TGG Podcast #47 - Tom Vernon: Giving everyone a Right to Dream
Written by Training Ground Guru — March 6, 2023
TOM VERNON started Right to Dream in 1999, when he was Manchester United's Head Scout in Africa.
The first intake of young players to the Academy, located just outside Accra in Ghana, stayed in his home. From these humble beginnings, Right to Dream now owns Academies in Egypt, Ghana and Ivory Coast, as well as table-topping FC Nordsjaelland in Denmark.
On Episode #47 of the Training Ground Guru Podcast, Vernon told us about the origins of Right to Dream, its objectives and what the rest of football can learn from the group.
You can listen to the Podcast via the Player below and read a transcript after that.
1. GROWING UP
Tom Vernon: I grew up in High Wycombe and was a season ticket holder at Wycombe Wanderers. I loved the game from a really young age and also realised pretty young that I wasn’t going to be good enough to play.
I was kicked out of school - it was described as the straw that broke the camel’s back. I started my coaching badges when I was 16 and progressed through them fairly quickly.
At that time, jobs in football really felt like the preserve of ex pros. I was trying to figure out how to get into the game and had a connection in Ghana who was connected to the biggest club there, Hearts of Oak, and went there on a coaching opportunity.
I got connected with the young players in my community and started a youth team and saw first-hand the challenges they were facing to fulfil their potential and thought I could make a difference. At the same time, I saw the likes of Feyenoord and Ajax and Red Bull spending a lot of money - as it transpired, ill-advisedly - on trying to develop talent.
2. ORIGINS OF RIGHT TO DREAM
I started Right to Dream from very humble beginnings, with the first 16 players we picked moving into our house. It was a real grassroots effort. At the same time I was seeing how European football was getting it wrong and that caused a lot of unlearning and re-learning for me as a white English guy trying to have an impact in Africa.
They had an extractive mindset, which was that you can set something up, take the pieces you want and discard the rest. That’s been a general theme from Europe towards Africa for 400 years. This phrase, ‘neo-colonial mindset’, was something you could see in some of the trends of often very good people who were very naive and not well considered enough in their strategies.
I arrived in Ghana with a similar mindset, due to the way we get brought up in the English public school system and how our society is constructed in England if you are white and middle class, as I was.
That was just really replicating the way they did Academies in Europe, but not enough consideration given to an entirely different context. What I learnt over time was what we had to ask ourselves how we could contribute towards the national development agenda and what the country needed.
I had started by just looking for the best players, but obviously that meant many wouldn’t make it. What about them? One of the first pieces was, ‘Let’s build the education as best we can and build relationships in America,’ so our kids could go to University if they weren’t going to make it as footballers.
At that time we had no idea where they were going to go as footballers, because it was basically a youth team in Accra. We built pathways in education and have now raised more than $50m of educational scholarships in America and have kids attending Stanford and Ivy League schools. That was part of trying to make more of a meaningful contribution.
Then we realised, ‘Look, if we are scouting in a community, we shouldn’t just go in for the best male player, we should look at girls as well.’ We founded and still run the only residential girls football Academy anywhere in the world.
Then we also realised that, when we understood the American system, if we were in the community and academically tested all the kids, we might find some incredibly bright kids who were good enough at football to end up going to the world’s best Universities. So we added that into our philosophy in the desire to make the best contribution we could to Ghana.
Now we admit kids who we hope might be able to play pro football, but will be able to get a world-class education for free whether they play pro or not and go on and do amazing things. We hold George Weah up as a huge example at Right to Dream - and he was one of my first mentors in Africa - as someone who can win the Ballon D’Or and go back to University and become President of their country (Liberia).
All those multiple recruitment strategies and the kind of people we role-model at Right to Dream was our way of saying, 'We want to be part of Ghana’s development and make the best contribution we can,' rather than replicate a model, which is fundamentally broken in Europe anyway.
All those things have evolved and matured and we apply them in different places in different ways.
