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The Business Of Football Recruitment

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The Business Of Football Recruitment

I was inspired to write a blog today after listening to the Blackpool Football Club chairman Karl Oysten give an interview on Talksport to defend his club's summer 'recruitment' (or lack of) policy.

It got me thinking about the parallels between the recruitment of managers and teams in football and how it compares to business.

I’d like to consider three different models of football recruitment in this blog;

  • The Talent Pooling 'plan in advance' model
  • The Contingent ‘last minute' model
  • The Just in Time 'value' model

1) The Talent Pooling model

Managerial change is frequent amongst football clubs, so the ability to plan long term is often hindered. But the emergence of the role of Director of Football (the football equivalent of an internal recruitment director) and investment in academies, means that even if managers come and go, some clubs are able to achieve a consistent approach to player recruitment.

On the player front; 

Chelsea has managed to target and buy good young talent at an early age such as promising Belgian’s Thibaut Courtois and Romelu Lukaku. Both have been loaned out to other clubs to get additional real world experience; which in the case of Courtouis has seen the emergence of a world class goalkeeper to replace Peter Cech as he enters the twilight of his career and in the case of Lukaku has reaped a handsome £18m profit for the club after a successful loan spell at Everton was made permanent.

Southampton on the other hand has taken the 'develop your own approach' to recruitment. By investing in a state of the art academy, coaching and scouting network they have been able to climb the league structure by selling their prize youth team assets and reinvesting in their team as a whole. Players like Walcott, Bale, Chamberlain and Shaw have made the club a collective £60 million and this summer alone Southampton have received fees in excess of £100m.

Business Equivalents - These are the business equivalents of creating a company graduate scheme or taking on placement students. By targeting talent early and investing heavily in L&D and giving young talent exposure to different parts of the business you get the pick of the crop of graduates, who will fuel the future success of your business.

On the Managerial Front;

Liverpool - in English Football the Liverpool boot room is the most famous production line of successful managers. A series of managers; Bill Shankly, Bob Paisley, Joe Fagan and Kenny Dalglish were groomed for the top job whilst being steeped in the values and traditions of the club. It’s no coincidence that during Liverpool’s most successful era where they won multiple championships and European Cups in the 70’s and 80’s, successive managers were appointed from within. Each brought new ideas and personality, but all within the framework of a certain style of football.

Business Equivalents – The business equivalent of this is the family business. On the Forward Role Bolton office's doorstep Warburtons is the UK's 2nd biggest consumer brand behind Coca Cola.  A family business with generation after generation of the Warburton family playing an active role in the management and values of the firm their secret recipe isn’t just in the production of bread, but also in the integrity of the brand which has remained consistent by retaining the same values of product and service quality;

2) The Contingency model

In reality, this is the approach that most football clubs use to recruit. As managers come and go, and the ever increasing riches of sky TV money ramps up the pressure on chairman to protect against relegation or not making the champions league, managers (and with them players) are cast aside at an alarming rate.

The cost implication of this is incredible. Large compensation pay outs to managers, the sale of players who were bought (sometimes months) previously for vastly greater sums, replaced by managers and players awarded large signing on bonuses and lengthy contacts have left the game in a spiral of debt.

It’s not a sustainable model and the only escape from the spiral for the majority of clubs is administration or the sale of a club to a wealthy investor.

On the player front;

Manchester United has been most guilty of panic buying in recent times. After a couple of wasted months last summer courting Cesc Fabregas and various world class midfield play makers who plainly didn't want to join the club, new manager David Moyes paid £27.5m for Marouane Fellaini in the final hours of the transfer window. Fellaini is a player not really in the mould of his other targets and cost £5.5m more than he could have signed him for a few months earlier (according to a release clause in his contract) and his performances were a disaster.

In the January transfer window Moyes was at it again; signing Juan Mata for £37.1 million even though with Rooney and RVP fit he didn't really seem to have room for him in his regular formation. This summer expect Fellaini to be sold at a large loss and new Manchester United boss Louis Van Gaal to create an opening for Mata by changing his formation.

