13 Min Read
Aug 10 2023
Like many Sporting Directors, Fergal Harkin’s journey began as a professional footballer. Starting out in his native Ireland before a move to Leicester City whilst also studying at Loughborough University. After a three-year stint in England, Harkin moved back to Ireland where he would enjoy success with Bohemians and Finn Harps before retiring from the game in 2007.
Harkin would then get back into football two years later when he joined Manchester City, first as a Scout and later as Football Partnerships & Pathways Manager. After a highly successful 13 seasons with Manchester City, which had seen them rise to one of the global powerhouses in world football, Harkin decided to take the next step in his career by joining Standard Liege as Sporting Director in May 2022. Harkin has been enjoying the experience of working in a new country and relishing the challenge of working in a new league.
“I just love football; l love the sport. I’ve been so passionate about it from a young age and every opportunity there was to play, I would play. When I left school, I always had a mission to become a professional at as high level as I could, but I probably wasn’t good enough. I decided to go to university and studied PE and Sports Science at Loughborough University. I had an amazing three years there and learned so much about the physical aspects of the sport that helped me grow, develop, and raise my game. In my final year there, I also played for Leicester City’s Reserve Team and signed by the club when I finished my degree. I wasn’t good enough to play at the top level in England and got the opportunity to come back to Ireland. I played in the League of Ireland for nine or ten seasons until injury cut that short. I played with two great clubs, Bohemians and Finn Harps, and loved it immensely. I had opportunities to play in European competitions, win trophies, make some great friends and I just loved the whole experience. While I was playing in Ireland, it was mainly part-time, and I manged to get a job with Nike. They were excellent because as a sports company they encouraged me to play football. They told me that once I reached my targets each month, I could play when I wanted and train when I wanted. So in effect I was a full-time player, but I had a job as well and they complimented each other. Another benefit of it was when I did finish playing football I had a career on the way rather than having to start from scratch like a lot of players do.”
“When I did decide to retire due to injuries, I moved to the UK with Nike and my manager over there was Brian Marwood who, 18 months into my time there, became Director of Football at Manchester City. We had a fantastic relationship and he ended up offering me a job. He said he wasn’t sure what the job would be but that they were trying to build a team that could win something and he wanted me to be a part of it. I admired Brian so much; I loved working with him and he’s someone I really look up to. I joined him at City in 2009 and stayed at the club for 13 seasons, loving every minute. When I joined it was one football club and there were 13 clubs within City Football Group when I left last summer. I had an amazing experience dealing with various aspects of the business such as player recruitment, player development, the academy, the first team and I learned so much during my time there.”
“I then had the opportunity last summer to come to Belgium and work for Standard Liege as Sporting Director. This is probably an opportunity I had been thinking about for a few years but I was trying to find the right club that would allow me to achieve what I wanted to achieve, a club that could win something, a club that had a passionate fanbase. When I spoke to them in a short initial conversation I felt that I would love to do this, and it all happened very quickly after that. I have been here for about six months now, and it’s been really challenging but it’s been great at the same time,” Harkin stated.
As someone who has experienced the game on and off the field, Harkin sees some of the skills from his playing days transfer to the boardroom.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about why I want to keep working in football and I keep coming back to the fact that I just love the game and always have. Whether that’s talking about it with friends, playing it or watching it. I’ve had opportunities for jobs outside of football but I just didn’t have the same passion for it. Throughout all my roles, I always acknowledge how lucky I am to work in the sport I love. I grew up in a little village in County Donegal, I’ve worked at a Premier League club for 13 years and now I’m the Sporting Director of a fantastic club in Belgium” Harkin said.
A key talking point among Association of Sporting Director members is multi-club ownership models and how it can impact the role. Going from City Football Group to Standard Liege in 777 Partners’ multi-club network, Harkin speaks to his experience in such an environment and what he has learned from the challenges that have presented themselves.
“When I joined Manchester City, it was one club. Being part of that journey when clubs are acquired can bring lots of challenges. The key during the growth is communication, being clear on what the strategy is, what the purpose of the club is, and communicating with all the various stakeholders on a regular basis. I think if that is done effectively you can be successful, but you need to communicate a lot and you need to communicate clearly” he added.
While still new to the role, Harkin speaks about some of the biggest issues Sporting Directors are currently facing and the pressures the role can bring.
“I think the challenge Sporting Directors have is very similar to the challenges Managers or Head Coaches face, which is a lack of time. As a Sporting Director you need to have one eye on the game coming up on the weekend and another eye on the future of the club as well as the strategy and structure you are implementing. Too many times I’ve seen that if you don’t win on the weekend, you don’t get time to implement that strategy and structure. There are so many things to consider. When you sit down and write out the job description and priorities of a Sporting Director, the number one is the first team because if you don’t get that right then you won’t have time to do anything in the academy. That’s the biggest challenge that I see. There are so many things you would like to do in the background but ultimately you get judged on how the team plays and no matter what else you are doing and what staff you are recruiting to help develop the players, you are getting judged on the weekend” explains Harkin.