3. WHAT IS THE PHILOSOPHY OF RIGHT TO DREAM?
The philosophy at Academy level is that we believe in development of excellent culture through our character programmes and our purpose programmes.
We believe in the development of excellence in academics through our curriculums and pathways. And we obviously believe in excellence in development in football.
So it’s a holistic model to development that is long-term commitment for every child and then trying to create the right pathway for every kid coming through our Academies, not just the ones who get into football.
But obviously Right to Dream has gone into purchasing clubs as well. We bought our first club seven years ago now, in Denmark with FC Nordsjaelland. There, we see our clubs to continue those principles I outlined at Academy level, but also we see ourselves as Universities of football, where you can take that final step before going out.
Barcelona once said it nicely, when they described their first team as their oldest Academy team. We certainly think about our clubs in that kind of space.
And then the last big piece of Right to Dream: we think our broader brand and message has potential to inspire people who maybe aren’t in professional football. We believe everyone has the right to dream, and that’s every person on the planet.
Some of the journeys and outcomes our kids achieve can be inspirational for anybody. The way we are thinking about the brand is how can that transcend football Academies and clubs. At Christmas parties I always say it’s been our best year and for 23 years in a row that has been the case.
4. FC NORDSJAELLAND
We wanted to control pathways for our players and prove that Right to Dream’s philosophy could be adapted into any context. So where better than in one of the most advanced societies on many metrics in Denmark? We also wanted to play with a team of homegrown teenagers or Under-21s and compete at the top of the league.
Denmark is typically ranked the 14th best league in Europe on co-efficiency. We also didn’t have that much money, we borrowed the money in a debt-equity deal from a long term supporter of Right to Dream, but didn’t have anybody looking to put £100m in, it was £10m, so there was a limit in that regard.
We also didn’t want to go somewhere where we would be pigeon-holed into another African project, and Belgium and Portugal see so many of those cases, which are a little bit more about parking players than really developing something.
We knew FCN had done a lot to build a strong Academy and it was just coming to fruition.
Fourteen of our squad have come through the two Academies, which is cool. When you know the player’s journey from 11, it means more. Part of our brand strategy is we want to be replicated, because that’s about opportunity creation.
If you look at Danish football, the average age has gone down and we have had a big impact on that. Player sales in FCN have increased 340% from the six years before to the six years after. In other developmental leagues, Portugal, Belgium, Holland, player sales have increased about 80% over that period, but in Denmark it has increased 190%.
Other clubs are looking at some of the things we do.
5. WHAT ARE YOUR KPIs OR MEASURES OF SUCCESS?
Our first is our social impact, which is in the space of the holistic impact we have on each of our kid’s lives. That extends more broadly into the impact we and they have on the communities they operate in.
The second one is the growth of our brand equity and that is in relation to inspiring people to make their own dreams come true or creating opportunities for others who might be overlooked.
Also, do young players want to come to us rather than to other clubs? Andreas Schjelderup was a great case - he chose us over Liverpool and Ajax and that is happening a little more.
And then also our brand equity in terms of how can we engage with commercial partners to take us forwards.
Our third is in relation to football performance, which is probably the easiest to develop of the KPIs, because the league table is where you start. We look at what’s the quality of the pipeline of players within our system, what’s the success of our graduates when they leave and what’s the value of our total global solidarity.
We had seven players playing at the last World Cup, which is a KPI within football performance.
And the last KPI is financial sustainability. We are a not-for-dividend organisation, so everything goes back in, but when we’re not in growth phases we don’t want to be making capital calls to our owners and investors.
Those are the four metrics we assess ourselves on.
6. RECRUITMENT AND MAKING A COMMITMENT TO EVERY CHILD
We focus a lot on recruitment, because the opportunities we have at the end are difficult to achieve. It's difficult to get into a world-class University, especially as a student-athlete on scholarship, and it’s difficult to get into FCN, which is the youngest team in the world.
