TEB Interview – Dr Zafar Iqbal

For our latest interview, the team at TEB were understandably excited to find out that the Head of Sports Medicine, Dr Zafar Iqbal, had agreed to talk to us about his role at the club and career to date. Our thanks to both Dr Zaf and the club for allowing TEB to provide our readers with a real insight into the role of a club doctor.

Q. How did you get into medicine and have you always had the desire to follow a career in the industry?

I always wanted to be a doctor from the age of ten, after seeing my sister suffer with an incurable brain cancer. Once I had achieved my dream of being a Doctor, I was not too certain which area to specialise in. However, my path in Sports Medicine was determined following my own knee injury suffered playing football. The medical care I received was far from ideal and I was told that I would have to wait eighteen months for an MRI scan. The rehabilitation was also basic and so I decided to study further and completed an MSc in Sports Medicine. I wanted to improve the care received for those people who did not have private health care but still wanted to return to playing sports after injury. After that I started setting up Sports Medicine clinics and lecturing and one thing led to another.

Q. How did your first role at Leyton Orient come about and did you enjoy your time there?

After completing my MSc I was asked if I would be interested in the role as Club Doctor at Leyton Orient as the previous doctor was moving on to rugby. It was a great experience and I voluntarily used to go in to try and review the players regularly as normally at League 2 level the doctor only covered games. I spent two fantastic years there when Martin Ling was the manager and Dean Smith his assistant manager and the team managed to get promoted to League 1.

Q. Can you tell us about your work with the FA as Chairman of the Medical Society?

When I started working in football I soon realised that there was not a ‘go to manual’ which would teach you regarding football medicine. Many of the specialists referred to were based on previous connections the clubs had with them or due to clever marketing. I had lots of questions with different answers to the same problem depending on who you saw. So, I got involved in the FA Medical Society and organising educational meetings for other doctors and physios to try and bring some consensus to common problems faced in football medicine. I would organise four meetings a year and invite recognised specialists in different areas of Sports and Football Medicine from around Europe to present. This enabled me to build up a decent network of specialists to call upon if required and I learnt a lot for my own personal needs.

Q. Did you enjoy your time at Liverpool in what was an interesting time for the club?

I had a brilliant time at Liverpool and if my family had moved up I would have been happy to have stayed there for longer than the five seasons I was there. I originally moved up by myself after leaving Tottenham Hotspur, to be part of a new medical setup headed up by Professor Peter Brukner, a world renowned Sports Medicine doctor.  The club was in the process of being bought and Roy Hodgson had just been appointed manager. It was quite a risky transition and I did not want my family moving up to then find it was not for us and having to move back. After the club was taken over by the Fenway Group they provided more stability and Kenny Dalglish was appointed followed by Brendan Rodgers. It is one of the largest clubs and fan bases worldwide and the team had some iconic players during my time there.  It was hard work but we had some great moments especially the 2013/14 season when we almost won the league. Sadly, I could not convince my family to move, after one of our kids had a long term health issue. Something had to give so I decided to return to London.

Q. Congratulations on your much deserved award for services to medicine earlier on in the year. Would you say it is one of your proudest moments?

To be honest, I do not read too much into those as I know that these type of awards in football are usually due to working at a prominent club such as Liverpool. Of course, it is nice to be recognised for any effort but there are many other doctors who do far more significant and important work than I do like saving lives in hospital.

Q. Was it an easy decision to join Palace when you were initially approached by the club?

On leaving Liverpool and returning to London I was going to just work in Sports Medicine clinics and make up for lost time with the family.  However, by sheer coincidence, I was made aware of the position of Head of Sports Medicine at Palace.  I had heard from Brendan Rodgers that there were plans for Palace to develop and consolidate its position as a Premier League club and they were looking to improve in all areas. I spoke to Steven Gerrard also before applying as his agent knew the manager and how he worked. I was interviewed for the post and then had a meeting with Alan Pardew and I was impressed by his vision in improving the setup in all areas. What excited me most was the opportunity to develop and setup a Sports Medicine department to the level of the departments that I had worked in previously. It was quite an easy decision from there and so I scrapped the idea of working in Sports Medicine Clinics full time.

Q.  To give fans an insight into your work at the club, perhaps you could tell us what a typical day consists of?

As with any Head of Sports Medicine it is pretty much full on and you cannot switch off. Here is how a typical day works for me and my staff;

  • 0800 – Meeting with the rest of the staff to review all the players and confirm any individual plans for players.
  • 0900 – Review players that may be a doubt for training.
  • 0915 – Meeting with management and coaching staff to discuss training and player availability.
  • 0930 to 1040 – Review of players before training and treatments, prehab with physiotherapists, massage, strength coaches.
  • 1040 to 1400 – Monitoring players during training.
  • 1400 to 1600 – Review of day, notes and update management on players and likely involvement ahead of training for the next day. Some evenings are Sports Medicine Clinics which allows me to keep up with my clinic skills and see patients from other sports.  I also enjoy lecturing and teaching which I fit around my football work.

Q. As you have worked at a few different football clubs during your career so far, what are your views on Palace since you joined?

Before joining I was apprehensive as my only knowledge of the club was that it had some good players in the past such as Ian Wright and Mark Bright and that it had a fanatical fan base. Who can forget, even though for me it was the wrong reasons, the 3-3 draw at Selhurst Park in 2014.  That night was one of the most unreal atmospheres and nights I have experienced so far in football.  Since joining it’s been brilliant. The manager, his coaching staff and players are excellent to work with and just appreciative of playing football and so very easy to work with. I have been allowed to get on with my work of developing the department and slowly I think we are getting there.

Q. Who has been your favourite or the most interesting player to treat during your time in the game?

I have been very fortunate to have worked with quite a few players who I consider as my favourite and not just because they are excellent footballers, but genuinely nice people as well including Steven Gerrard, Ledley King, Gareth Bale, Luka Modric, Luis Suarez and Philip Coutinho. At Palace it would be unfair for me to single out any one player as they are all genuinely a good group of professionals who just enjoy playing football and fantastic to work with.  However, if I was forced to pick one player, then I think for all that he represented, the way he conducted himself and respected by all, despite all the pressures, my favourite player to work with was Steven Gerrard – a brilliant leader.

Q. Thank you for your time. Finally, please tell us about any projects that you are currently working on or any charity work that you are involved in.

I have two particular passions aside from Football Sports Medicine. One is campaigning to have AED (Automated External Defibrillators) to be made available in all schools and public places. My personal interest in this was brought about due to our son who has a heart issue and had two cardiac arrests. Both times my wife was with him and managed to resuscitate him with the aid of an AED. We all saw the importance of AEDS when Fabrice Muamba collapsed at White Hart Lane. Every minutes delay of using an AED in a cardiac arrest, decreases your chance of survival by 10%.  So for me it’s a no brainer – there should be easy access to an AED in the same way that there is to a fire extinguisher in buildings.

The other area of interest is promoting physical activity and healthy living in school kids to try and reduce obesity and associated health problems in the long term. I have worked on a project using footballers as role models and a vehicle to convey the message of healthy lifestyles, while I was in Liverpool and plan to replicate this work at Palace.

If anyone wishes to gain further information regarding Sports or Football Medicine then they can take a look at my Twitter account.




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