By chance, over Christmas I’ve been drafting this blog about how desperately Sheffield Wednesday needed a Chief Executive. So it is apt that perhaps the only piece of good news coming out of Hillsborough on New Year’s Day was the appointment of Katrien Meire. It’s long overdue. Although, I should add, that I had originally written this piece about the need for the Chairman’s Thai passion to be delivered with a Yorkshire accent.
After I left my own role at SWFC over 10 years ago, I made a conscious effort to focus on my developing career and not concern myself with goings on at Hillsborough. When you leave a place you’ve grown attached to, it’s too easy to become a hanger-on. But with the club now in my blood, not to mention at the bottom of my road, it’s hard not to have a view on what’s happening there.
So for what it’s worth, and not knowing whether Ms Meire has a Yorkshire accent in her repertoire, here is my view of the top five priorities that should be in the new CEO’s in-tray, aside from the obvious one of a new manager:
1. Sporting director
I agree with many who hold a view that the club badly needs Board level leadership on the football side – but it is neither the football committee that was previously in existence, nor the director of football role I have seen advocated by some commentators, that is required.
Most “big name” football directors are, to be blunt, vastly overpaid failed or wannabe managers, or both. In general, they don’t have the skills needed for this role, and they are not objective enough to carry it out effectively. Just look at the number of former team-mates they tend to appoint.
This should be a vital role overseeing not just manager recruitment but all football-related recruitment and needs to be someone who has been, and is, committed for the long-term. They need to have the organisational skills to manage a network that knows every player and coach in Europe and beyond; how old they are, how much they are paid, when their contract is up, whether they are a good influence in the dressing room. The Sporting Director will be used to dealing with agents and may speak a foreign language or two. Perhaps they will be an ex-pro whose career was ended early by injury or not being good enough and who has dedicated their 20s and 30s to learning the ropes of scouting, coaching and business.
They need to create the philosophy and culture running through the club, from under-7s to the first team; to know when a young player might be ready to break through and factor that into the senior transfer strategy; and to recruit first-team managers who will fit in with the club philosophy.
Plainly, this is a huge and important long-term job, and not one for a failed or wannabe manager looking for a short-term pay cheque.
2. Youth set-up
Linked to the above, fundamental questions need to be asked about whether the current Wednesday Academy set-up can halt the failures that go back decades. For a club that aspires to be in the Premier League, its record in producing Premier League players is pitiful, and embarrassing compared to our neighbours across the city and the production line that is Barnsley’s system.
Who was the last player to come right through the Owls’ youth set-up to have a good Premier League career? Jamie Vardy doesn’t count – he was bombed out at 16 and made his own way. Neither do Chris Brunt or Glenn Whelan, bought in as young pros. I can’t think of one who has come right through from Middlewood to have a consistent career in the top two divisions in recent years.
3. A slick back office
Hopefully this is one reason for the appointment of Ms Meire. I don’t think many football clubs are all that slick behind the scenes, and people who have dealt with Wednesday recently report a set-up that is hamstrung by the need to refer upwards for even the smallest decision to be made. There are also reports that the club that has let good staff go without replacing them, adequately or otherwise.
This season’s kit debacle was a telltale sign of a reported lack of capacity behind the scenes. Writing after the Burton horror show, sacking a manager on Christmas Eve without having someone else lined up for the busy holiday fixtures and, more importantly, the vital transfer window is looking another.
4. The right price
I was lucky enough to be invited into a executive box for a recent game at Hillsborough. But it was desperately sad to see the third floor almost empty for a game. Those suites used to be buzzing on a matchday in my time there.
The sky high prices are limiting regular attendances as well as corporate income. The policy of aiming for the sky, and charging prices to suit, is clear and, to some extent, plausible. But it fails a basic understanding of Sheffield people generally and their financial circumstances at present. The first rule of business is that a product is worth what people will pay for it, not necessarily what you might want to charge. Thousands, maybe millions of pounds of income is being lost because the price is wrong.
5. A full stadium
Linked to the above, it is far too simplistic to say it’s as easy as 40,000 people paying £20 being better than 20,000 people paying £40. But a fuller stadium has the knock on benefits of more programme, merchandise and food sales (perhaps through “bundle” tickets which include a pie and a drink). And, when times get tougher on the pitch, a little more goodwill. Creating a feelgood factor around the club, on and off the pitch, creates a virtuous circle and buys managers, and chairmen, time and greater understanding when results aren’t quite so good.
I wish Ms Meire well in her new job – for I feel the role is vital for the long-term health of the club. Since the very early days of Dejphon Chansiri’s ownership, I have been worried that what I experienced under Dave Allen’s chairmanship would be repeated. I got on very well with Dave and don’t have a bad word to say about how he treated me. But my concerns have always been that the tremendous personal commitment of Mr Chansiri to the club would only be appreciated whilst results went well. And when they started to dip, as inevitably happens in any football club at some time, the criticism he would face would prove difficult for such a generous chairman to take. What if Mr Chansiri ever decides he has had enough of bankrolling the club for no reward? Worse still, what if he becomes so disillusioned he becomes an absent owner, but one who cannot be bought out because of the extent of his investment? This isn’t just being wise after the events of the last few weeks. It’s a view I aired on Alan Biggs’ SheffieldLive show early on in the new chairman’s reign.
The success of Mr Chansiri is central to the success of the club. But, just as an English investor in a Thai business might have great ideas but not enough understanding of the local customs and context, so the same is true in reverse. Mr Chansiri could prove to be a great chairman for our club but it will only happen if he has someone with an intense understanding of Sheffield people and the club itself to guide his energy in the right direction.
Hopefully the appointment of Ms Meire is recognition that the chairman needs support around him to maximise the return on his investment, build a successful long-term future, strengthen the day-to-day operations of the club, and protect him and his family from the inevitable pressures of football club ownership.
Hopefully Ms Meire can provide all this. It remains to be seen whether she is the right person to add the Yorkshire accent that the club desperately needs at a senior level.