Hidden agendas: Study in change at a League One Academy

TO try and understand the impact of organisational change within a professional football environment, Dr Luke Gibson and Dr Ryan Groom conducted a series of interviews with staff at a League One club.

The team in question were undergoing significant change during 2014/15, with a new manager and chairman coming in. These leaders made the Academy a key focus, with the ultimate objective of developing young players to sell on at a profit.

Gibson and Groom interviewed a number of staff within the youth set-up at the unnamed club, including the Academy Manager, Head of the Professional Phase (also the U18s coach), the Foundation Phase lead and an age group coach, in order to find out how the changes impacted them.

Their first-hand testimonies are below and they're fascinating, providing an insight into the politics that went on behind the scenes. In the words of one coach, 'If you’re not a political animal, you get swallowed up.'

You can read the full academic papers, which were published in 2019, HERE.

THE BEGINNING

Age Group Coach: It was just a bit of a funny atmosphere, where nobody really knows what’s going on, nobody really knows who is gunning for who and everybody is keeping their cards close to their chest. The feeling among the staff was a little bit of nervousness.

Going from the previous manager who wasn’t really interested in youth and had never really given youth a chance to this guy, coming in and all of a sudden it was all about youth development and giving lads a chance and all this kind of stuff.

So there was definitely more of a focus and attention from the club. There was more of a PR spin to show the emphasis on developing young players in the media but also from the manager himself.

Head of Foundation Phase: When the new chairman and Board of Directors came in, there was a lot of change around the club. All of the press releases were about developing and evaluating the Academy.

When the manager came in initially, you got the impression that there were going to be big changes with the staff so that was a bit of a testing period. You are a little bit guarded in terms of what you spoke about.

Head of PDP: The chairman said to me: ‘I need to make it a business.' He’s putting in money on top of the Football League funding we’re getting. He’s a successful businessman, so he’ll come at it from a business sense too.

We’ve got a department that’s going to have to pay for itself. So, with that, I’m going to have to make lads attractable to a certain clientele. Who is going to potentially buy these lads?

Who’s got the most money? Premier League clubs. I’m going to have to make them [players] desirable. What are they looking for? Technically strong, athletic, thinkers.

It’s like being back at school for the first day, nerves are jangling. You’re going to get judged, the lads are going to judge you straight away. ‘Don’t like him… talks funny’. You know what it’s like, a group of lads, they can rip you to bits. They’re quite savage, even U18s. If you’re weak with them, they can take you for a ride.

Academy Manager: I had an initial conversation on the phone (with the new Chairman). He was really positive, really interested in the Academy and the vision of how he saw the club. He then said, ‘We would like to make you Academy Manager.’ I was currently in the role of Head of Youth Development.

IN THE MIDST OF CHANGE

Age group coach: I cheated a little in that when people were around asking and observing I changed things to look like I was complying, but when people weren’t watching I knew the lads had to win because that was what seemed to matter to the manager and the Academy Manager.

But you couldn’t be seen to be directly telling the lads they needed to win, if that makes sense. It was as if they [other age group coaches] knew I was under pressure. The lads weren’t doing very well and they didn’t want to be seen to be associated with it in any way in front of the Gaffer or Academy Manager.

Head of Foundation Phase: I suppose I was trying to be a bit tactical and play it the right way. You wanted to side with the right people, but not get on the wrong side of people by sucking up or making others look bad to make yourself look better.

A few times, the manager would get you on your own and you’re thinking, ‘This is my opportunity to show myself in a good light. He’s trying to work out who he wants to get rid of or keep.'

You’re also thinking, ‘What’s everyone thinking whilst I’m with him on my own?’ Obviously, when you go back, everyone is asking, ‘What’s he said?’ Everyone is a bit cagey. At the end of the day, you’re trying to protect your job and your livelihood.

The feeling around the place at the time was that you wanted to be part of it and a lot of the stuff that needed doing required me to be at these meetings and that was good. You got more ownership, I suppose.

You feel a part of something and you’re about it a little bit more and you want to do a good job because it’s a reflection on yourself in how well you’re doing your job. You felt a part of something that was moving forward, so to be able to contribute to it was really good.

Head of PDP: I still remember it to this day. We were playing a match and a lot of the second years were there and I had invited some of the U16s in as subs and to plan for next year.

So I’m in the dressing room and I’ve got the [Academy Manager] with me. I’m doing the team talk before the game and there’s someone sniggering down the far end of the dressing room.

What do you say? In my head, I’m thinking, ‘I’ve got the 16s in the room, these second years are laughing. The 16s can see them laughing.’

So I go down there, ‘What’s going on?’ I was thinking, ‘F**king hell, [Academy Manager] is here.’ Is he thinking, ‘He can’t control the group.’

He’s gonna go back to [Head of Foundation] and the lads and say, ‘Should have seen it!’ So, I’ve nailed them before the game.

Academy Manager: One coach in particular, a Uefa A Licence coach, never played out from the back once, so we sacked him. He was just going direct all the time. At half time, he actually had the cheek to say, ‘Forget about the bloody philosophy’ and that was just the final nail in his coffin.

You can’t go to war with the manager, you won’t win. I’ve never once gone up against him. How football works is... if you fall out with him, he’s really impulsive; there is no coming back from it. You’ve gone.