Everyone is going through and everyone is going to find the right opportunity for them at the end. I see it as a pipe, where the bottom is the same width as the top.
This pyramid just immediately puts this idea in everybody’s mind that you are going to get picked off and only a certain percentage can get there.
It’s the kind of thing I think a lot of lazy coaches in the Academy system say - ‘it’s only 1% of you that are going to make it’ - and it’s almost viewed as responsible to make them aware of the difficulty. I don’t think that’s responsible; I think the responsibility is to change the system, so each kid thinks this is going to be something positive for their growth and development.
We’re across Africa now, because we’re in Egypt as well and Ivory Coast. We have 100,000 kids coming to our trials every year and are academically screening all those kids. We’ve got some super talented scouts who are also looking for character indicators at the first phase.
Then we run a process where we run regional and then final trials and within that, our academic and pastoral staff are all engaged to make it a holistic decision around academic potential, character potential and then footballing potential.
One of the things I’ve learned, which is super hard to build into any talent ID, is that soul really matters. You can see soulful kids who have a joy for life and an ability to connect with people and a desire to squeeze the most out of every situation they get into. That is a really interesting thing for our future as well, which we haven’t really got into but talk about - what would soul scouting look like?
We have employed a Head of Global Recruitment called Ian Yates, who we very deliberately recruited. He started in football but has had a long time out. Because the context in our four markets is so wildly different, we wanted someone who had been thinking in multiple sports in multiple ways, because you can’t have a universality to the way we approach things.
Ian’s job is to build a global team of scouts who can apply that over-arching philosophy into many different diverse and challenging communities.
We want to go to places that are overlooked, where people might believe excellence doesn’t exist, so we need to drive some core philosophical themes through our recruitment, which Ian is doing really well, and then we need adaptability.
We are building a group of global scouts who we can provide with a life-changing experience, of being able to scout in Upper Egypt, in Luxor, but also in Northern Ghana and Copenhagen and different communities in America and apply our unique philosophy to different environments.
Within a few months of starting in Egypt we had found a brilliant scout called Amrah, who was in a local community football environment and is now in Ghana and also going to different places in the world.
7. A RIGGED SYSTEM
It certainly is a rigged system. If you grow up as a white English middle-class kid you get the best of it; you grow up with a fairly warped opinion of what’s fair.
The level of unfairness I see directed towards Africa and emerging brands from Africa is absolutely mind-blowing. There are almost immovable pre-conceived notions of what Africa is and what excellence in Africa stands for. It has so far to go that I don’t even know if it's possible.
When I was young I probably thought it was unfair if I couldn’t have a Playstation, but I am proud of being part of trying to achieve a bit more equality and fairness within football.
If I am born in Niger and a potential world-class footballer, the first time I can get access to an A-Licence coach and a grass pitch is at 18, according to FIFA law. That’s because you are not allowed to move before the age of 18.
For the last many many years Africa has 54 countries and only four slots at the World Cup. Europe has less countries and around 13 slots. It is nice that at the next World Cup Africa is going to have 11 slots.
A really interesting book is, ‘Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race.’ For a lot of people in Africa they have given up, they don’t care any more what the west thinks and this naive narrative. In Ghana, we’ve got this movement called 'The year of the return', which is about African-Americans, African diaspora returning to Ghana, building a better Ghana and therefore driving a different narrative.
I think Africa is moving into an exciting new phase and if we take that back to football it’s going to be super exciting.
8. LESSONS FOR EUROPEAN ACADEMIES
One of the things I think is amazing is that you can sit down anywhere in America with a 60-year-old man or woman and they will still talk with pride about being a graduate of the University they went to. That affiliation lasts a lifetime.
If you look at the experiences that Academies are offering, it is a phenomenal experience: to travel the world, find out how to push yourself and achieve your best, make friends, be in an environment that teaches you about so many things.
