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Morling highlights the important relationship between Academy Manager and Sporting Director

John Morling, most notably known for his role as Academy Manager at Brighton and Hove Albion from 2012 to 2022 has had a remarkable career to date in the industry.

Morling played a pivotal role in guiding the Seagulls through challenging times, contributing to the club’s growth and success, seeing them become a well-established Premier League club, producing talent from within.

In his time as Academy Manager, Morling was involved in bringing in players such as Evan Ferguson, Jayson Molumby and Aaron Connolly to the club, who all went onto become senior Ireland internationals. Other players to come through the Academy with Morling at the helm include now established professionals and senior internationals such as Ben White, Robert Sanchez and Viktor Gyrokeres.

Morling spoke to the Association of Sporting Directors shortly before being confirmed as the new Technical Director at the Hong Kong FA. In the interview, Morling discussed his career up to date and enlightened us on his journey.

“I played at Norwich from under 11 to under 16 and then I went to Scarborough for a year. But while I was at Norwich I used to travel from London and started coaching on summer camps and later at private academies. One was in Norfolk, one was in North Wales, all the time I was trying to develop my coaching experience while also earning a bit of pocket money. And then my first coaching job was at Peterborough United when I was 19, and so I had already done my preliminary badge by that time. Then by 21, I was Director of the Centre of Excellence at Peterborough”, Morling opened with.

Morling’s early start in coaching afforded him with a head starts of sorts over many of his peers. This was illustrated by the attaining his full badge coaching qualification as the second youngest behind Graham Taylor at the time. 

“And there was a coaching badge called the ‘Full Badge’ at that time, and I managed to get it quite early in my career due to the fact I started coaching when I was young, and I had done quite a lot of hours on a grass by the time. I coached at every age from under 9s to first team in my 12 years there and was very valuable to what would lie ahead.

Then I left Peterborough to go to the Football Association of Ireland as Player Development Manager. While at Peterborough, we always had a lot of Irish players and I had a good relationship with Brian Kerr who was the Senior Manager with the Ireland squad. So, with that I moved to Ireland and then was there for seven years, setting up the Emerging Talent Program which at the time was for 15/16/17-year-olds and it extends to younger groups now. I then became Coach of the Under 15’s, Under 16’s and Under 17’s national teams which was brilliant, working with some great people and I really, really enjoyed the time there.

I then came back to be Academy Manager at Brighton and at that point we were training at seven different venues across Sussex. The club had just moved into the Amex Stadium but had no training ground. Then over the course of 10 years that progressed to a Category Two Academy and then Category One. Now of course it is a quite well-established academy and would have made a few million along the way.

After Brighton, I set up my own consultancy business and went back to the FAI, working with them for nine months alongside their new Director of Football and fellow ASD member, Marc Canham. And I also then started looking at recruitment in South America. I really wanted to educate myself in terms of how the football ecosystem works there. I enjoyed looking at different playing styles and strategies, as you do not often get time to do things like that while full time at a club, but I have been lucky. I started to really look at different countries in South America. I started to look at player ID in terms players aged between 18 and 22. I started to build up some good networks through coaches and agents and I was primarily looking at players that I felt could do well in England. I then was able to rule out the ones who are with the top agencies and looked at the ones with smaller agencies who would not necessarily have contacts in England. Likewise, I was able to link them with clubs that would not have the resources to scout in South America.

Being a developer of people, be that staff or players, I carried on mentoring some coaches and players from academy coaches to first team staff and players from clubs in both the EFL and Premier League”, Morling added.

During Morling’s time at Brighton, the club has gone through huge changes both on and off the field. Joining the club in 2012, Morling mentioned how the club’s facilities were not quite up to date. Overseeing such a transformation, Morling discussed about how this structural change came about and some of the key differences of when he first arrived to when he departed.

“David Burke was the Director of Football at the time I joined, Gus Poyet was the Manager, Paul Barber was the CEO and Tony Bloom, the Chairman who would have had a vision of where we wanted to take the club, how we would resource it and the timelines within that. And part of that was to grow the Academy.

So we started to grow the Academy in terms of we went from Centre of Excellence to Category Two, and which was the part of the Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP) laid out by the Premier League. Part of going towards Category Two involved raising the bar across all departments which meant increasing our staff quite significantly and improving the coaching program to include things like education, welfare, psychology, all the support services that you would normally see with most academies now,” Morling said.
Morling stated that a key target when he arrived at Brighton was to improve their academy. This was a key strategic objective for the Club and Owner.

