Dr Dan Parnell


Challenging football’s old boys’ network

Article was originally published on The Training Ground Guru – found here.

FOOTBALL clubs need to start using fair, transparent recruitment processes instead of relying on existing social relationships, argue Dr Dan Parnell and Dr Paul Widdop. Otherwise they risk missing out on new ideas, insights and information and holding back their businesses.

RECRUITMENT in football often seems to be based more on social relationships than on making the best rational economic decisions.

By social relationships we mean friends, family, past colleagues and historical trusted connections. Every season many football appointments are made in which there is a social relationship between the recruiter and the recruited.

Often there hasn’t been what we would consider a proper and transparent recruitment process – with a clear job description advertised, applications invited and interviews held.

These are some recent appointments in which there was a social relationship between a powerbroker and the person recruited. The recruitment process was not clear:

  • Dougie Freedman appointed Sporting Director at Crystal Palace. Was this based on a transparent process or his relationship with CEO Steve Parish? Freedman had not held this type of role before.
  • Daniel Talbot’s appointment as senior/ European Scout at Fulham. Was this based on merit or the fact his father Brian Talbot is the Assistant Head of Football Operations at the club? Talbot has no previous experience of scouting in an official capacity. [Head of Football Operations Tony Khan told TGG this was a “straightforward hire”, but the process behind it still remains unclear].
  • The double appointment of Chris Badlan, Head of European Scouting, and Kieran Scott, Head of Domestic Scouting, at Norwich. Were they the best talent identified through a clear process, or was the fact they had worked with Sporting Director Stuart Webber at Wolves before key?
  • Recruitment of Nuno Espirito Santo as manager at Wolves. What role did super agent Jorge Mendes play in the appointment?

This is not to question the merits of individuals involved – it is to question the process that led to their appointments. This approach, of surrounding yourself with trusted and like-minded people, might appear prudent, but research suggests more diverse connections can be more beneficial to football clubs.

The work of Economic Sociologist Mark Granovetter can help us explain why. Firstly, Granovetter put forward the principle of the quite contradictory idea of the strength of weak ties, arguing that connections with diverse groups of people are more beneficial than strong bonds with a few in many business scenarios.

Whilst strong bonds with people create a culture of trust and shared behaviours, it is the weak ties that bridge across a network allowing access to information or resources people may not otherwise have had access to.

Secondly, and relatedly, he put forward the notion of embeddedness, arguing that all economic action was rooted in social relationships. The Embeddedness framework has many implications for the general traditional economic view of football business, one being that the market doesn’t operate as a free market with perfect competition, and all people (buyers, sellers, recruiters etc) don’t have access to all the same information.


This is an excerpt of a piece of research from another prominent academic, Charles Tilly, in which you can easily substitute the word ‘society’ with the words ‘the football business’:

“It is through personal networks that society is structured and individuals integrated into society. Daily life proceeds through personal ties: workers recruit in-laws and cousins for jobs on a new construction site; parents choose their children’s paediatricians on the basis of personal recommendation; and investors get tips from their tennis partners. All through life, the facts, fictions, and arguments we hear from kin and friends are the ones that influence our actions most. Reciprocally, most people affect their society only through personal influences on those around them.”

Individuals who share strong connections to one another tend to be very similar in nature (which is termed homology). While some may argue this is important, especially for trust and shared culture, the downside is it can also create the dreaded ‘yes man’, or at least a blinkered view of the world, which may not see dangers looming or innovations happening elsewhere.

The network can become one of people who see the same things, think the same way and share the same information. If a group shares strong relationships and all the individuals are relatively similar, there will be many redundant connections regurgitating the same information, which stifles creativity and innovation.

Many leaders in football are overlooking a (perhaps better) wealth of talent that could be identified through a transparent and professional recruitment and due diligence process. Instead, they are turning to their closest network to make appointments.

To tackle this natural bias, leaders in football must develop and utilise a broader network of connections and undertake a transparent recruitment process. More diverse connections bridge networks of people and in turn introduce new ideas, insights and information that would otherwise be unknown.

Only then can football clubs be confident they’ve got the best man, or woman, for the job.


Sport and Health Exploring the Current State of Play

Edited by Daniel Parnell, Manchester Metropolitan University, UK and Peter Krustrup, University of Southern Denmark

Series: ICSSPE Perspectives

Go the the book here. 

It is a common assumption that sport is good for us and that participation in sport embodies public health benefits. With sport being increasingly used to deliver public health interventions worldwide, this book critically examines the rationale and evidence for sport as a public health policy tool. It looks at sport interventions across the lifespan, for biological, psychological and social benefits, including those that utilise a settings based approach to health promotion such as professional sport clubs. Drawing on cutting-edge research which examines policy and practice at community and elite levels, this is important reading for anybody working in sport development or public health.

20% Discount Available – enter the code FLR40 at checkout*

Hb: 978-1-138-29022-8 | £84.00/$120.00
* Offer cannot be used in conjunction with any other offer or discount and only applies to books purchased directly via The Routledge website.

For more details, or to request a copy for review, please contact: Robyn Doyle, Author
Marketing & Communications,

Levein commits ultimate Sporting Director no-no

This article was originally published on the Training Ground Guru. 

