TGG Podcast #20: Dan Ashworth - Technical Director role uncovered
Written by Simon Austin — December 9, 2020
BRIGHTON’S Dan Ashworth is one of the most experienced and influential Technical Directors in this country.
The 49-year-old first did the job at West Brom, from 2007 to 2012, during which time the Baggies were promoted to the Premier League and then secured a top-half finish.
In his seven years at the Football Association (half of them as Technical Director), he oversaw the introduction of the England DNA, a big emphasis on coaching and huge success for the age-group teams on the international stage.
Since the end of 2018, Ashworth has been on the south coast with Brighton, driving major changes that are ultimately designed to make the Seagulls a top-half-of-the-table Premier League team.
The Technical Director role has often met with suspicion and confusion in this country. Speaking on the Training Ground Guru podcast, produced in association with Hudl, Ashworth explained what the role involves and why it’s important.
Different titles, different approaches
Dan Ashworth: There’s a great deal of confusion about what the role is, partly because of all the different titles. Seventeen of the 20 Premier League clubs have this sort of position and they’re called Technical Director, Sporting Director, Director of Operations, Director of Football, so there’s lots of different versions and with that come different job descriptions.
During my time at the FA we wrote and delivered a Technical Director course. Part of that was to invite in all of those incumbents and say: “What do you do? What’s in your job description?”
And it was so different. Some are based on recruitment, some are involved in Academies, some have medical and sports science as well, some have training ground operations.
There’s also a misconception out there that the Technical Director is just about recruitment. For pretty much all of us recruitment is a major part of the role, but it’s only one part of the role.
In the middle of a wheel
I sit in the middle of a wheel and my job is to bring together seven departments, connecting those spokes. And when one of those head of departments leaves, you keep the wheel spinning and find a replacement.
The seven department heads are: Graham Potter, the first-team men’s Head Coach; Hope Powell, who runs our senior women’s team in the WSL; Paul Winstanley, Head of Recruitment; John Morling, Head of Academy; Adam Brett, Head of Medical Services; David Weir, who is in charge of our loans programme’ and James Bell, who is in charge of our psychology and mental wellbeing.
Historically, the one who is most likely to leave is the first-team manager. The average lifespan for them in this country is around 14 months.
The principle for a Technical Director, in my opinion, is to look after the medium to long term interests of the football club. It’s not about short-term 'get a result against Liverpool tomorrow', it’s to try and make sure the club is set up in a way that those other departments supplement and help Hope and Graham, but are also there for the longer-term benefits of the club.
Another thing that’s important is the connection from the boardroom onto the pitch. Every club has a CEO and chairman - and budgets, philosophies and principles - and it’s really important we get that across, whether it’s club values or maximising the budget and making sure we’re spending the money in the right way.
Tony Bloom has got a vision for the club. He’s the owner, he’s the chairman, and he dictates policy. He wanted to make sure we were able to give opportunities to our young players, give opportunities to our loan players.
Chris Hughton had done a brilliant job - he helped Brighton out of the Championship and to get a foothold in the Premier League - but Tony felt he wanted to go in a slightly different direction.
So what did we see in Graham? Graham had a brilliant record at Ostersunds and Swansea at punching about his weight, certainly outstretching the budget he had at those clubs, and also a really, really good record at developing and improving young players.
Daniel James was a great example. He had a loan at Shrewsbury the year before and couldn’t get in their team in League One. He comes in, Graham works with him, and all of a sudden he’s a multi-million pound player who’s gone to Manchester United.
I didn’t really know Graham particularly well personally before he was appointed (in May 2019). He had come on the Pro Licence course at the FA, so I had a bit to do with him then, but I was leaving as he was doing it.
Setting a culture that gets the best out of people and players is the mark of a great leader. It doesn’t matter if you’re the CEO of Apple or the manager of Brighton, if you can set a culture that means people have the confidence to express themselves, the space to succeed and get the best out of them that’s the best you can ask.
Culture is really important for Graham, so the personality of the player is really important to him. What are they like as people? How can I connect with them? How can I help make them better? How can they make the team better? They’re often the questions he asks from a recruitment point of view, not just the technical, tactical, physical.
There are some markers you can do on that. Even when you’re scouting a player and watching from the stands, how do they warm up? If their team scores, how do they celebrate? How do they connect with their team-mates? How are they when they come off? How are they in disappointment?
Invariably, you can also find a former team-mate or coach to get a character reference as well, because we are working in a relatively small industry.
Working together on recruitment
If I sign a player that Graham doesn’t like or want, it’s a drastic waste of resources. Ultimately, Graham has got to pick 11 players that he thinks will give him the best chance of winning.