So why, even at 22, are a lot of these lads talking with a degree of bitterness about the experience they had, especially if they didn’t make it? Let alone at 60, where they probably don’t even reference it, unlike a graduate of Duke or Stanford. There is something fundamentally wrong with the fact that the majority of kids who don’t make it aren’t proud brand ambassadors of the Academy.
What we are trying to do, in terms of the holistic experience we provide, and the fact that in the environment all our kids - even the ones who go on to be top players - can see we are trying to do the right thing for every kid. Hopefully they talk with more pride when they’re out there.
We also started to see, at the World Cup, commentators seeming to talk about the fact that players were graduates of Right to Dream. We seemed to get referenced all the time and our kids talk about that more than maybe others do. That is a sign we are doing the right things.
We are certainly far from satisfied in that regard and have so much innovation and investment we need to drive in our environments to get them to the levels we aspire to. A lot of the things we are inspired by are the American student-athlete model rather than the European Academy model.
9. ENGLISH ACADEMIES: SET IN THEIR WAYS?
I think there are a lot of people looking to learn from and take parts of our model. Six years ago, when I would go round talking about FCN, some people would remember they had played in the Champions League in 2012, which was a phenomenal achievement. Now, you don’t have to introduce the project to anyone, which is massive credit to everyone who has made that happen.
In all the other big leagues, when we talk to clubs I hear them say, 'We could do more of what you do.' But I hear a lot of English clubs saying, 'That wouldn’t work here,' and I’ve got no idea why, because it’s pretty clear that England has the most talented young players of any country in the world at the moment, and they are obviously doing a fairly good job of getting them through, which is reflected in national team performances, but I’m sure they could do why.
I think a lot of English football is caught in a stereotype of what is and isn’t possible and they really need to change a lot of the thinking and language around the game. But then you’ve obviously got guys like (Brentford owner) Matthew Benham and (Brighton owner) Tony Bloom, who we take a lot of inspiration from as well, and some of the best innovation in world football is happening within the Premier League.
We are all focused on America at the moment, but we gets offers and approaches from all over the world all of the time, because that kind of holistic model appeals and some people see us maybe as part of the solution for the Academy system.
I am really dyslexic and have come to value that attribute maybe more than anything else. My youngest son is too and I’m delighted he is.
Awareness around the strengths of dyslexia are really starting to filter into the mainstream, with guys like Richard Branson and organisations like Made by Dyslexia really starting to educate the UK and I know it’s really strong in America.
As a dyslexic, you have the ability to join dots in a different way and communicate in a different way. Such a high percentage of successful entrepreneurs are dyslexic.
When I was 11 I was running two businesses at my school and nobody recognised or encouraged it and they both faded out because there was no support.
My eldest son is autistic and my youngest is dyslexic. All the support they get, to me, seems like it’s support to help them conform. I don’t want them to conform to the system, because they are never going to excel there. What I want is for the power of their neurodiversity to be developed to its fullest. I’m super lucky that I fell into something that allowed that to happen for me.
We are missing so much ability to take our communities and societies forwards. MI5 and NASA and some of the most progressive organisations are mandating that a certain percentage of their workforce need neurodiversity. In the more progressed western nations they are understanding they can’t solve the problems they are facing with the A-type conformist and they need a different perspective on things, but it’s got a long way to go.
11. GARETH SOUTHGATE
England is actually a great example of doing it right in relation to football with what Gareth Southgate has done. When I was growing up in the 1980s, a number of people would describe the English national team as a representation of the National Front. Certainly the Windrush generation and West African immigrants arriving in England would have felt the national team was one of the strongest representations of the negativity they felt in the UK.
What Gareth has done with the national team - going into the realities of its past and reconstructing the future - is one of the most inspirational leadership stories within sport in the last 20 years.
We believe excellence can be found anywhere and we believe that the world has a narrow view about what excellence is and where it can come from and as a result we believe humanity has a lot of unfulfilled potential. I believe a lot of the problems that west is experiencing today, they won’t find the solutions internally and it is diversity and looking beyond the obvious that will help them find solutions, which do exist.