Field of dreams

Matt Konopinski is one of those few people who can truly say they fulfilled a youthful ambition. He tells Mark Gould about the path to the top of professional football physiotherapy

Matt Konopinski in the weights room
Matt has achieved his dream of working with top-flight footballers, including the Lionesses

As a teenager Matt Konopinski dreamed of being involved in football. Within seven years of graduating as a physiotherapist he was working at the top of the professional game, Liverpool Football Club, one of the most famous clubs in the world. 

He has also provided rehabilitation support for England Lionesses Chloe Kelly, Lucy Bronze and Keira Walsh, which helped them play key roles in England’s triumph in the Euro 22 football championships.

Looking back, Matt, 42, feels that a combination of almost zero career advice, hard work, dedication and a slice of good fortune led him to achieve his youthful ambition.

‘I weighed up the career options and physiotherapist was one of them. It was a rather naïve decision, and I didn’t get much career advice. It was only when I went to university that I realised how much more there was to physiotherapy,’ he says.

Matt was on a gap year in South America after A-levels and only selected the very few universities which would make an offer without an interview. ‘If I was applying now and went into an interview saying “I just want to get into footy” I wouldn’t have had a chance.’

Graduating from Keele University in 2002, Matt worked at Bradford Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and then at Mid Yorkshire Hospitals NHS Trust.  A school friend who was playing for Leeds United Ladies Team got him a foot in the door shadowing the team’s physiotherapist. Other contacts in the NHS clinched him a part-time role with Leeds United Men’s Academy. His first full-time job was at Barnsley FC where he became lead first team physio.

But life as a professional football physiotherapist is not simple. ‘The politics and the pressure that can be put on the medical team were the things that struck me the most,’ he says.

While interpersonal skills are massively important across physiotherapy, Matt feels football involves lots of complex relationships. 

‘You have to manage up and manage down. Liaise with the coaching staff, the manager, parents depending on age of athlete, and at board level. As a young physio you are the same age as the players, and you have the same interests. But as time goes on your relationships change, you get to the stage where you become a father figure.’

In 2009 he moved to Liverpool FC initially as reserve team physio, then senior rehab physio working with the first team, and in his final season there, 2018, as head physio. 

‘I did have a great sense of achievement. You are given that role because people trust you. It's confirmation of everything you have worked for in your career up to that point.’

However, he says the job meant more management and less hands-on work. ‘I was never truly satisfied with that, because my real interest lies in rehab. Also, by that time I’d been there 10 years. I had got married and had three kids. My priorities had changed, and I wanted more time with my family.’

Leaving Liverpool, he worked with the Football Association with the England under 19s and under 20s teams. Soon an opportunity arose to work at another iconic football club, Glasgow Rangers. But his appointment came up just as the pandemic broke out and he found himself living in lockdown in Glasgow without his family.

‘It was a difficult time. I decided that family had to be my priority and came back to the North West where I was lucky to get a job as a full time lecturer at Salford University which was a brilliant experience.’ 

While working at Liverpool, Matt and his friend and business partner Chris Morgan, had talked about setting up a company providing the sort of environment and expertise usually reserved for elite sports professionals. 

And as a result, Rehab 4 Performance (R4P) was born.

Their business in Liverpool works with anyone from ‘weekend warriors to professional athletes’ with the emphasis on exercise as an intervention. The HQ has three treatment rooms, but the majority of the 250 square meter space is a rehab gym. 

One of their star customers was England Lioness Chloe Kelly who famously scored the winning goal in England’s 2-1 win over Germany in last July’s Euro 22 final.

‘Chloe spent three months with us coming back from a complex knee ligament injury. She had an incredible outcome and such great enthusiasm and work ethic which makes our jobs so much easier.’

Matt was impressed with the speed of Kelly’s return to peak performance. ‘Returning to training is really different from returning to performance. To get that performance back can take a long time so Chloe did brilliantly to achieve what she did and score the winner in the final you couldn’t write it. It was an iconic moment.’

R4P also worked with Lioness Lucy Bronze, who also had a complex knee injury. Matt says Bronze “is one of the most impressive athletes I have worked with, an absolute machine in the gym.”  A third Lioness, Kiera Walsh, went to R4P with a mild calf strain. Other notable clients include Commonwealth Games Gold medal winning heptathlete Katarina Johnson-Thompson and Wales international, Joe Allen.

Matt says they ensure informed consent from elite athletes to facilitate shared treatment and planning with the individual’s club or organisation. ‘We operate in a bubble with their medical departments rather than being completely independent. That makes things as smooth as possible for the athlete.’

Chloe Kelly earned a place in football folklore with her sports bra celebration on scoring the Euro 22 winner. She also namechecked R4P in TV interviews.

Matt says such mentions help to ‘authenticate us as a legitimate brand with the general population and professional athletes’. 

‘When Chloe gave us a shout out on Sky Sports it was so honest, real, and not at all contrived, which is just how she is.’

Anyone with ideas about setting up in physiotherapy business needs to know their audience. ‘Work out who are you trying to market to, have a good financial model and a good accountant,’ Matt says.

And good time management is vital. ‘Apportion time for clinical work but also for everything else, that might be getting up at 6 am to let the cleaners in, dealing with accounts, or with legislation that needs to be in place.’

Matt says he is proud to ensure R4P is registered with the Care Quality Commission (CQC) which means that a doctor can work on the premises.

‘The application and interview process was quite stressful when you are also trying to see clients but it’s a stamp of approval. We wanted to be able to show how far we are prepared to go to make the experience here as good as it can be.’ 

Thanks from a football hero

Last year, professional football player Chloe Kelly scored England’s winning goal against Germany, in the 110th minute of the Euro 2022 Championships.

Speaking straight after the match, Chloe gave thanks for the physiotherapy and medical attention she had received following an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury, which almost preventing her from been included in England’s winning squad.

‘Thank you to everyone who played a part in my rehab,’ she said – which of course included Matt and his team at R4P.

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