Cork prefers, instead, to focus on all of the other factors, those things beyond his control, that have allowed him to be both ever-present and in perpetual motion. He has not picked up a suspension or an injury. Burnley has suffered occasional, mild dips in form, but rarely in performance (it took up residency in seventh place in the table in October and has surrendered it only briefly since), so he has not been shuffled out of the team because of poor results. Burnley is not in a European competition, either, nor has it had an extended run in either domestic cup, which for other midfielders at other clubs means a more onerous workload.
But while all of that is true, it does not mean his achievements should be downplayed. His status as the Premier League’s ironman might be lightly worn, but that does not mean it was easily won. It would be easy to dismiss him as nothing more than a diesel engine, chugging his way through the season in a team that demands little more than industry. Such an interpretation, though, belies the work, and the detail, that has turned Cork into such a constant.
Embossed on a wall at Burnley’s training ground are the three elements the club’s coach, Sean Dyche, believes comprise a complete professional player: legs, hearts, minds.
When he signed Cork from Swansea City last summer — a “no-brainer” of a deal, Dyche said — he knew the 28-year-old possessed the first two in spades; Dyche and Cork had worked together, briefly, at Watford earlier in their careers. All Dyche had to recalibrate, just a little, was Cork’s mind.
Running, in the Premier League, is not merely physical. Dyche is just as conscious of the mental energy required, as he said, “to recognize the body shape of the opponent, to make sure you are on the right line of the pass, that you’re moving in shape with the team.” It is motion, but it is also thought.
Credit Ben Stansall/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
That, particularly against the division’s elite teams, can be especially demanding, Cork said. “It is a different type of running,” Cork said, singling out his experience of playing Manchester City, in particular.
“It is a lot of side to side: It doesn’t look that hard, because it is not big, long runs, but those teams have so much quality that it is a lot of hard work. You have to concentrate: not just, are you running? But are you running in the right places, blocking the right passing lanes? You feel it a lot more.”
To Dyche, overcoming that type of fatigue does not require work on the body, but the brain. “He has helped me to understand that fatigue is largely mental,” Cork said. He is not immune to tiredness — the festive period around Christmas, with five games in 14 days, was especially tough — but Dyche has taught him that “after the first 10 minutes, as soon as you get going, it comes back to you.”
The message is delivered in preseason training. Cork describes those weeks before the campaign begins as hard work, but it is not a matter of simply flogging players into submission.
Instead, Dyche aims “to show them, not persuade them” that they are capable of more than they might imagine. He runs two sessions, in particular, to “take them to places they might not think they want to go.”
“At the end, we show them the statistics of what they have done,” Dyche said. “If we’d told them before that’s what they would do, they’d have thought it wasn’t possible. We show them it is. These are incredibly fit young men. Their bodies will take them to wherever they want to go.”
During the season, as the games pile up, great care is taken to ensure Cork and the rest of Burnley’s regulars are not overloaded. “We have not just their tracking data, but all of the data going back five years,” Dyche said. Players’ physical outputs are measured constantly, against their own benchmarks, and those of predecessors in their positions. When the load is verging on too much, Dyche tweaks the schedule to allow the players to recover.
When Cork first played for Burnley — on loan from Chelsea, a decade ago — the club’s facilities were rudimentary: the closest it had to a plunge pool was a trash can, adapted by the captain at the time, Graham Alexander, and filled with ice. Alexander eagerly jumped in for recovery sessions; others were a little more reluctant.
Since the club opened its new training facility last summer, though, the players have every modern convenience available: hot and cold baths right next to the changing rooms (actual baths, not trash cans), regular cryotherapy sessions and a staff of masseurs, nutritionists and fitness specialists. Each player’s weight-training regimen is tailored to him specifically, posted to one of four iPads that hang on the walls of the club’s gym, and changed every week.
“There are no excuses,” Cork said. Not that Burnley has many players who would look for them. Cork uses a striking word to describe easing off: not conserving energy, not economizing effort, but “cheating.” He would not countenance cheating, it is clear, and he would not be allowed to do so.
And so, this season, Cork has not stopped running. He is nine months in now, and the end is in sight: only 8 more games, 720 more minutes. He does not intend to slow down now. He does not feel the need to.
“You just get it out of your head in the first 10 minutes,” he said, “and get on with the game.”