Jonathan Walters: Helping Stoke City regain their identity

Jon Walters: Became Stoke's permanent Sporting Director in April

Jon Walters: Became Stoke's permanent Sporting Director in April

Stoke City Sporting Director Jonathan Walters describes the Coates family as “the best owners in the country, bar none.”

To back up his bold claim, he explains: “They’re local, they love the club and they want to invest in the club. When we were in the Premier League, the net spend we had was ridiculous.

“To still have that now is unbelievable - and they are not going anywhere.”

One of English football's big conundrums is why this backing hasn't been matched by performances. Behind the scenes you have long-term owners with an estimated net worth of £8.64bn who have continued to plough in money; on the pitch is a team that hasn’t finished in the top half of the Championship since being relegated from the Premier League in 2017/18.

There has been a revolving door into the manager’s office, with six bosses (Paul Lambert, Gary Rowett, Nathan Jones, Michael O’Neill, Alex Neil and now Steven Schumacher) since Mark Hughes was sacked in January 2018.

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This has inevitably led to a churn of players, while the productivity of the Academy has been low by Category One standards (only Burnley were lower of the top-tier Academies in the last edition of our Academy Productivity Rankings).

Walters is brutally frank about all of this - and is setting about putting it right.

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“Let’s be honest, it’s been a graveyard for players, a graveyard for managers,” he says matter-of-factly. “Let’s put it out there - we’ve underperformed over the last seven years.

“Inside the building it’s my job to change that and raise the standards back to where they should be - Premier League standards. We have the best owners in the country who will back it.”

Walters is the club’s fourth Sporting Director (or equivalent) since 2017/18, having come in on an interim basis in January before taking the role permanently in April.

Unlike the previous two incumbents - Andy Cousins, who had been Lead Analyst under O’Neill, and Ricky Martin, who had worked with Neil at Norwich City - he is a club rather than a manager appointment. This is important, because it's clear that the manager reports into the Sporting Director, rather than the other way around.

Walters is speaking at the club's Clayton Wood Training Ground, which is due to undergo a £10m to £12m redevelopment from September.

A new building will house the men’s first team, while the Women's and Academy sides will have residence of a redeveloped pavilion, which was previously shared by all sides. Once again, the intent of the owners is clear.

“This investment is part of a wider £30m investment and shows what they are, who they are and what they are trying to do,” Walters says.

So if the owners are the best in the country, why has the team fallen so far short? For Walters, it ultimately comes down to that C word, culture. It gets bandied about in football but, distilled down, basically means how an environment influences behaviours.

Walters played for the Potters from 2010 to 2017, including in an FA Cup final and in Europe, and says those halcyon days were down to togetherness and hard work. Back then, Tony Pulis's team finished in the top half of the Premier League for three consecutive seasons, from 2013/14.

Pulis once described the midfielder as, “certainly my type of player,” someone who, “gives everything, never stops and whatever you've paid him, you know he's earned it."

That spirit has subsequently been lost, Walters admits, and he wants to bring it back.

“What’s the identity of the city? Hard work, never give up, united stronger. We need that back, showing the fans a representation on the pitch of what they are. When they pay good money to watch us play, they want to see themselves on the pitch.

“There was a real strong identity when I was here as a player. I always felt there was a real togetherness and a real connection between the players, staff and fans.

“Coming in, I didn’t feel that was there. My job is to bring the football side of it and create something the fans want to see. We want to grow a community within the club and have us versus everyone else.”

Walters' return wasn't simply a case of a famous former player being parachuted into a prominent role. He holds a Masters in Sporting Directorship and did the job at Fleetwood Town and sister club Waterford for a short period of time before coming in.

Dan Ashworth once used the analogy of a Sporting Director being at the centre of a wheel, with the spokes being all the different departments, and Walters says he's at the centre of the whole football operation at Stoke too.

“I report into John (Coates, Chairman) and below me I have Steven (Schumacher) as Head Coach, medical, sport science, Academy, women’s - every part will report into me and I will be across all departments,” he explains.

However, he emphasises that it’s "not a dictatorship” and that he wants to help develop heads of department who "will be leaders themselves.”

"That’s part of my role - to be able to build a squad that’s competitive but also has a pathway for young players.” Jonathan Walters

“I want every position around me to be better than me and I want to learn from them,” he says. “I have no ego. I’ve had to micromanage situations (since coming in) when I don’t want to do that.

“Ultimately, I want to have a bird’s eye view, leading the managers who will become leaders themselves. With Ricky (Martin) the idea was to be across everything, but you have to be careful of not micromanaging situations and getting too involved in areas. You have to have that view and people be able to lead their departments.”

Walters wants a combination of “expertise and hunger” in his staff. With that in mind, he has hired Lee Darnbrough as his new Head of Recruitment, replacing Jared Dublin. Darnbrough was previously Head of Recruitment at Hull City and has also held senior positions at West Brom, Burnley and Norwich City.

“He has 20 years’ experience in what he’s doing and has worked under some unbelievable Sporting Directors - and has grown himself,” Walters explains.

“He brings experience in the domestic market, in the international market, and for me to have someone like that, who has a lot more knowledge than me in this area, who will be able to push me, means he is the right person.”

Having a clear identity and game model will make recruitment easier.

“We don’t say, ‘Oh, he’s a good player,’ but, ‘does he fit into what we are going to do?’”

A key objective this summer will be to make the squad leaner, as well as bringing players in, which hasn’t previously been the case.

“The problem is having 30 players,” Walters says. “The biggest problem for any coach is the players not on the pitch. That’s difficult and it blocks Academy pathways.”

These pathways are important to the former Republic of Ireland international, who was a youth player at Blackburn Rovers. Stoke have been Category One since the early days of EPPP, yet are one of the top tier's least productive Academies according to our Productivity Rankings.

Walters pushes back on this, arguing that productivity has improved recently.

“We have produced players here for the Academy and we want to produce more,” he argues. “Just under the surface now we’ve got Tommy Simkin, Jaden Dixon, Freddie Anderson, Emre, Tezgel, Nathan Lowe, Sol Sidibe, plus many others who are bubbling under and ready to get into the first team.

“We have to get their pathway right and it’s good having such a close-knit first team building and staff to the Academy. That’s part of my role - to be able to build a squad that’s competitive, has enough experience, but also has a pathway for young players.”

Many of the players who came in last season will be better for a year in the Championship, he says. Foremost is South Korean midfielder Bae Jun-ho, who has already become a fans' favourite.

“Jun-ho didn’t speak English when he came,” Walters says. “Imagine a year in, how much he’s settled. For me, he’s a phenomenal player and will play at the top level.”

Developing staff as well as players is another part of the mission. Ultimately it all comes back to culture though.

“You should have Premier League standards full stop, it doesn’t matter if you’re in League Two,” Walters says. “Your standards need to be there every day - in how you treat people, how you are around the place, how you live. Do that and it will give you the ability to do what you want to do.”

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