Here is the link to an interview I published with the Evening Times in Scotland – see here. Thanks to Christopher Jack for interview.
Article originally published on The Football Collective here.
By Dr Dan Parnell and Dr Paul Widdop
Where do you find a Sporting Director in football?
We have seen a growing media lens and attention given to the Sporting Director role in football (or Director of Football, Technical Director, Head of Football Operations as the role may also be known). Whether it’s Stuart Webber’s appointment at Norwich; Rangers pursuit for a new head of football operations; the emergence and success of Ross Wilson at Southampton; or ‘the Monchi move’ – the Sporting Director movement is gaining momentum. Whilst popular in Europe the role was often greeted with scepticism in Britain, but now it appears to be a panacea, curing all football clubs of their ills.
Our question is, where do you find a Sporting Director for your football club? We ask this because we don’t believe clubs are exploring all the available candidates, and as a result, the best talent available for such positions might be slipping through the recruitment net.
In a much cited academic paper on network connections, Economic Sociologist Mark Granovetter (1974) provided evidence that employment markets, such as finding Sporting Directors (or any kind of talent such as players for that matter), does not work as free and open competition, as laid out in neo-classical economic frameworks.
That is, any pursuit for talent depends on established ties to others; and behaviour is influenced by their social relationships.
In the case of the role of the Sporting Director, it is typically owners and CEOs that use their personal network to make contact with (i) potential employees, (ii) intermediaries and (iii) recruitment agencies.
However, within the everyday working environment of the owners and CEOs, they often rely on a network of strong ties/connections.
Why is this problematic? Individuals who share strong ties to one another tend to be very similar in nature (the technical term for this is homophily). Because of these strong ties, there is a significant amount of trust invested in the network and a source of what Sociologist Robert Putnam termed ‘bonding social capital’ (social networks between similar groups), which facilitates shared social norms, cooperative spirit, and trust.
Trust is important in this context in many ways, especially guarding against unethical or mischievous behaviour. Networks of strong ties are important not least as a support mechanism.
Yet because of the nature of these strong ties, information (such as insight and recommendations on talented prospective Sporting Directors) which flows through the network tends to be often redundant as it is circulated many times. For example, if a juicy bit of gossip is being communicated through these strong ties you are likely to have been told it many times.
As such, whilst searching for a Sporting Director, a CEO or owner might overly rely on these strong ties resulting in the same information on the same names and faces, many times. Moreover, there are examples of where the same people are moving around the identical or similar roles.
In many ways one shift in the football pyramid of Sporting Directors, whether a transfer or sacking, creates an interconnected cascade effect of changes. However, it is clear from evidence we have collected, that recruitment agencies offer owners and CEOs similar names.
This is not to say that those individuals currently occupying, or who continue to be associated and forwarded for the Sporting Director role are not excellent executives or fit for purpose. But it does mean that owners and CEOs are overlooking a (perhaps better) wealth of talent in the recruitment and due diligence process, simply as a result of being constrained by their network.
The issue of getting help to find talent
Who can blame owners and CEOs, they are working with a tinderbox marketplace, and relying on networks of trust is a rational choice, given the circumstances. They are already under significant pressure to lead a football club, without the added burden of (re)searching the football industry to find the best candidate for their club! However, this reliance on strong ties is also how much of football operates, whether finding players, managers, sport scientists or medics.
As a result, owners and CEOs seek out recruitment agencies they trust to help find them talent. In this respect, it is fair to say, recruiters could do better.
Many in football reading this will acknowledge that key people, have the skills to do the Sporting Director role but don’t get considered. The role of acting as guardian over a football clubs sporting strategy is demanding so there is no surprise.
Moving forward: navigating the network to find the best talent
To move forward, we must return to Granovetter. On the flip side of his research, evidence shows that it is in fact weak ties (ties to others outside the core group that reach out to other networks – see figure below), which are advantageous in economic activity, such as recruitment.
For Granovetter, these weak ties are a source of novel information and new network flows. These weak ties can be advantageous because they bridge networks introducing new people, ideas, insight and information, that are otherwise unknown. It is these weak ties that have strategic importance.
What does this mean for future Sporting Director recruitment?
Placed in the context of the Sporting Director, it means owners and CEOs (and recruitment agencies) whilst continuing to utilise their strong ties, must also explore avenues away from their core connections to uncover new people and talent capable of delivering successful sporting strategies in football clubs.
Over the past few months, we have increasingly connected with leaders and influences in the football industry (including owners and CEOs) seeking to recruit the right talent, specifically for the Sporting Directors role. We found that these leaders in the football system are capitalising on weak ties to deliver new people, ideas, information and insight to inform decision-making and recruitment. This is not the status quo.
Our challenge to those involved in the recruitment of Sporting Directors, is to not abandon their strong ties, but to also capitalise on their weak ties. To reach out to unexpected connections and to consider casting their recruitment net further to find the existing talent in the industry. Talent who possess the capabilities and who now need the opportunity to break into this often closed environment and prove their worth.
