12 Min Read
May 02 2023
A role of High Performance Specialist with FIFA is a clear indication of the expertise which Richard Allen has amassed in his international football experience. As a talent identification and development specialist, he has achieved consistent success leading football projects with clubs, associations & universities across Europe, Asia & North America.
Allen recently sat down with the Association of Sporting Directors (ASD) to discuss his career progression and the insights he has gained between roles. This began with two decades working in a different sector before a transition into elite football.
“I began working at the Crown and Manor Club when I was 20 years old and within six months, I became the club manager. The youth club was founded by Winchester College and the board members were all well connected in different industries. Moving into a management role so young was a great learning curve. The variety of work is something which stood me in good stead throughout my career. For instance, at the club one moment I was a youth worker facing some horrific and some fantastic situations with our young members, their parents, police, etc., and the next moment I was having dinner with committee members and potential sponsors. It prepared me well for situations I would face in academy roles with Tottenham Hotspur and Queens Park Rangers.
The Crown and Manor Club has a history of members achieving remarkable things in sport. We had runners who would eventually compete at the Commonwealth Games, wrestlers who represented Great Britain at the Olympics and boxers who won national and world championships. The strongest and most popular sport remained football, so we started an academy which was a forerunner at the time. Local children would train with us and study a qualification at our college which, whilst more common now, was one of the first of its kind. This led to my first connection with Japan as we had Japanese children traveling for the same programme but to learn English.
It was an inspirational programme we set up there as many of the players have since had successful careers. These include Mehmet Ali, currently the Arsenal U21s manager, and Michael Donaldson, currently the Reading U18s manager and previously an assistant manager to Mauricio Pochettino.
More and more people connected to the programme were working in football which is what initiated my career transition. Through these connections forged over time, I began doing some scouting and opposition analysis for the England Football Association (FA) which eventually led to working as a team liaison officer for visiting youth international teams. That role gave me the opportunity to absorb the work being done by coaches with underage teams such as Spain and Netherlands to bring back to the youth club.
I think working at Crown and Manor gave me a real insight and experience into working with different cultural groups. Hackney is a real melting pot culturally and working with staff and young people from different communities has helped me appreciate the importance of diversity and inclusion and the positive impact of embracing difference can have within football.”
These unique and formative experiences are the foundation of a career that has taken Allen across continents at the top of the game. His first foray directly into football came at Tottenham Hotspur.
“I was probably a left field appointment into my role at Tottenham Hotspur, but I had gained 20 years’ experience before entering professional football. My previous experience made me aware of how to manage people, identify players of international football quality and, most importantly for the role, know London well. As mentioned, having dealt with a variety of personal situations of young men and attended meetings with youth club executives prepared me well for elite sports. No matter if I was working with a team of volunteers or liaising with Tony Fernandes or Daniel Levy, I knew how to manage those relationships.
Following roles in academy football, Allen became Head of Talent Identification at the FA. He played a key role in the FIFA U17 World Cup win. The England Under-17 team that won the tournament included Phil Foden, Jadon Sancho, Callum Hudson-Odoi, Emile Smith Rowe, Marc Guehi, Conor Gallagher & Morgan Gibbs-White.
“There were lots of changes in how we identified talent at the FA. One of the things I was heavily involved in was bringing players into the international set-up at a younger age. In the past we started out with the Under-16s for the boys, and I was tasked with facilitating a shift to the Under-15s. That meant devising selection criteria, recruiting the players and planning what we wanted to achieve and the most effective way to achieve that. It also included quite a bit of talking with and persuading football clubs that the strategy was smart and there were some that were adamant they did not want to create international footballers at 14 years old. This was already a tough conversation when players were called up aged 15. However, I understood their challenges from my time as an academy director which influenced how we looked at the match programme.
Being able to watch players like Phil Foden and know just how talented they were at 14 years old allowed us to watch the group evolve and develop into a winning team. It was an exciting time with Steve Cooper managing the group and resources prioritised for performance. When we won the FIFA U17 World Cup in 2017, it was not just because we had a facility like St. George’s Park, specialist coaching or an expanded talent identification department. Through the Talent ID courses at the FA, we created much stronger relationships with clubs. This allowed us to get access to all these talented players at the same time for the tournament. It was typical in the past for some talented players not to go with the team because at least one of the individuals or clubs saw a pathway into the first team and were not prepared to sacrifice a month of pre-season and potential minutes in senior football. A youth World Cup is a valuable experience but so is playing four of five Premier League or UEFA Champions League games. So it was critical to get the timing right which we did and several players from that squad have since moved on to represent the England senior national team which was always a key objective.
