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What does a well structured football club look like?

Steve Wright outlines his thoughts on how a club might be governed and some simple thoughts on who should be talking to whom and about what.

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The recent debacle over whether or not Fawaz Al-Hasawi wants to pick the team for Forest matches raised an interesting point around what the role of the owner or Chairman should be. I think we all agree that he should not have a role in picking the team, but there is perhaps less clear cut opinion on whether he should, as he says he likes to, be speaking regularly to the manager at all. Personally I don’t think that is his role, I think it is another failure in the way the club is structured.

Football clubs are oddities as they operate astride two very different sectors of society. On the one hand they are part of a multi-billion pound industry that has worldwide markets and interests, whilst on the other they are community based associations that have long standing histories and deeply emotionally attached supporters, many of who have inherited a love for their club from previous generations of their families.

This means that they need to have professional management running the business on a day to day basis, but they also need transparent governance processes. This is particularly important when the club is owned by a single wealthy person and the lines between the business and the community can become blurred. In my opinion, and I am clear that it is just an opinion, the club needs both a professional management team and an independent board in order to ensure that it meets the needs of all stakeholders.

Where the owner sits within that structure may depend to some extent on the individual but I would suggest that they should be part of the board, which is responsible for setting the overall vision and corporate plan and how that plan is implemented should the responsibility of the senior management team, led by the Chief Executive. Fawaz, along with his board, should be laying out the high level strategic direction, setting the vision of what Nottingham Forest is and what it aims to achieve. They should then empower the professional team to deliver it.

I realise that this may not be viewed as ideal by the man putting money into the club, but it is essential exactly because a football club should not be a rich man’s plaything to do with as he pleases. It is up to Fawaz as owner to decide how much money he personally wants to spend on the club but whether that is £1M or £100M does not change the nature of the club and its relationship with its community and he needs to accept that as owner, he is merely a steward of something much bigger than his ownership and investment.

It would then be up to the Board to appoint a Chief Executive, set out his/her job description and appraise his/her performance. It would be up to the Board to determine the terms of reference but I would expect them to include signing off a business plan and a financial plan, that identify how the club’s stated vision will be met in practical terms over a period of time. Certain key decisions would only be allowed with the approval of the Board, whilst others would be delegated and the Board would meet with the Chief Executive regularly to assess progress, raise questions and gain assurance. All of this will sound very familiar to anyone who has sat on a Board or worked within a standard governance structure. It is a very simple explanation of how governance works.

I’m deliberately going for simplicity over detail because that seems most appropriate on a blog like this, but again I would expect the CEO to be appointing relevant roles (in some cases with Board involvement) that look something like a Director of Football, a Finance Director and an Operations Manager. The first would be responsible for all football matters including the Head Coach, Academy, Recruitment, Sports Science, Medical, Analytics etc. The FD would pick up financial, risk and governance matters and may also be the right part of the structure for a Club Secretary. Operations would include the non-football things such as ticketing, commercial, merchandising and so on driving the revenue that will support the football.

The Board may want to call upon those senior people for time to time for specific input but would mostly deal with the CEO and would have no need for formal conversations with the Head Coach. It is hard to see any of that at Forest at the moment and if it is all supposed to fall on the shoulders of Fawaz then it is no wonder that it isn’t happening successfully. For a start there is simply too much for one individual in there and secondly he likes to blur the boundaries so that there are no clear roles and responsibilities. Fawaz wants to talk tactics with the manager and he wants to play FIFA with the players, but he isn’t doing the things that the club really needs him to do and that needs to be addressed.