Interview with ITV, found here.
Following the appointment of Stuart Webber as Norwich City’s new sporting director, we decided to find out more about a role that is still pretty unfamiliar to football fans in England.
We fired some questions at Dr Dan Parnell who is a senior lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University and has done extensive research into leadership and governance in sport.
“There is a bit of confusion around the role of the sporting director.
In Europe, where the genesis of the role first began, the sporting director oversees the sporting departments, reporting directly to the owners.
The departments under the leadership of the sporting director includes medical and sport science support, recruitment, the academy, Under-21s, and the first team.
The broad aim of the sporting director is to develop and deliver a strategic plan towards achieving success. In many cases this might include developing the strategic plan too!
This includes; recruiting and supporting the first team head coach; recruiting the best people to lead various departments; overseeing the academy and development teams; managing the movement of players or developing a high-performance culture across the departments.
Interestingly, in the UK we use various terms for the sporting director and set varied expectations.
In this respect, many view the sporting director as being in charge of recruitment. Indeed, many will be measured (hired and fired) on which players they recruit.
Our research tells us that the sporting director role is much more than this though and being able to recruit is only part of the job.”
“The sporting director is someone who the owners are investing in for the long-term.
The role requires the utmost due diligence, as the sporting director will be the custodian for the club’s sporting performance.
For us, this is the most important position in a football club.
The sporting director must have: Football industry knowledge, business and financial acumen, ability to lead and develop a high-performance culture, ability to develop and deliver a strategy both strategically and operationally, an understanding of good governance and an ability to manage change and innovation.
Importantly for football in the UK, you may note that recruitment is not a ‘must have’ here.
Our research shows that the sporting director should recruit the best person possible as a Head of Recruitment, to allow that person explicit focus as one of the key departments in the sporting strategy.”
“It appears that Norwich are taking a leap of faith. However, for many who understand the role, the club have an opportunity to protect their investment and bring on-field success through effective leadership and decision-making in the short, medium and long-term.
Clubs increasingly need to develop a competitive advantage. The sporting director can help develop a strategy to improve performance on and off the pitch.
This is not just about recruitment. It includes enacting more subtle strategies, which are not commonplace in football – such as clear communication lines between departments.
For example, ensuring the Head of Recruitment, First Team Manager, Head of Academy, Head of Performance/Sport Science, Under-21s Manager and the sporting director have frequent opportunities to discuss key areas such as performance and recruitment prospects.
Ultimately, the increased finances in football have heightened the need for clubs to strengthen their financial sustainability.
The sporting director role is a major part in protecting multi-million pound investments whilst also bringing further success and rewards.”
“In the short-term, promotion to the Premier League is clearly the main objective for next season. Before that though, he needs to recruit Alex Neil’s successor to give them the best possible chance of achieving that.
Looking further ahead, communication with fans will be vital. Robbie Brady has just been sold for a fee in the region of £12million, but the reality is that Stuart might only see £2million of this for transfers. This and other examples need to be communicated to the club’s fans.
There also needs to be shift in the culture. The comments by Cameron Jerome seem in the distant past, but they suggest a negative culture developing at Carrow Road. This needs attention and management to develop a positive high-performance culture as soon as possible.
In terms of the longer-term vision, creating a culture where there’s clear expectations and accountability will help achieve success.
Norwich do not want to yo-yo in and out of the Premier League.
Recruitment alone won’t achieve this. The sporting director must develop and deliver a clear sporting strategy for the club.”
“Stuart Webber is very well-regarded in football for his previous work. He received notable media acclaim for his role in bringing Raheem Sterling to Liverpool from QPR in 2010 for example.
Yet, that was at Liverpool (who, as an Everton fan, it hurts to admit are a global football powerhouse) and not Norwich.
However, working with both Damien Comolli and Frank McParland has definitely helped develop Stuart as a strong and diligent operator in recruitment.
It appears that Norwich do not just need a sporting director to act as a Head of Recruitment, but they also need someone who can deliver a sporting strategy that deals with the potential issues with low morale of staff, alongside delivering long-term success.
It remains to be seen whether Stuart is up to huge challenge ahead of him, but I certainly wish him the best of luck.”
What exactly does a Sporting Director do? And why does the role arouse suspicion and even hostility in this country?
Ramón Rodríguez Verdejo (above), better known as Monchi, is revered in Seville. English football has never had a Sporting Director who comes close to him in terms of public affection. We asked Dr Dan Parnell, who leads research on the Master of Sport Directorship course at Manchester Metropolitan University, for his lowdown on the role…
The full article is available on The Training Ground Guru, found here.
Originally published on The Football Collective here.