If he doesn’t rate the attributes in a player that I do, then we are going to invest a transfer fee, salary and agent’s fee for a player that Graham doesn’t rate or want and who is unlikely to play.
So how do we work here? Well, we agree the areas of the pitch that Graham wants to improve. Our first port of call is 'what have we already got in the system?' There have been times when Graham has said: 'I’d rather work with what we’ve got and make them better than sign a player for the sake of it.'
But if we haven’t got that position in the U23s or out on loan then we need to go into the market.
Take Danny Welbeck as an example. We were looking for a bigger physical profile number nine. We had Aaron Connolly and Neal Maupay, who don’t have that physical presence, and we were looking for something a bit different.
Danny became available. The recruitment department liked him, Graham liked him, and it was a case of, ‘right, let’s see if we can get a deal done.’
We then look at whether the numbers fit. Does the player fit within our budget? What’s the future potential value?
We also often sign players outside the first-team realm, who we might send straight back out on loan, or from the U23s, and Graham would have less influence on those, because he has to be focused on his 23-man squad.
In the main, Paul Winstanley - who is a really experienced Head of Recruitment - would lead of transfers in and I would lead on new contracts and transfers out, but we do it as a team.
If we’re getting to the end of a really busy transfer window and have three or four plates spinning then I might pick up one transfer in, Paul might pick up one, (chief executive) Paul Barber might pick up one. Paul Winstanley would generally lead the initial stages of negotiation and then he and I would tend to finish it off.
Tariq Lamptey is another example of how we work. I’ve known him since my England days. Paul Winstanley and his team flagged him from the U23s and we knew his contract was running down at Chelsea.
It was a situation where he had seen Rhys James - who’s only a year older than him and a top, top player - blocking his path and thought, ‘I might have to go somewhere else to get my football.’
We were able to take advantage of that and give him an opportunity to play. From Chelsea’s point of view, you can only play 11 at a time and give pathways to a certain number of players, so this happens on a regular basis.
It just so happened we had a space opening up, because we only had Martin Montoya at right-back, and thought maybe we have an opportunity to give Tariq some games and some exposure.
You never quite know what you’ve got with a young player until you chuck them in and give them a go. Tariq’s has taken that opportunity with both hands.
Unified playing philosophy
It is important that the Academy, the players on loan, our recruitment department and our first team all have some sort of alignment. We are trying to develop and sign players who are able to do the things we see as important in our playing style.
It’s about trying the get that consistency across the club, so we are one club with a framework of what works for Brighton.
Does that mean we are robots and every team plays in the same way? No, but we certainly have some basic principles we would try to develop in our players and that we recruit for.
When I first came to Brighton, the Academy had a really comprehensive document, the Brighton Way, about how they were going to help develop players through to the first team. Part of my role is to be able to join that up with the first team and also get a fresh pair of eyes on it.
At none of the places I’ve been has it been 'Dan Ashworth’s philosophy'. My principles are not autocratic. I don’t believe in telling people, ‘this is how we’re going to be doing it,’ I believe in collaboration.
Giving young people a chance
Of all my roles, the one I’m most passionate about is opening up pathways for young players. Sometimes I've seen clubs work in silos and the Academy is working all hours god sends to try and develop players for the first team and the recruitment department is working all hours god sends to try and sign players.
In that scenario the recruitment department might be busy looking at a right-back from overseas when there's one right under their noses in the Academy.
From a Premier League point of view - and I have been guilty of this - because you have so much money in relation to the majority of the other leagues in the world you can compete for most players in the world. That applies to Brighton too, even though we’re not a top six club.
When you are trying to put together a squad that can survive and thrive in the Premier League, the temptation is to go with proven players that are able to come in and are ‘here and now ready.’
We’ve signed Joel Veltman this season - he’s a here and now ready player - but sometimes it’s about taking that step back as well.
We have Ben White, Aaron Connolly, Steven Alzate, Rob Sanchez, Jayson Mollumby, so there are those young players too.
Of all the things I’ve learnt in the 13 years I’ve been a Technical Director, the big one is that it's about giving young people a chance. That might be a young coach, a young player, a young physio - you don’t know quite what they can do until you give them an opportunity.
There’s a temptation in the Premier League not to do that, because we can afford not to do that. Quite often young people get their chance in adversity, if a club is financially stricken or you’ve got a load of injuries. I think that’s a dreadful shame, because there are some super young players out in the system who could survive and thrive in the Premier League and it’s about us, as a game, opening up pathways for them.