 “We got particularly good marks in Category Two early on and we then decided as a club and as an academy that there would be a small window of opportunity to maybe go to Cat One the following year. We then sat and spoke to all the staff and laid down a challenge really to say, look, do you think we could go to a Cat One, we then put it to the Chairman at the time and he fully supported us. It involved having to increase in terms of staffing, we know the training ground was coming down the line and then we went for it. But at the same time, we knew that if we did get it we might struggle as some of the teams might not have had the quality needed to be a sustainable Cat One academy at that particular time. So therefore, the recruitment department had to be built out quite significantly. So, the department grew significantly along with then development centres around Sussex, development centres in South London, national recruitment, international recruitment which grew that talent pool.

The academy has been very successful and some of the players playing for the first team now would have been products of what was set up a long, long while ago and a lot of people would have had parts to play in that across various departments where we look to many small percentage gains. Everyone’s small percentages add up to a player making their debut, and someone making their debut, a lot of people don’t realise or forget that there’s hundreds of games and thousands of training sessions that have gone before that,” explained Morling.

As Academy Manager at Brighton, Morling was responsible for assisting the club in potential transfers of academy players. Morling has developed his expertise in this area, ensuring all players fit the Brighton vision of developing young talent through first team football, either to play a vital role in the first team, or to sell on for profit.

Morling mentioned how he loved the feeling of somebody making their debut and credits the other staff behind the scenes who also work had to get that player to that stage of first team football.

“When someone makes their debut, it’s magnificent, a great feeling. There are so many people who play a part in a player’s journey and sometimes it can be interesting to sit down with players and go through it. And in some cases, there could be 50-60 people that might have been involved in their journey along the way. It’s interesting to listen to players talk about staff who made significant impacts on their career for varying reasons, and some may surprise you. I would always say to them to go and tell them one day as it would mean a lot to those staff members.

In the last two years I was at Brighton, we had the highest number of academy minutes in in the Premier League, so that’s brilliant, and that has been continued by the great staff there now and when you have a vision from the Chairman to the Manager, connected through the academy and relevant other departments. The real skill is then to bring the vision to life”, Morling continued.

The relationship between Sporting Director and Academy Manager is a very important bond and is often a key ingredient of success at any football club. The Academy Manager is responsible for implementing the club’s youth development strategy and driving the academy’s performance against the objectives set out by the board.

 It is important that the Academy Manager implements the vision set by the Sporting Director into the academy, so players can come through and align to the Club’s playing philosophy when they make the step up to the first team.

Morling mentioned how his relationship with different Sporting Directors / CEO’s during his time at Brighton shaped his work in the academy.

“We didn’t have a Director of Football for a long time, and I would report into the CEO at that point, which would have been quite probably a linear management of look in terms of Paul (Barber) would have had various reports across the club, not just on the football side.

We would then come together quarterly in terms of everyone on the football side for technical board meetings and then as we grew there was a need for a Director of Football and Dan (Ashworth) came in. Dan spoke quite openly about how he works, and he works in a slightly different way, where he would see himself in the middle of a wheel and the heads of departments would be on the outside. His job was specific to the to the football side, so that was probably when our relationship with a Sporting Director evolved, from reporting into CEO to then reporting into Sporting Director. So, we knew as an academy what we were contributing to the overall aim of the of the club, same with medical, same with recruitment, through a V Most Model” explained Morling.

After leaving his role at Brighton in 2022, Morling re-joined the FAI as a Consultant. Familiar with working with the national team from earlier on in his career, he mentions some of the key differences in working for a national team against working for a club.

Working in national level is different in terms of your time is magnified. So as a coach, your time management on the pitch is really tested because you might only get three sessions with the players before you go into a game and you might be a playing a top nation or European Championship game. So, you’ve got to get your points over very quickly, it’s got to be very focused, it’s got to be to the point. It still needs to be enjoyable for the players, but your messages really need to be clear and concise. But it really is a balance of not overloading the players either and ensuring they know their task without being overwhelmed. It’s important that there is a stepping stone to the next stage group and the age group. After that, the ultimate aim for all youth development programs is to have players in the first team or players playing professional football.