By Alex Bond, Paul Widdop and Dan Parnell
The recent CIES Football Observatory Monthly Report investigated the international mobility of minors in football. The findings suggest a trading or mobility network of under 18yr old male athletes. However, they do not necessarily interrogate and unpick this network, which might show how it is structured globally and locally. This short blog post aims to extend their findings and explore the structure of the trade network regarding minors within football. Indeed, there are many ethical, moral, economic and, of course, legal debates to be had on the matter (the latter two can be read further in FIFA’s regulations on the transfer of players and KEA’s and CDES’ report).
There is a long history of academic research focussing on the labour market within professional association football – especially in Europe. Walters and Rossi (2009) edited series of research papers investigating the issues and challenges of Labour Market Migration in European Football – focusing on concepts such as, muscle drain, feet drain and feet exchange. On top of this, Frick (2007) empirically inspected the major European leagues’ labour market. Other research has focussed on Africa’s role within the European labour market, such as – Poli (2007) who provides specific insight into Africa’s status in the European Football Labour Market; and Darby (2000; 2007) who looks at African football labour migration to Europe and African labour migration to Portugal respectively. More recently, Bullough, Moore & Goldsmith (2016) examined UEFA’s home-grown rule and player’s migration and opportunity, and Rossi, Semens & Brocard (2016) book which explored the role of sport agents within football’s labour market. Other useful books on the topic, consist of Maguire’s (2010) Sport and Migration: Borders, Boundaries and Crossings, Elliot & Harris’ (2014) Football and Migration: Perspectives, Places, Players and Tiesler & Coelho (2008) Globalised Football: Nations and Migration, the City and the Dream.
The recent CIES Football Observatory Monthly Report highlights a very controversial issue within the European Football Labour Market – namely the migration of minors. Of course, this raises moral and ethical implications, that will stir a range of opinions. Darragh McGee seems to be at the forefront of minor migration within sport, so readers are directed to his 2012 book Displacing Childhood: labour exploitation and child trafficking in sport, or his conversation article last year What the next FIFA president could do to tackle child trafficking in football. Additionally readers may find Brackenridge et al. (2013) Child Exploitation and the FIFA World Cup: A review of risks and protective interventions useful. Nevertheless, the purpose of this blog post is to further interrogate the network of minor migration presented by CIES, without providing judgement on the topic or its implications.
The CIES report that within the top 5 major European leagues (Premier League, Liga, Ligue 1, Bundesliga and Serie A), the percentage of players migrating increased from 24.1% to 55.2% from 2009 to 2015. Additionally, over the same period the average age dropped from 23.2 to 21.1 respectively, which is attributed to the increase in minor migration figures, which in 1995 was 51 and in 2015 was 184, most of which the final destination was England. The report goes further to include a section on the ‘Networks’, and provides useful information regarding the relational direction, and flow of minor’s migration in football. Within this section they include information on minor’s migration across Europe in October 2016, but they don’t locate the work in a social network analysis framework, so therefore cannot show how the network is configured. Here we use the information in the report and place it with an SNA. The below figure shows the data held in the report in network form.
This is a small-scale network based on the information provided in the CIES report, relating to the movement of minors as of October 2016. So whilst it offers an insight into the migration flow, it doesn’t explain net migration and is only a snapshot in time.
Obviously, much of this network could have been deducted through Figure 7 in the CIES report. Including that England is the clear end destination. But SNA allows us to look a bit more critically at the structure. In network terms England has the highest in-degree and betweeness values within the network – which is a characteristic of a star topology seen here – suggesting that the England node (represented as a circle) has the most connections going into it or in this case, the majority of minor migrants from other countries migrating to England. However, England has the smallest (or none to be exact) out-degree, meaning no minor football players migrate abroad. It is Belgium who has the largest out-degree value, as they have the largest number of minors migrating, primarily to The Netherlands, and secondarily France and England. Again, deductible from the report.
What is not so deductible from the report is the structure of the network, so if we look a little closer, and apply K-core (clique of countries) (this establishes a core of nodes, or countries in this case, which are interlinked – this is a relaxed clique in that not every country (node) in the core is linked symmetrically), we find a number of countries (nodes) which were fundamental to the international transfer of minors across Europe as of October 2016. Therefore, we can depict that England, Belgium, The Netherlands, France, Germany and the Republic of Ireland, are all embedded to the mobility of minor footballers within Europe. Thus, research is needed to track this network historically, and continuously to investigate net-migration of players over time – and account for the impact of huge political changes across Europe, such a Brexit and the right populist movement. Considering the centralised structure of the network, then political shifts affecting the (K-)core, such as Brexit, could have detrimental implications on the network robustness. Finally, research of this nature could aid policy decisions, by providing evidence of whether we need tighter interventions to control the movement of minors within football across Europe.
Conference film content from our ESRC Festival of Social Science event, here are the contributions:
Making a difference off the pitch the social and community contribution of sport in Manchester
The economic and commercial contribution of sport to Manchester, the region, Britain and beyond