Although I spent 12 years coaching and worked my way up to becoming a Pro Licence coach, I have never been a first-team coach or manager though. So do I fully understand the pressures they go through on a Saturday? No, I don’t.
It’s really easy for me and Academy Managers to say ‘just chuck the kids in,’ but we’re not the ones who have to answer to the press or the 30,000 fans every Saturday if the results don’t go our way.
That’s why it’s so important that I have a good relationship with Graham and understand his world, but also understand John Morling’s world and try and connect the two. Then we can give our Academy players the hope and opportunity that they might get a go and also ensure that Graham has the tools to compete in the Premier League. It’s not an easy balance.
30% of Premier League minutes for homegrown players
This was John’s target and was up and running before I came in - for 30% of our Premier League minutes to be from homegrown players. It’s about having that long-term ambition for our Academy. If they continue to do the job they’re doing, and if we can continue to give opportunities, then I don’t think it’s impossible.
I sit down with John and work out how we can try and get those 30% of minutes while helping Graham, hopefully, finish in the top 10 of the Premier League.
Dunkie (Lewis Dunk) and Solly March have both come through the youth system and play pretty regularly. Ben White is obviously contributing to that and so too are Alzate, Connolly, Sanchez and Mollumby.
Sometimes young players can come straight in, sometimes they need loan experience - they is no one set pattern.
Ben White was the poster boy for loans, with almost 100 games. Now he’s in and has started every one of our Premier League games this season.
On the flip side, Aaron Connolly had only 27 minutes of loan football. He got Premier League 2 player of the year as a centre forward and then had a couple of appearances off the bench on loan with Luton, that was it.
That’s youth development - there is no one magic recipe to get them from the U18s to a Premier League team. They’re all human beings, they’re all different, and it depends on what you’ve already got in the building.
We’ve got quite a few players who are out on loan at the moment but we also value and invest in our U23 team and see that as an important part of the learning curve.
Psychology and mental wellbeing
When I started working in football in 1998, there was no such thing as an analyst. You were lucky if you had a physio, you were lucky if you had an S&C coach.
There are now so many analysts, teachers, mini bus drivers, S&C coaches. All those departments are rightly so well stocked for our young and senior players, but psychology and mental wellbeing certainly wasn’t here. We didn’t have what I felt was the appropriate resource.
Fortunately, we were given a bit of budget by the club to support that area and looked into it. And it’s support of both players and staff. People forget that the staff are under huge pressure too and are also in a high-performance culture.
With that comes a lot of stress and in daily life there might be relationship struggles, addictions, loss of confidence, depression.
We’re all human beings; it doesn’t matter whether you’re a footballer, a Technical Director, a first-team manager - we suffer the same things. Also, since March, the players - in particular the foreign players - haven’t really been able to travel.
We have players from Belgium, Holland, France, whose family would usually come and see them on a regular basis, but since covid they haven’t been able to do that, so you can feel a sense of isolation in a foreign country.
We felt it was really important to try and put that support structure round our staff and players and support them from a mental as well as a physical, tactical and technical point of view.
The idea came about really from my time at England. We felt one area we could make a real difference there was in psychology and mental wellbeing. From an England point of view, pressure of tournaments is huge. Unless you’ve been in a tournament you don’t understand the pressure those players are under, it’s unbelievable.
The psychology and mental wellbeing aspect worked really well for us, particularly in Russia (for the 2018 World Cup). Then it was about trying to move that into a club context. You look at most of the set-ups of clubs and it’s a drastically under-resourced area.
This is quite a long-term role. It’s not a job you go into for 12 months and out you go again. I haven’t had any thoughts whatsoever about leaving, but obviously I get judged on the job I do here and that’s down to Paul (Barber) and Tony (Bloom).
In order to try and get all the things up and running that I believe in - putting Brighton in a better position in the league, financially, a pathway through for young players, better in the transfer market - hopefully in a few years’ time those things have been achieved.
My ambition at the moment is to try and fulfil the club’s vision. Over the next few years it’s to get in the top 10 of the Premier League.
We haven’t got the biggest budget, so we’re going to have to have some really good work from a coaching, recruitment, Academy and wellbeing point of view.
Everybody is going to have to align together to try and get Graham and the team to top 10 - and in the top four in the WSL for Hope and her team.
Long term, post that, I’m still in my 40s - just - so I’ve hopefully got a number of years left working in football. I love being a Technical Director and have been fortunate to have had three wonderful opportunities to do the job.
My ambition is to stay doing this job for as long as I possibly can, and after that, who knows?