Inside the FA school for technical directors, one of football’s most misunderstood roles
After spending 20 minutes assembling Legos, some of English football’s brightest minds explain how their creations exemplify a higher purpose at their clubs.
“This cup represents success on the pitch. This bridge leads to a new stadium and it is going to be life changing for people in the area,” Paul Watson, Luton Town’s chief operating officer, told his classmates.
In a snapshot, it might be misunderstood as a training day for staff, but it’s not like anything out of The Office, as Watson is then challenged and opinions come and go across the room. Is it success without your mug? Can you get to that moment of glory without the Lego building blocks earlier in the process?
Welcome to a day on the Football Association Technical Directors course. There are 16 ‘cohorts’, rather than pupils, and fittingly they sit in the Howard Wilkinson meeting room in St George’s Park, named after the man who held that role for the FA.
All are involved in football and have been supported by their clubs to follow a year and a half course. There’s a Tottenham Hotspur flavor on a table as Dean Austin and Colin Calderwood sit together. Others come from Premier League or English Football League clubs, or are involved in administration. Julian Ward, soon to be sporting director at Liverpool, is part of this promotion.
Every Premier League club has a technical director – as do some at a lower level, such as Queens Park Rangers in the form of Les Ferdinand – but it’s one of football’s most misunderstood roles. There was a mistrust of early technical directors from the time Damien Comolli signed Juande Ramos from Tottenham in 2007 and faced more questions than his head coach when he unveiled the Spaniard. “Comolli cut an uncomfortable figure as he attempted to take on the role he plays at the club,” read a national newspaper report of the press conference.
“The English game always understands what the role is”
Since the doctorates could be written on the tasks of the technical director, the course is not a prescriptive manual on how to do the job. Many are classed as transfer gurus, brokering deals for new signings, others working on their clubs’ culture and the systems in place.
“The basic understanding is that it looks at the long-term functioning of the club,” explains Monaco technical director Laurence Stewart. “It provides stability, but the components it contains may vary. It doesn’t have to be recruiting. It doesn’t have to be sports science. It doesn’t need to be be medical.
“England is still exploring and understanding what it is. The managerial culture is stronger than in other countries. But in this country, in the example of Man City and Liverpool, there has been a clearly defined structure, I’m sure there are challenges, but they seem to operate in a highly qualified manner.
Stewart sits in a common area of St George’s and is in an ideal position to see how the role of technical director has evolved. He started at Manchester City and Everton, moved to RB Leipzig as head of scouting and is now in France.
He is doing an internship alongside his work in Monaco and is flying to France at the end of the session. Half of the course is based at St George’s and the rest at other clubs, with cohort discussions about their recent trip to Harlequins. The emphasis is on leadership, whether in the boardroom, the first team or around the club.
“You can challenge yourself and solidify your own thinking in certain areas,” says Stewart. “One of the greatest experiences is being around other people from a similar environment but with different challenges. You learn about the energy in the room.
There is a lot of coming and going in the room. There is a discussion of the All Blacks rugby team’s ‘no-heading policy’.
“It’s the s— that we have to deal with sometimes,” one of the band members says as the room lights up with laughter. “What if the guy making this policy is the d—head himself?” someone said, with a few knowing looks around the room. There are deep discussions about dealing with tragedy within clubs and there is regular talk of the importance of a work-life balance, which seems almost impossible in an all-consuming role.
“If you want to let it take 24 hours out of your day, that can do it,” says one cohort. One exercise is to listen for a full minute without interruption to another person’s journey to where they are now and the obstacles they have faced (it’s harder than it sounds). “Have any of you done this with a new signature?” asked FA technical director John McDermott. Silence.
Job security, like for a manager, is non-existent
The course was launched under the leadership of Dan Ashworth and there might be Lego and a game of Dobble, but the fundamental underpinning of it all is leadership in a club.
“Part of our intention is to help you do your job well, keep your job and thrive,” said Phil Church, the FA’s Senior Professional Coach Development Manager. “We have brilliant talent and the lane is something we can look to influence. We have high performing artists and high potential and people should take notice. One part changes the narrative.