What football can learn from AFL

Have Your Say: Football fan Stephen Suttie says the world game can take some tips from Aussie Rules in recruitment.

Football clubs in this day and age regularly preach that football is now a business, not a sport.

That in itself is a topic for another day, but the main contradiction is that if it’s a business, why do the majority of clubs hire their most important person-the manager-without a well executed plan and process?

Do successful business’ fire a CEO one day and appoint a new one two days later? Not generally.

European football could learn alot about hiring the right man – and therefore increasing the chances of long term success – by following a solid process from Australian Rules Football (AFL).

In the late 1980’s, AFL used to follow a similar hiring process to which football uses in most cases currently. A coach was sacked one day and a new man appointed within days.

However, this started to change in the 1990s as clubs started to treat their clubs like a business, focussing on vitals like long term sustainability, stability and succession plans.

Coaches soon became head-hunted, and in interviews prospective coaches had to outline their vision and strategy for the future.

Currently, those applying for coaching positions have to undergo more than one interview, discussing where they think the club is at currently, where they want to take the club and most importantly, how they are going to achieve that.

This process lasts a couple of weeks at the minimum but generally results in hiring the right man, which becomes a win/win because the coach will likely get a longer shelf life and the club seeks the stability a long term coach brings.

If we compare that lengthy process to the one we see in European football then we notice some drastic differences. In most cases, if a club hasn’t appointed a new manager in two weeks then they are portrayed by the media to be sluggish.

As a result of the pressure, the hiring process has often been as simple as a Chairman phoning an agent to check availability of a candidate.

There seems to be very little screening process involving questions such as,”This is where we are at, and this is where we want to get to. Can you achieve that and how?”, What culture and values will you bring to the club to enhance our brand?” and “What went wrong in your last job?”

The reason I include the third question is because it has always baffled me as to why managers who get sacked at most of their jobs always seem to find a new club keen to secure their services.

Two great examples are Graeme Sounness and Claudio Ranieri. Souness has managed eight clubs and was either sacked or left on bad terms with six of them. Ranieri has been sacked in four of his last six jobs, and the other two he left under extreme pressure following poor results. This doesn’t deter clubs though, and Ranieri has just been hired by one of Europe’s biggest clubs.

The recycling of sacked coaches is an area the two codes differ dramatically.

In recent times, sacked AFL coaches have seemingly been black-listed. Former coaches such as Terry Wallace, Matthew Knights and Rodney Eade have not been close contenders for any vacant posts since, as clubs prefer to choose untried, former assistant coaches.

In 2012, only two coaches in the AFL will have coached more than one club, and both of those are only at their second club.

Contrast that to the EPL where Harry Redknapp is at his fifth job and Steve Bruce is at his fourth club. Alan Pardew is probably the best example of hiring gone mad, even though he is seemingly doing a good job currently.

Having been sacked at West Ham and Southampton, and leaving Charlton Athletic by “mutual consent” soon after his own fans stayed behind for an hour after a match to chant “We want Pardew out”, Pardew landed the manager’s job at Newcastle some 48hours after it sacked Chris Hughton.

Having a good track record and passing a process to find the best man for the job is not always required, it seems.

The Counter argument is that top line clubs in Europe can’t afford to take drastic risks by appointing an unknown or unproven manager as the repurcussions are far greater.

In AFL, if things go horribly wrong, worst case scenario is you sack the coach mid-season and have a caretaker for the rest of the season. If you finish bottom then all that happens is you get the first pick of the young talent in the next seasons draft, plus you get a little bit of embarrassment at finishing last.

In Europe, big clubs do not want to risk finishing bottom because then they get relegated to a lower division and the club can collapse from that point. Leeds United is the classic example of that. They were a Premier League powerhouse until they sold a few key players, had some bad injuries and the resultant poor form ended with relegation.

Being relegated also means your assets (players) are de-valued. Players who are part of a non-performing team are likely to be worth much less now than what was paid for them in the prior years.

So how can clubs solve the woes and get out of the mediocrity they are stuck in? Find a successful model and copy it.

The two longest serving managers in England were not hired overnight or on a whim. They were sought out and the clubs ensured they were the right fit for the club.

Early in his tenure, Sir Alex Ferguson was under pressure from the media as things weren’t going too well, but those who hired him had a plan and a vision and stuck to it. That patience and belief in the plan is what has helped propel Manchester United to be a European powerhouse.

The other is Arsene Wenger. When Arsenal were looking for a manager, they decided on Wenger but he was working in Asia at the time and wasn’t prepared to leave his job there. Arsenal would have to wait a few months to get him, but they were prepared to do that because they thought he was the right fit for what the club wanted to achieve.

That turned out to be a very good decision, and I wonder how many other clubs would have been prepared to be manager-less for months to ensure they go their man.

Both appointments had a plan and a process and both have been very successful. Barcelona will be the next club to follow this formula.

Pep Guardiola has announced he will leave his managers post at Barcelona at the end of this season so Barcelona have enough time to seek out a replacement who can carry on his success and legacy for years to come.

The biggest European clubs understand the importance of a plan and having patience executing it. AFL understands it, too. Perhaps one day, it will become the norm rather than the exception for the majority of European clubs.

This Have Your Say article was written by fan Stephen Suttie.