Player care: The unseen part of performance
Written by Simon Austin — February 3, 2021
FOR any player that moved on Transfer Deadline Day, their first point of contact at their new club was likely to be with the Player Care Department.
“We meet them at the airport, we make sure they get to their hotel, we take them to the medical and get them through the media process,” explains Hugo Scheckter, who was something of a player care pioneer during his time at Southampton and West Ham and now runs his own consultancy, The Player Care Group.
“All the time you’re trying to build up a picture about this person and develop a rapport with them.”
Initially, I doubted whether player care was part of the multi-disciplinary performance team, but after an hour’s chat with Scheckter, I'm convinced.
“Traditionally, clubs were focused on the four hours that players are at the training ground,” he says. “I’m looking at the other 20 hours. If a player’s not happy in their personal life, then how can they perform on the pitch?"
Player care involves the operational - team travel, communication and group scheduling - but is also about plugging into performance and coaching, developing relationships with staff and players, and helping to strengthen the bond between the club and its people.
"This role has evolved from being a person who sits in an office at the training ground to being the manager’s key non-footballing contact,” Scheckter argues.
He says two qualities are key in his line of work: problem solving and developing relationships.
The 30-year-old was Player and Team Liaison Officer at Southampton for four years before becoming Head of Player Care at West Ham in February 2018. In December, he left the Hammers to set up his own business.
With new signings, there will usually be an ‘onboarding process’ at a club, he explains. At West Ham, this included giving players a 30-page welcome pack containing information about the club, local area and even profile pictures and nicknames of all the staff.
Helping players find somewhere they will be happy living is crucial.
“We would suggest a number of properties based on what the player was looking for," he says. "We'd go on viewings with them, check the contracts, then help to sort the paperwork and removals.
“The players didn’t have to use us for the process, but in the last two years I think every single player did. It’s that trust that gets the buy-in.”
His team set up an approved supplier list of estate agents, along with other services such as taxi firms and financial advisers.
“One of the things we had difficulties with when I started was that a lot of suppliers were frankly taking the piss with West Ham,” he says. “So I cleared house and we started an approved supplier list.
“Everyone who’s going to work with players is vetted. For example, we had one or two estate agents we did most of our business with, and some on a black list."
Being able to speak English was regarded as a non-negotiable at both Southampton and West Ham, so an extensive programme of language lessons was put in place.
“It’s one of the things we insisted on straight away - that players had to be able to speak English," Scheckter says. "We offered all approaches: group classes, tutors at home, tutors at the training ground, the players just had to pick which one they preferred.
“We had a football-based curriculum with the language lessons, so that the players could understand how the manager and coaches speak.
“With Mauricio Pellegrino at Southampton (pictured below), we actually hired an English teacher who became part of his coaching staff for three months. He'd sit in every team meeting and when Mauricio spoke he would note down words or phrases he could have said better and then feed back afterwards. His English improved dramatically.
“It was assigned that level of importance by the manager himself. Mauricio said, 'If I can’t communicate, I can’t do anything.' At West Ham we also had a French midwife on the supplier list who helped with the French partners giving birth.”
A good relationship with the manager is key and was something Scheckter was grateful for at both of his former clubs.
Ronald Koeman (pictured below with Scheckter) was his first boss with the Saints - "a tough man to work for, very demanding, but over time I got his respect" - and had become accustomed to the role of Team Manager on the Continent.
"That was what he saw me as - someone who oversees security, kit and equipment, logistics, player care - even though I didn't end up doing all of that. It was a massive role for me, being 24 and never having worked in the Premier League, and I learned so much."
At West Ham, David Moyes would "call me in and bounce ideas off me” about how to improve team spirit and camaraderie. Scheckter recounts one occasion when West Ham had travelled north for an overnight stay ahead of a late kick-off.
“David said, 'We need to do something to fill the time and lift the mood. Any ideas?' We organised a quiz night involving players, coaches and other staff. At first, the players were like, ‘We don’t want to do this, we want to get to bed.’
“But I’ve never seen them so engaged and competitive. We had arguments over song titles and how close to the right answer it needed to be to get the point. We gave out 30p medals at the end and the guys had their photos taken with them.
“The atmosphere was fantastic and the next day they were still talking about it - ‘I can’t believe you got that flag of the Seychelles’ and the rest.”
In the old days, it was often a senior pro who took on some of the work that the Player Care Officer now does. When Scheckter arrived at Southampton in 2014, club captain Kelvin Davis was the go-to man for team-mates.
“He’d lived in the area for 10 years and was super connected," Scheckter recalls. "He was, ‘Talk to this guy and this guy.'"
At first it was daunting trying to win the players over, but one day Scheckter simply asked them all: ‘What’s the biggest frustration you’ve got?’"
"One said, ‘I’ve not been able to get a new driver’s licence for about six months and it’s doing my head in,’" he remembers. “Two hours later I said, ‘The licence will be with you within 48 hours.'
"He got his wallet out to give me some money but I said, ‘The best thing you could do is to go into the changing room and say Hugo helped me with this.’ It was really small things but it’s about building trust.
"Another player said he really wanted get this particular Spanish drink and I got it for him. They weren’t queuing up with problems, they just needed a bit of help and guidance and I helped them with individual things. It evolved into building that trust bit my bit.”