In making himself manager at Hearts, Craig Levein did something no Sporting Director should do, argues Dr Dan Parnell from Manchester Metropolitan University.

TWO of the key hurdles in developing the Sporting Director/ Director of Football role in Britain have been understanding and trust.

Some head coaches and managers have been sceptical, seeing the Sporting Director as a manager in waiting. The situation with Craig Levein at Hearts will not have helped this perception, to put it mildly.

To recap, Ian Cathro was sacked as the club’s manager before the start of the season, having had just eight months in charge.


The man who appointed him, Levein, then undertook a recruitment process for prospective candidates, picking and unpicking their strategies, tactics, evaluation of the team’s problems and plans for the future.

He also may have developed and enhanced his own strategy. It has already been reported that Steven Pressley, Dougie Freedman, Paul Hartley, Billy Davies and caretaker Jon Daly were interviewed for the job.

Afterwards, Levein – a man who has been out of management for almost five years (and out of club management for almost eight) – was able to go back to the board and say, ‘we have found no-one, but (in the words of Private Baldrick) I have a cunning plan.’

READ MORE: In defence of the Sporting Director

This involved him taking on the manager’s job in addition to his own. As outlined previously on this site, the Sporting Director’s job is to find the best people for the job and to help them to be as successful as possible.


The role emerged primarily to allow the manager or coach to focus on his role. In my view, any Sporting Director who takes a manager’s position is either uninformed, ill-equipped or has harboured an intention to be the manager.


If it’s any of these three reasons, then this person should not have become a Sporting Director in the first place. Hopefully, Levein can communicate the full process and rationale that has taken place at Hearts.

Because this is not a criticism of him as a person. After all, he wants to do the best he can and to survive at the club. But, unknowingly, he has hampered the Sporting Director movement and could do Hearts a disservice as well.

De Boer welcomes Freedman appointment – Expert Analysis

This article was originally published on the Training Ground Guru (see here) with the below expert analysis.


Austerity, policy and sport participation in England

Widdop, P., King, N., Parnell, D., Cutts, D., & Millward, P. (2017). Austerity, policy and sport participation in EnglandInternational Journal of Sport Policy and Politics. Online. 

Open access found on the above embedded link. Article also found in the journal here. 

City Talk: Sporting Directors

Delighted to join Steve Hothersall on City Talk to discuss on research and education programmes surrounding the Sporting Director role. Here is a link to the interview.


Chelsea loan players to 87 clubs in five seasons

CHELSEA have sent players out on loan to 87 different clubs in the last five seasons, with destinations ranging from Club Universidad in Chile to the Metropolitan Police.

Vitesse Arnhem, who have had a close relationship with the Blues for several seasons now, are the leading destination, with 17 loanees going there. Next up is Middlesbrough, with six, and then Reading and Belgian Pro Division side Sint-Truidense with four each.


Courtesy of Dr Paul Widdop and Dr Dan Parnell

Courtesy of Dr Paul Widdop and Dr Dan Parnell

As things stand, 38 Chelsea players will be on loan at the start of the 2018/19 season. The above ‘ego network’ shows the destinations of Chelsea players during the last five seasons – starting in 2013/14 through to the upcoming season.


It was produced by Dr Paul Widdop of Leeds Beckett University and Dr Dan Parnell of Manchester Metropolitan University. The teams closest to the centre received the most players on loan.


Sustainability vs Accessibility

Very pleased to be invited by Jack Zuckerman to discuss the impact of funding cuts to sport and leisure services on the BBC Look North programme aired on 16 April 2017. The programme focuses on cuts to a sport and leisure facility in Lincoln, but is an example of a national trend. A trend that has seen public services (i) re-organised, (ii) reduced or (iii) cut. One of the main issues for me is the narrative around sustainability. Not all public services are meant to be profit making or to break even. Some are just to support the health and well-being of our local communities. Often when sustainability is the focus, it comes at the cost of accessibility.

Sustainability vs Accessibility

This might just be a sports hall, but for those that use it, this will be so much more. Beyond the physical activity, it is the networks, the friendships, the social support and sense of community that adds true value to such communities of people who engage in activities together in these places.  In this case, and across the country, breaking even or being sustainable, creates further barriers, both financial and time, to the accessibility of such important sport/social/community places, for those who need it most, from our most deprived communities.


Some of our research that might be of interest:

Parnell, D., Spracklen, K., & Millward, P. (2016). Special Issue Introduction: Sport management issues in an era of austerity. European Sport Management Quarterly. DOI:10.1080/16184742.2016.1257552

Parnell, D., Cope, E., Bailey, R., & Widdop, P. (2016). Sport Policy and English Primary Physical Education: The role of professional football clubs in outsourcing. Sport in Society, DOI:10.1080/17430437.2016.1173911

Parnell, D., Millward, P., & Spracklen, K. (2015). Sport and austerity in the UK: An insight into Liverpool 2014. Journal of Policy Research in Tourism, Leisure and Events, 7(2): 200-203. DOI: 10.1080/19407963.2014.968309

He won’t pick the side, but the incoming Director of Football will be a key part of the team at Rangers

Here is the link to an interview I published with the Evening Times in Scotland – see here. Thanks to Christopher Jack for interview.

The article went in the Evening Times and Herald Scotland. The pdfs can be found here: Herald Scotland and Evening Times.


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