There’s a quiet revolution going on at Newcastle United.

Away from the manoeuvres at Premier League HQ in Paddington, NE1 and Riyadh, United are about to roll out one of the most cutting edge appliances of sport science seen in elite sport.

It started this week with a smartphone app dedicated to protecting the squad against the coronaviru s as they returned to ‘phase one’ training after two months working from home as the Premier League season was curtailed. But soon that will be expanded into a programme that is a decade in the making and – to quote the company who have designed it – is the “next step” in sports science.

Today the Chronicle is getting a first look around @thlete, the new smartphone app about to be delivered to Newcastle players which is, well, seriously smart.

Powered by an artificial intelligence engine that has been created by a team with 16 PHDs behind them, it is culmination of an eight year partnership between United’s head of medicine Paul Catterson and Orecco, the whip smart Galway company that is transforming the world of sports science.

In short, ahead of its roll out across the NBA, the NFL and to some of the world’s elite athletes clubs, United players will soon have access to one of the most cutting edge AI-powered sports apps anywhere on the globe.

By inputting reams of data collected by Dr Catterson and head of sports science Jamie Harley – gleaned from everything from blood tests to training and match stats and sleep data – each player gets a highly personalised programme and nutritional plans.

And on top of that, the app also brings up live, real-time data for players to dig into about upcoming matches. So if Allan Saint-Maximin wants to know what the next right-back he’s facing tends to do in the final 10 minutes of a close game, with a couple of taps of the button that data is available.

It’s a huge, ambitious project and in the age of the coronavirus, a COVID19 tracker has been built and added to it that adapts it to the ‘new normal’ that Premier League clubs are adapting to.

“This is a platform that we’ve built together that incorporates technical and tactical and includes mind, body and spirit as well,” explains Dr Brian Moore, Orreco CEO, over Zoom from his home office in Galway.

Dr Brian Moore, Founder and MD of ORRECO
Dr Brian Moore, Founder and MD of ORRECO

“It’s ten years in development and Paul is truly ahead of the curve with this. He’s been world class in terms of the sort of data he’s been collecting for a a long time. To have all of that has meant we can build this platform for Newcastle United that is a real investment in their players.”

Like the rest of the Premier League, United have a wealth of performance data available to them. From GPS stats from training sessions and matches – you will have seen the sling vests worn by players on training shots – right down to sleep logs and pin prick blood tests which show inflammation levels, enzymes and free radicals in blood, there are now a range of tests that happen every single day to ensure players can maximise performance.

With the @thlete app, that huge amount of information is now condensed into the yellow and black screens that flicker in front of me, crunching the data into useful insights.

“It’s taken 20 years to do this,” he says.

“We’ve got 16 phds on staff and my job is to get out of the way and let them do it! I set the overall vision and then try and give everyone the conditions to do it. We’re very proud of this and the Chronicle is one of the first people to see it.”

Club Doctor Paul Catterson
Club Doctor Paul Catterson

In practical terms, it means Saint-Maximin or Fabian Schar are getting real-time diet plans and training suggestions based on very personalised data feed.

“It’s not just looking at the biomarkers or the GPS stats, it’s linking everything together and to do that you need some quite heavy maths or you’re just measuring noise,” explains Dr Moore.

“Every player has their own engine which gives them their own suggestions. And it’s been powered by Jamie and Paul.”

A quick flick through the app is an eye opener. As well as wellness and fitness data, every player can look at their stats against the stats of their opponent.

You can look at how they draw or concede fouls and that’s chopped up into 10 minute segments. So what happened in last 10 minutes of the last Premier League game of the team you’re facing?

“We worked with Jamie and with Paul, we know the Newcastle way and we have our suggestions from our analytics that pull every in by real time with updates after every game.

“We’ve also built an engine where it finds the closest player to you – so there’s a scouting element to it. You can compare yourself to other players in the league or say if you’re on the bench, you can look at players starting in your position and drill into what they’re doing that makes them different.

“It updates in real time and you can check it over the season or the last ten games as well, so it

“It’s for the players to understand the connection between their recovery and how that links back to their performance and because Paul and the team have such an amazing set-up they can build whatever they need to do.”

That means personalised plans based on the last 90 minutes played by any player.

“Newcastle are a very physical team, they’re a very fit team so their nutritional suggestions will go beyond just ‘You should have carbs’ to how much relative to what you did in training or what you did in the game or is being set in training.”

United’s players haven’t yet seen the app – it will need input from the medical team and manager before it’s delivered to the players - but their first experience of it will be the COVID app which every squad member has been using since phase one of the players’ return.

“Paul pushed us to build something that wasn’t in the market so we did,” Dr Moore says.

“The team worked through the night and worked against unbelievable deadlines and they delivered. The story here is it’s part of a bigger engine but you can see a platform now where directed with the sports science and the medical team you’re getting truly personalised suggestions for a player to be the best he can possibly be.

“This is Newcastle’s investment in their players which Paul and Jamie are driving to support Steve and the staff.”

The public health emergency that has changed life as we know it is now front and centre of the app. The Orrecco team worked “day and night” to build a COVID19 extension to the app which now greets every Newcastle player as they wake up.

With the club having distributed digital thermometers to the squad, they must take their temperatures twice a day and then tap any of nine symptoms of the virus that they may have.

This feeds into a digital dashboard which Newcastle’s medical staff have access to. Being able to take this data remotely improves the chance of tracing any infection early – with players being confronted by a red warning screen if their readings suggest a possible case.

Readings are taken again at Benton before work outs as Newcastle continue along the cautious path that was laid out for them by Dr Catterson way back in February when he advised that the club should end its long-standing policy of greeting each other with handshakes every morning.

“Paul is ahead of the curve with this in so many ways, he’s been world class. We built the whole thing around Newcastle – now there’s other clubs around the world following their lead,” Moore explains.

COVID also poses a problem when it comes to injury risk. Players will have to be carefully managed through an uncertain period to ensure they stay both safe and injury-free.

“Everyone in the world is struggling with the same problem: how to come back mid-season safely. You’re trying to keep everyone in their zone,” he said.

“There is a precedent. In the NFL in 2011 there was a lock out that lasted 132 days and meant there was a short, truncated season and it led to lots of injuries when they returned. Newcastle have an amazing backroom team so it’s just about protecting the players now.”

Newcastle’s injury record this season was a big talking point but Dr Moore points out that the work done in the sports science field is to reduce the margin for injury error.

“Everything you’re doing here is to reduce and mitigate risk,” he says.

“Trying to predict injuries is a fool’s errand really. What you’re trying to do is manage load and everything else that is going on. There’s so many factors that go into contributing to injuries and it’s about to reducing as many of those factors as you can.

“You can see the improvements that Paul and the team have made. The Ben Dinnery review of injuries was pretty phenomenal.”