After achieving such success in English football and a spell as Director of Football at Loughborough University, Allen accepted a new challenge overseas. In early 2022, he became Technical Advisor for Yokohama FC and spent over a year in Japan. During this period the club won promotion back to the J1 League, the top division of Japanese football.
“I had always wanted to work outside of the UK and because of the links I had there, Japan was always at the back of my mind. When the opportunity came up there were a few questions that naturally arose. It is a long way away from home so can I be away from my family for that period of time? Will I be able to work effectively in this new environment? Ultimately, I had always thought about and wanted this type of experience, so I decided to make the jump.
I had been visiting Japan once a year for the last 20 years, so I understood the culture changes to expect. The way business is done there is different to Europe. Respect is crucial so you cannot lose control for a moment and raise your voice to people. They do not appreciate directness, so you have to go around the houses, as it were.
Japan as a country is sophisticated in many ways yet old-fashioned in many others. One can imagine that everything is modern there and it is not. They have companies operating globally which employ massive numbers of people, but they can be slow moving. That is the same with football clubs which can cause some strategic issues. For example, they are very loyal to the people they employ which means you can have some older players who from a sporting perspective should be let go but because they are seen as stalwarts of the club, they are almost rewarded for that through contracts. However, I was fortunate that the club I went to was very open minded.
Yokohama FC are owned by a large company specialising in food production and delivery. Whilst not the same size of a Nissan or Toyota, it was a significant organisation. The club is managed in an interesting way in that the CEO is rotated. An individual will come from the ownership company and act as CEO of the club for one or two years. They will then go back to the company as another individual begins their term. It turned out that the CEO when I arrived was a different person to the one I had been talking with prior to starting. They had appointed a new General Manager who did not know I was going to be there or who I hadn’t met or spoken with.
The importance of networks came up again in an interesting way because one of the top agents in Japanese football, Endo Takashi, was my assistant for a period at Crown and Manor. So when I arrived in Japan I rang him and we went to dinner. He was a friend of the recently appointed General Manager and spoke with him to explain who I was and what the plan was. Having that connection was helpful to avoid confusion or difficulties within the club. One of the things I quickly realised during this early period was the importance of having a competent interpreter and translator because I don’t speak Japanese. I wish I did because it would have made life easier. In that situation you are very dependent on that person to clearly communicate your messages in the exact way you want. It can cause issues if certain parts of what you are saying are not included or if extra things you did not say are added to their translation.
From a football perspective, the quality there is high. Baseball is the most popular sport in Japan. However, football is growing in participation and the women’s game is particularly strong given their competitiveness on the world stage. The majority of the men’s international team are now playing in Europe. This has led clubs to look at player development models leading to player sales that can be reinvested back into the domestic league system. Most foreign players are brought in from Brazil. This was a challenge because they are seen as technically strong players who can hit the ground running without being overly expensive. Moving towards a more proactive player recruitment model and away from a reliance on player agents was something we worked on.
I think Japan is going through a similar period to what we have seen in England. They have introduced a project called Japan DNA which is very similar to the Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP). They are really looking to improve the quality of academies and youth player development.
Allen is a longstanding member of the Association of Sporting Directors. He continues to see the importance of support, connection, and development for individuals in technical leadership roles.
“I have been a member of the Association of Sporting Directors for a long time and remember Dan Ashworth and I linked it to our Level 5 Technical Directors course at the FA. I attend as many in-person and online events as I can because it is CPD for me.
Leaders need to continue developing. We have a duty to create a culture where self-development is the norm, and it is very difficult to encourage people in your team to buy into that without setting an example. To achieve that we must support people to think about how they can grow professionally so that the organisation can develop as well.”
During his time in Japan, Allen began working on FIFA’s Talent Development Scheme as a High Performance Specialist. This allowed him to leverage previous relationships and expand his network in another football environment.
“Football is great for connecting with people. I was fortunate that I already knew some people before arriving in Japan and my role with FIFA came up at the same time. That allowed me to create and develop links into places like Hong Kong and Australia whilst working in other regions with the Japan FA. That is what football is about, isn’t it? Creating such strong networks you can lean on when you need it. It is really helpful to have those people in your personal black book.
I’m happy to be a part of the Talent Development Scheme with FIFA which will only continue to grow. Many countries have joined and we are making a difference on the ground through our management development programmes. That is taking a lot of my focus. However, I am also working on other consultancy projects, such as supporting the Finland FA with their UEFA Pro License courses.
Allen’s global insight and experience in elite football is demonstrated in the success of his career. Now, between his role with FIFA and varied consultancy work, he continues to be at the forefront of football talent identification and development.
This article was composed by Matthew Macdonald and Colm Hand.
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