Business Equivalent The business equivalent is a rushed hire to replace a key member of staff. Making a key decision in haste or without a proper shortlist means you can easily make the wrong choice or hire a candidate without doing the necessary amount of due diligence or referencing. Getting a recruitment decision wrong can be a very expensive mistake, and it can cost you your job! Just ask David Moyes.

On the Manager front;

Wolverhampton Wanderers - The worst managerial sacking award of all time has to go to Wolves for the decision to relieve Mick McCarthy of his duties in the 2012 season. Call McCarthy what you like, but he was a manager with limited resources helping a club punch above its weight. Chairman Steve Morgan’s biggest mistake however, was not having a plan in place to replace him. After weeks of trying to coax big name managers to the club (or any name for that matter) Morgan was forced to offer the role to coach Terry O'Connor. Sadly Terry was way out of his depth and a managerial disaster. With no wins and just 4 points from 13 games Wolves finished last and were relegated in consecutive seasons.

Business Equivalent – the business equivalent is promoting internally without a suitable candidate. An internal promotion can be a huge political win for a business, but if this approach is taken as a cost saving exercise or panicked approach the business can leave itself exposed. It always pays to benchmark internal candidates with external if you’re not sure.

3) The ‘Just in Time’ model;

This is a recent innovation in football, pioneered by the aforementioned Karl Oysten; Blackpool chairman and majority owner.

On the player front;

Blackpool has developed its own ‘just in time’ approach to recruiting players. Whilst it’s fairly normal for clubs to sign a number of players towards the end of the transfer deadline as the season opener approaches, recruiting half a team in the last week before the start of the season is something of an innovation.

Oysten has been widely criticised by the club’s fans, president and large portions of the media, but what he’s doing is if nothing else a great way to get value for money in the transfer market. Oysten claims that he can save up to £200k per new player in signing on fees and wages using his approach. Which multiplied across a whole squad is a considerable saving.

In a division (the Championship) with over £2 billion worth of debt distributed amongst the majority of the clubs, Blackpool stand proudly as a cash rich, debt free club. Oysten believes it is this prudent approach to recruitment which has helped them remain so. By waiting till the last minute when bigger clubs have decided on their squad and started to release loan players and player’s surplus to requirements, Oysten is gambling on last minute bargains.

I hope his gamble pays off, it’s a brave move because with a disrupted pre-season programme and so many new faces to bed in, it remains to be seen how successful a start the club will make to their season. It’s telling that the bookmakers make them favourites for relegation.

One thing that is indisputable is that Karl Oysten has to win the award for most innovative chairman and best negotiator. He is certainly on the opposite end of the scale to former Leeds chairman Peter Ridsdale who once famously offered Seth Johnson £20,000+ more in wages per week than he was asking for.

Business Equivalent The business equivalent to this practice is a company using contractors to give them flexibility of resource and to control their fixed costs. The difference is there is often a premium attached to employing contractors in the business world. We work on this basis with one of our biggest blue chip clients. They use contractors at times of peak demand in their ECRM function. And the best performing contractors are often rewarded with a permanent contract!


A football club, like a business ideally needs a mix of methods to develop the most effective recruitment policy. A long term vision of resourcing requirements allowing for talent pooling and the development of high calibre internal talent is the recruitment utopia, but the reality is that resource requirements are an ever changing dynamic. Having the means to recruit high quality temporary staff (loan stars) or permanent staff is an important part of the mix for any business that needs its staff to be a key differentiator. That’s why a good network of football scouts and agents or a trusted recruitment partner who understands your business is vital to its success.

Steve Thompson is the MD of Forward Role recruitment. He has used a variety of the above models to find the best talent for his clients over the past decade in Marketing, Digital, Creative and Analytics in the North West. He’s also a huge fantasy football geek and would like to invite all clients to join the Forward Role fantasy premier league; League Code 621373-156717. Follow him at @ForwardRole_Ste