddie Howe. It proved to be one of the best decisions of his career. Within five years, the Cherries were a Premier League club – completing a meteoric rise.
For Pugh, Howe’s influence was crucial to Bournemouth’s success. “Eddie is an unbelievable coach, he really is. He wants what’s best for his players… he focuses day in, day out on doing extras after training. He expects the best of his players, the best of himself.
“We always had belief in him, and he believed in us as well. We all pulled together in the end and grew from strength to strength.”
Bournemouth achieved promotion to the Premier League in 2014-15, yet their campaign didn’t get off to a great start – winning just two of their first eight Championship fixtures. The Cherries began to believe after a six-game winning run in the autumn, which included a famous 8-0 away win against Birmingham. Pugh scored a hat-trick that day.
“At the time, I don’t know if we knew how good we were – as individuals and collectively – because we all played – most of that team who got in the Premier League – at League One level. It [promotion] seemed a long way away.
“But when we beat Birmingham away 8-0 and Fulham away 5-1, we really did grow and start to believe. I think if you’ve got quality – you’ve got players around you that you know you can trust, will work hard – then you’ve got half a chance.”
Bournemouth went on to spend five years in the Premier League – finishing ninth in their second season – before suffering relegation in 2020. On making the step up, Pugh adds: “We went into the unknown. But I was focusing really hard on my nutrition, my recovery, my gym work.
“I did everything in my power to make sure I was ready because I knew it was going to be a big challenge. It was all I wanted as a boy, to play in the Premier League and test myself against world class players and the best.
“We didn’t just hold our own… being in the top half of the table was an achievement for such a small club. If you put everything into it – no matter where you come from, whether you’ve spent most of your time in League Two, League One – if you back yourself and your team-mates, then you can achieve anything. We all pulled together in one direction.”
Howe left Bournemouth following the team’s relegation. He returned to management last November, taking over a Newcastle side that were facing the drop. Four months later, their 14th – nine points clear of relegation.
“His signings have been great,” adds Pugh. “They knew the league with [Kieran] Trippier, [Chris] Wood and one or two other signings as well. They were in a battle at the time, and he signed players who were physical, strong and good characters.
“I don’t see any reason why he can’t be one of the elite managers and mix it with the best because he does everything right. He lives his life right; he lives his life like a player. He looks after himself, he does his gym work, he’s mentally in the right place.
“He’s always willing to learn, I think that’s half the battle. He’s willing to hold his hands up if he’s made a mistake and that’s how you learn and develop. He helped me with my career, and I grew from strength to strength working under him.”
Pugh had nearly 150 senior games under his belt before joining Bournemouth, representing Kidderminster, Bury, Shrewsbury, Luton and Hereford. It wasn’t an easy journey to the top.
“League One and League Two, there were a lot of ups and downs. I got released twice. At the age of 18 I was told I wasn’t good enough and at the age of 22 as well at Shrewsbury due to a change of manager. But I always said, ‘I’m going to play in the Premier League.’
“I always backed myself – believed in myself – and one of the quotes I live by is ‘hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard’ and that’s all I did. I worked hard, I had good ability. But the thing that let me down a little bit was my nutrition.
“I ate well, but I could’ve eaten a lot better and, rather than treat myself with a Saturday night takeaway when I’d had a good performance, looking after what you put in your body will help that recovery come Tuesday night… you want to be at your best and perform optimally on a daily basis.
“That’s where I started to see the changes and climb the ladder. Obviously, you need to have your team-mates buy into it as well, but if you do your job on the field and your team-mates are backing you up, then you can achieve anything.”
Pugh’s playing days ended during a Covid lockdown after spells with Hull, QPR and a brief return to Shrewsbury. His transition into retirement was made easier by having already launched his health coaching career and the lack of supporters inside grounds.
“I came out of football when fans weren’t in the stadiums – Covid was fairly new – and without the fans football just wasn’t the same.
“It probably made it a little bit easier for me to come out of it having this other passion. I got a couple of offers in the summer, but I wanted to try to pursuit this because I was 34, 35 in April, and I knew football wasn’t going to last forever.
“There comes a point where you’ve got to make that jump and that leap of faith. I did it probably sooner than I thought because physically I feel I can play till I’m 40, but the right opportunity didn’t come round in the summer, and I just wanted to do this and help others.
“I thought I would’ve found it a lot more difficult than I did – and I know a lot of players really struggle because that’s all they’ve known – but I play five-a-side three times a week, so I get my football fix. And I was never one of these people who loved the limelight. I used to go to work, play football, enjoy it, go home and spend time with my family.”
Lastly, what is Pugh’s recommended dish before a big game? “My go-to meal was always a small piece of protein – whether that be chicken or salmon – with some quinoa, sweet potato and some vine tomatoes. And for a little bit more carbs I’d top up with a bit of sourdough, brown toast with honey and peanut butter. I always felt fuelled with that meal.”