You want to succeed at European Championship level, you also then must make sure that the players are getting the tools they need to go to the next age group and that there is a joined-up path to senior international football. Now, with club football, you have so much more time with the players because if you’re talking about young players, they’re in four or five days / evenings a week or they are full time. So, in the club environment you’ve got so much more time to dedicate to technical development, tactical development or to lifestyle development etc. You still must be making sure to make the most of your time, but you just have a lot more time to put the fundamentals in place and it’s totally different in terms of travelling nationally to play games as opposed to internationally. It can be such a great experience for international players to go and experience different cultures, travel around the world and play different fixtures, different philosophies, different referees, different standards, visit interesting places etc,” Morling stated.

In keeping with the ASD’s philosophy of support, connect, develop, Morling explained how he has used different networks and groups to help him along his journey.

“The Premier League run the Elite Academy Managers course, which is really good. I found that it made me a better person, parent and a better leader because it made you think about yourself, evaluate and reflect on yourself. That resulted in strategies to enhance your behaviours and to improve what you do. There you get a chance to access mentors and the mentors I had were really good. And I would highly recommend people to get a mentor, it doesn’t have to be in football, it could be in business or other sports etc. And in terms of helping you become a better leader, no question. And then really, I think you just take it upon yourself to try and educate yourself as much as possible and see as many people as possible.

Meet people, whether it be at clubs of a similar level, higher clubs, clubs in lower leagues, different sports, different elite environments. But I think it’s still important to make time for that because it’s important and that’s how you grow as a person, but also grow your network as well,” Morling continued.

With connections being a strong fundamental part of the ASD, Morling continued to mention how collaborating with others is so important and how membership to the ASD can positively influence his work.

“I think you’re always using your connections for everything you do, and it’s certainly helped me. Then obviously with the ASD Conference at Chelsea (the first global annual conference on Friday 31st May 2024 at Stamford Bridge), opportunities like that will be really good, to come and speak to peers and learn off your peers and get to meet people and just chat and network informally. I don’t think you can get enough of that. And I think if it can be a chance to disclose some of your individual needs or challenges and meet peers who may be able to provide a nugget of advice from their experiences. But also, in terms of development, if you can get to a point where you’re analysing what you need and then you can take steps to improve that, such as reaching out to those in the industry who may be able to help with that given need.

But in every two or three years, your needs will change, and you develop, and you have to keep doing that somehow. Now, whether that is someone doing it for you or whether you are doing that yourself, I think it’s important to keep reflecting and then keep changing and improving what you need. But it is important you know what you need, and you don’t just keep on the grindstone or the continual hamster wheel,” said Morling.

In a career that has been filled with nurturing young talent from the very beginning of their careers, all the way to first team and even international football, Morling spoke on some of the proudest achievements of his career to date.

“Players that come through and play Premier League football or international football is something I am 100% proud of playing a part in, alongside so many others. They are the   ones that everyone sees and they’re all the highlights and it’s great and magnificent and I do have a big sense of pride along with everyone else. A big part of your role as a developer would be staff development and I also enjoy seeing staff develop in the same way as players. Many may progress to the first team or move and progress somewhere else. But there is also pride where I have remained in contact with lots of players who are now in their 30s and 40s. And that’s such a great thing to be able to create a friendship and get to know them as people and their families. It fills you with pride to see them flourish in their own careers, be that in or outside of football. And if you can help each other along the way, brilliant.

At Brighton a parent wrote a letter when their child was released, and they went through all the things that they’d done in their career and all the countries they had visited and all the people that they’ve met. And that’s just as important as someone who’s gone on and made it in the Premier League or made an international debut. And so, there’s varying bits that would make you proud.” stated Morling.

Morling’s track record of nurturing young talent speaks for itself. Being a significant cog in the well-oiled machine that was Brighton, one of the best run clubs over the past 10 years, Morling has shown how important it is everyone at a club needs to be aligned to be successful. Showing his expertise, Morling will prove to be an important part of the future of Hong Kong football following his recent appointment as Technical Director.

The Association of Sporting Directors is a global membership network that supports, connects & develops sports industry leaders. We are proudly supported by our partners; Hudl, Zone7, clubdna, and Ahead in Sport.

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This article was written by Colm Hand and Daniel Harrison. If you would like to feature or recommend someone for our ongoing Insight series, please email [email protected].


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