I’ve observed it with first-year pros, who are really keen to learn, and have asked him a question on the training ground and he’s not involved with them anymore.

You can’t really cross him, because you’re going to lose. They [the first-year pros] just asked him a question, and then they’ve not been involved since. He turned around and said, ‘You’re not good enough, we made a mistake signing you, the senior pros aren’t having you.' All he did was ask him a question and the manager never knew how to answer it.

THE END/ REFLECTIONS

The age group coach was sacked during the 2014/15 season. Elsewhere though, the changes at the Academy started to bear fruit.

Age Group Coach: For me, I’d gone from being asked by the club to be interviewed by the EPPP auditors one month and then six weeks later being questioned about this, that and the other.

You’ve gone from being one of the main sort of people and ‘flavour of the month-ish’ to ‘this group is struggling and it’s his fault.'

I think if I was to go back in... it’s important to be able to read situations and to read some of the underlying things that are going on around the club, whether you’re full time or part time. That’s the worst bit of the job. All the shit that goes with it.

The good bit is working with the players and developing relationships with them; the other bit is the political side of things, and if you’re not a political animal, you get swallowed up.

Head of Foundation Phase: The manager and the chairman are very demanding of everybody, so I don’t think anybody would be allowed to become comfortable or complacent, because you get found out straight away. There is that much scrutiny placed on the Academy.

When we go to the Football League meetings, people are amazed at how much attention we get from above. It’s attractive for people who want to be in football to come and work.

Beforehand, everyone’s opinion of the club was that we were the lowest of the low, the teams weren’t very good, and the facilities weren’t the best. Now, I think we’re held in quite high regard with people. When people visit, they expect a certain level of professionalism and we have to match that.

Head of PDP: We’ve done close to £1.4m just in down payments in just over 12 months. For a League One club that’s never had a player anywhere near… we’ve had 13 [first-team] debuts, with an U16 that is currently playing in centre midfield that could probably be worth well over a million pounds.

There’s probably three to four million worth of talent stockpiled at U16s.

I think it would have been easier if I had come in in a group of three or four and we were all close-knit. Come in, carte blanche, ‘you’re doing this.’ It’s about the surrounding people having to fit in with what you do, whereas I felt I had to fit into them first, get their trust and then change it.

Rather than isolate myself in my working day which didn’t feel comfortable in an office where they’re all going ‘dickhead’ behind my back.

Academy Manager: If I had been recruited from a different club and wasn’t here previously when this regime came in it would have been different. I would have had a lot more power.

I’ve always been vulnerable because I was already here. If I ever went to another club, I would be a little more confrontational and probably have more battles.

One of the biggest challenges we have is educating the Directors and one in particular, who is obsessed with results.

'How did you get on?' 'What was the score?' That’s the first question they ask.

I think the penny has dropped now and they are starting to understand that it’s not about short-term results and that winning youth leagues doesn’t necessarily mean success.

Now they’re seeing some income from the Academy products, their biggest concern and their marker for success is how many players are in the shop window playing for the first team and who could be sold on.

Very rarely now do I need to tell people what the score was in certain games, it’s irrelevant. I’m more concerned with how individuals have done.

We have a saying now, ‘Success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan’. Everyone wants to be a part of it when you are winning. They’re all standing on the touchline when you’re winning.

But when you’re losing, they’re all sat away from you. That’s where we are at at the minute with the Academy. There’s a lot of people dying to get involved - the Chief Executive, the Head of Football Operations - because it helps to promote them.

The Chief Executive had an interview with Sky Sports, and he doesn’t even know anything about the Academy. But it was all about him and how he’s changed the Academy and all that bollocks.

  • Dr Luke Gibson is a Senior Lecturer in Sport in the Department of Sport, Outdoor and Exercise Sciences at the University of Derby, UK. He also regularly contributes to the executive postgraduate education courses at the Business School at Manchester Metropolitan University, and supervises postgraduate research projects for the Masters in Sporting Directorship programme.
  • Dr Ryan Groom is a Senior Lecturer and Postgraduate Programme Director in the Department of Sport and Exercise Science at Manchester Metropolitan University, UK. He also regularly contributes to the Masters in Sporting Directorship executive education programme at the Business School in Manchester.

References

  • Gibson, L., & Groom, R. (2020, ifirst). Understanding ‘vulnerability’ and ‘political skill’ in academy middle management during organisational change in in professional youth football: Towards an understanding of ‘actions, strategies and professional interests.’Journal of Change Management. https://doi.org/10.1080/14697017.2020.1819860
  • Gibson, L., & Groom, R. (2020). Developing a professional leadership identity during organisational change in professional youth football. Qualitative Research in Sport Exercise & Health, 12(5), 764-780. https://doi.org/10.1080/2159676X.2019.1673469
  • Gibson, L., & Groom, R. (2019). The micro-politics of organizational change in professional youth football: Towards an understanding of ‘actions, strategies and professional interests’. International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching, 14(1), 3-14. https://doi.org/10.1177/1747954118766311
  • Gibson, L., & Groom, R. (2018). The micro-politics of organizational change in professional youth football: Towards an understanding of ‘the professional self’.Managing Sport & Leisure, 23 (1-2), 106-122.https://doi.org/10.1080/23750472.2018.1497527

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