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Doing things different within professional football: how can the R&D ecosystem allow teams and organisations to continually evolve?


Colm Hand

6 Min Read

Oct 31 2022

Doing things different within professional football: how can the R&D ecosystem allow teams and organisations to continually evolve?

Liam Anderson, Barry Drust & Daniel Parnell

What is it?

Research and development (R&D) can be defined as the generation and translation of new knowledge that involves work directed towards the innovation, implementation, and improvement of processes or strategy. In professional football, R&D happens more than we all think and plays a key role in day-to-day situations. To give an example in football terms, it can occur before and within most football matches. Backroom staff and players identify a problem that the oppositions tactical strategy will have on them. Information is generated and analysed on the opposition’s tactical strategy before the team’s strategy to overcome it is planned and introduced. Backroom staff and players will then analyse and evaluate the intervention before finishing by reporting and reviewing it to see if the strategy or process is something that they will adopt or reject for future use. Although this research process that is not typically documented (or at least disclosed to others) in football, it is likely occurring in many more day-to-day decisions across the entire football club.

Figure 1: Outline of the research process for football R&D as performed by the authors and informed by Action Research (i.e., transformative change through the simultaneous process of taking action and doing research) [Figure from Accord – see here].

Why is it needed and what are the benefits?

Sporting Directors have the challenge of needing to ensure successful performances on a weekly basis, alongside manging medium-to-long-term operational and strategic success across the organisation. With many staff operating ‘on the ground’ for large chunks of the year, working in a fast-past environment and many short-term day-to-day stressors, it’s easy for the decisions, processes and strategies made, to become lost and often remain with individuals rather than the organisation. An individual or team who work ‘off the ground’ or are able to zoom out to consider ‘big picture’ items would be able to dedicate more time and focused effort to strategically offer a different angle on decision making and solving problems.

They would oversee internal and external R&D programmes that are specific to the problems that are present within the organisation and essentially answer football questions for the football club. This would ensure the knowledge and processes created from the R&D are retained, developed, and translated into relevant parts of the organisation in the medium to long term interests of the football club. A turbulent task when various stakeholders in the club are naturally consumed with the impact and feedback on weekly on the field performance. Although each game the club plays is vitally important, strategically implemented R&D will lead to a long term competitive and financial advantage due to better processes and better people within the football club. As such we have seen R&D become a key aspect across the DNA of the functions of many leading Sporting Directors, who are aspiring to create and deliver genuine high-performance environments and deliver value to key stakeholders within the Football R&D ecosystem.

Figure 2: The Football Research & Development Ecosystem (inspired by Budden and Murray,

How is it done?

R&D continually operates within the foundations that support each pillar within the football club. It is performed on a broad level across pillars and throughout deeper investigations into specific problems that each pillar or individuals within the pillar may have. This ‘zooming in’ and ‘zooming out’ approach can be continually performed to assess impact and reassess processes and strategies that have been adopted or rejected. Through identifying key problems that occur over multiple pillars or those that occur within individual pillars, the R&D process is kick started. The individual or team who are responsible for R&D then look to utilise the research process for football R&D (see Figure 1) to help provide solutions that are either adopted or rejected by the individual pillar or club as a whole. Whilst the vast majority of R&D is performed internal to the football club, staff can also collaborate with experts (i.e., University and industry) and use it as part of staff career professional development plans.

Figure 3: Research & Development supporting the departmental pillars that work together to obtain club success. NB: This extends to non-performance environments such as operations, commercial, media and retail.

Return on Investment

Previously football clubs have seen large fees associated with conducting exciting and innovative R&D as prohibitive to initiating new projects, which has ultimately limited its activity. However, at present within the United Kingdom (UK) there is a huge opportunity to utilise a HMRC initiative that aims to enhance and support R&D in businesses. It is a form of corporate tax relief to support companies if they’re working on specific projects to make an advance in science and technology that improves knowledge or develop new processes, products, or services. This opportunity provides a cost-effective method to allow football clubs in the UK to advance their knowledge within their own environment and operate at the forefront of R&D in football globally.


  • R&D occurs in many day-to-day decisions within football clubs, but the knowledge gained is often undocumented and remains with individuals rather than the organisation
  • An individual or team responsible for undertaking R&D, who work ‘off the ground’ can dedicate time to create and retain new knowledge and processes within the football club whilst also translating them for different stakeholders when required
  • R&D staff strategically identify problems both between and within departmental pillars to answer questions for the football club using the research process
  • R&D delivers value to key stakeholders within the R&D ecosystem
  • Utilising a HMRC initiative is an opportunity to springboard UK football clubs to the forefront of R&D globally
  • R&D should be part of the Sporting Directors repertoire as they seek to strategically leverage a competitive advantage for their football clubs

If you would like to discuss some the experiences of the authors, do not hesitate to contact them – Dr Liam Anderson, Professor Barry Drust and Dr Dan Parnell

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