Over time he assiduously logged what he was doing and how much time it took, enabling him to build what essentially became his job description. Now he was known as Mr Fix-It within the dressing room and a trusted colleague.
There have been queries which many of us would regard as trivial, at best, but Scheckter takes a different perspective.
“Do I get stupid questions? Of course I do. Sometimes I'm like, ‘Are you serious?’But as long as it means they are more settled and happy, then fine.
"If I drive to a player’s house because the lights aren’t working and it’s just a case of flicking the fuse on, maybe he hasn’t seen that before. To say ‘You should have known that’ doesn’t really teach them anything. For me, this is about a learning experience.
“Some of the questions might seem petty to you or I, but if we moved to Senegal at the age of 19, would we know how to get a council tax bill or a phone or a car? I don't think we would.
“Top footballers are expected to hit the ground running, despite the difficulties of moving to a new country.”
He works on the basis that it's better to know about a problem than not, because there can be calamitous consequences otherwise.
“I had one player who had his door bashed in by bailiffs on match day because, ‘I don’t do post.’ That was a Premier League player. He phoned me and said, ‘These guys have just bashed the front door down and my wife is hysterical.’
“If I'd known about it in advance, I could have spent 10 minutes on the council website setting up a direct debit. That would have saved him getting his door knocked down, his wife freaking out and then him losing his head completely on a match day.
“Other players have come to me after six months with a bin bag full of post and said, 'Can you pay this?' But I’d rather they brought it to me than not.
“Do we do too much? Yes. But if we do too little then the footballing consequences can be far greater. Also, there are players who take a lot of interest and responsibility."
Scheckter says his job is to offer solutions. Then the players can see the pros and cons for themselves and choose their preferred option.
“I had a version of this up on the wall in the office at West Ham," he says, pointing to the image below. "If you want it to be cheap, you will have to lose either speed or quality. If you want it to be quality and quick, then you’ll have to pay for it.
“Very few things are all of these three things, so what are your priorities?”
Again, he uses a real-life example to illustrate his point. Again, it might seem outlandish to those of us who live outside the football bubble.
“I had a player who had forgotten his wife’s birthday and it was only two days away," Scheckter reveals. "She was on holiday in Hong Kong and he came to me and said, ‘I was supposed to get her this bag, I’m screwed.’
“I said, 'Give me an hour' and came back with three options for him. Number one, you call her and apologise and the bag will be waiting when she gets back.
“Number two, we get the bag and FedEx it out there and it’ll be two days late but it will cost you £500. Number three, I get an intern on a flight tonight to Hong Kong, he gets a taxi to the hotel and hand delivers it, but it’ll cost you £8k.
“That sounds ridiculous to you and I, but it’s your wife’s birthday and you can pay one day’s salary to fix this problem. In the end, he chose option one, but each of the choices was safe, legal and well researched.
“If I’d said, ‘No, that can’t be done,’ then someone from outside the club might have got involved and charged him £15k to do what I’d proposed anyway.”
Because the Player Care Officer is often the first point of contact for players, he or she will be directly plugged into the wider performance and coaching teams. After all, how players live their lives away from the training ground has a direct impact on their performances.
“There’s no point having great food at the club if a player is eating a takeaway every night," Scheckter explains. “We have to work with the performance team to flag up any problems.
"It could be that I go to a player's home and see eight pizza boxes in the kitchen, in which case I’ll chat to them and then the nutritionist. Or they might have their car cleaned and the cleaner sees a lot of sweet wrappers in the footwell. Then you can look at interventions, like getting them more high nutrition snacks for their commute.”
There can be more serious interventions, based around mental health and real emergencies.
“I’m not a counsellor, I’m not a qualified psychologist, but clubs do have those people if an issue is signposted. I’m often the first person the players speak to if they have a problem.
“At my previous clubs I was on 24-hour call in case of emergencies. I’ve had a call in the middle of the night with a player saying, ‘My dad’s stopped breathing, what should I do?’
“Then it’s about being that calm voice, that assured person. ‘Call 999 and here is the nearest hospital. I’ll get ready and I’ll meet you there.’ I have had a player call me at three in the morning and say, ‘I’ve forgotten to pay my parking, can you sort it out?’ Which I wasn’t too happy about. But in a genuine emergency my phone is on and I’ll help you to deal with it.”
When Scheckter started at Southampton, he was their first Player Liaison Officer. Now player care is burgeoning, which is why he decided to set up The Player Care Group, “the UK’s first consultancy group focused on Player Care, Team Operations and Player Wellbeing within sporting environments.”
The big clubs, like Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal and Liverpool, have both football operations and player support departments, which are intertwined.
“Manchester United, for example, have the Team Manager, and a separate Head of Player Care, and they have different roles in different departments," Scheckter explains. "Some clubs have 13, 14 people doing first-team player care in various roles.
“At some of the smaller Premier League or sides in the Championship, they will often have only one person who does everything involving player care and operations. I run the Premier League WhatsApp group for all of the player care people and there are so many different roles."
His consultancy helps clubs with "knowing what good player care looks like", setting up a department, and developing relationships between player and organisation.
“I’m not there to deal with sprint distances or performances in training and matches and wins and losses," Scheckter says. "I'm there to ensure that everyone is safe and happy. But if you achieve that, then it inevitably has an impact on performances and even results.”