With on-field results being a significant factor at any football club, Harkin goes on to explain how a good relationship with the owners is a key contributor to succeeding in the role. Speaking after an evening Padel session with some of his coaching staff, the Irishman goes on to praise the working relationships between him and his staff at Standard Liege and explains that everyone at the club needs to be on the same page for success to take place.
“Again, I go back to my point on clarity. You need to be clear on what the goal is and when I spoke to the owners, their vision for Standard Liege was what attracted me here. Their vision is to bring this club back to the top of Belgian football and try to compete in Europe. My job was simply to put a plan in place to help us achieve that. But I’m clear in knowing what they want. My relationship with our CEO and with the Chief Financial Officer is excellent and those relationships must be if we are going to achieve this together. It’s not just one person, it’s a collective that determine if we succeed or fail” he said.
Harkin speaks of how he’s used the Association of Sporting Directors (ASD) network to connect and learn as he has made the step up at Standard Liege. Using the ASD as an opportunity to gain knowledge from other Sporting Directors across the globe. Attending events organised by the ASD is a great opportunity for like-minded professionals to gain insights from each other and use this knowledge in their own daily practice.
“Ever since the Association of Sporting Directors was formed, I’ve tried to attend as many events as I can. If I can’t join the online event, I listen afterwards because there’s always stuff you can pick up. There are people coming to these events that have a lot more experience than I have and sometimes you learn what to do and what not to do in certain situations. I find them extremely useful”.
“The networking at the face-to-face events is fantastic to meet similar people that have similar problems. Sometimes it’s just reassuring to know you’re not on your own and that we all have the same issues. The Sporting Director role can be quite a lonely role. Nobody asks you how you are; it’s always ‘how are the players and how is the coach?’ It’s never about you. So it’s nice to meet with colleagues that are in a similar position” explains Harkin.
While networking clearly played a huge role in Harkins’ first year as a Sporting Director, another one of the Association of Sporting Directors’ core values is to help members continuously develop. Harkin speaks on the various tools he uses as he looks to stay ahead of the game and progress his career further.
“I’ve done a lot of work and research. I’ve taken the FA’s Technical Director course, completed my degree, graduated from a master’s degree in business, but it got to the stage where I wanted to implement what I had learned. My experience is not in areas such as data analysis, so I look to surround myself with an expert in those fields. Just like the physio will be the expert in their area and the analyst will be an expert in theirs. And all are encouraged to do their own CPD and spend time learning best practices, new innovations and ways they can develop. I spent a lot of time meeting individuals from football, other sports, and business sectors with different backgrounds that I could learn from. I tend to go to all these people with three key areas that I want to know more about.”
“Those are culture, leadership, and dealing with pressure. All these people had been successful in different areas and it’s interesting when you speak to a lot of them as a lot of common themes come out. They keep it simple, they’re very clear in what they’re doing, and that’s what I am trying to implement. You don’t need to over-complicate things. We need to give a simple, clear message and people need to feel that they are accountable, responsible, and trusted to do their job. That’s probably the biggest thing I’ve learned just from the one-to-one meetings I have had and I still regularly encourage others to do the same.”
After 13 years of working in the UK, moving to Belgium has given Harkin a fantastic opportunity to connect with a new network of people, in keeping with the ASD’s core values. After building up an extensive portfolio of contacts during his time at Manchester City, Harkin mentions how he uses these connections to benefit his present-day role.
“I think the job that I did at Manchester City allowed me to have such a large network. There’s probably not too many people that I’ve met, certainly in clubs, that I haven’t met before. But to have had that connection with them has certainly helped because some of them have been really understanding and have given me advice on working in Belgium and operating in new environments.”
Taking every day as it comes, Harkin is committed to ensuring Standard Liege get back to the top of the Belgian game. While trying to not look too far into the future, Harkin is trying to create a well-aligned club where staff and players are all committed to the same objectives.
“I’m not one of those people that has a five or 10-year plan. I want to wake up every morning and feel like what I’m doing is adding value to the club I’m working for and that they value my work. And that’s the case now. I absolutely love it here; I love the challenge. My family have moved over so everyone is committed to this and we want to make it work. I’m not looking beyond that, I don’t aspire to go here, there, and everywhere. I just want to enjoy what we’re doing now and feel like we’re adding value.”
In his first Sporting Director position, Harkin is thoroughly enjoying the challenge at Standard Liege. After showcasing his ability with Manchester City across 13 seasons of consistent success, he is taking the project at Standard Liege in his stride. Harkin was the first significant appointment at the club since the arrival of 777 Partners as majority shareholder. It’s clear the club are looking to lay the foundations of future success for years to come.
The Association of Sporting Directors is a global membership network which supports, connects, and develops leaders in the football industry. Our ambition is to support our members for the future challenges of the game, develop creative thinking, create knowledge exchange opportunities, and share the latest industry insights. Become part of a powerful global community of directors, all from professional clubs and sporting organisations, who share their perspectives to help our members become better leaders, make more informed decisions, and achieve greater results. To learn more about The Association of Sporting Directors and apply for membership, please visit: associationofsportingdirectors.com/membership/
This article was composed by Colm Hand and Liverpool John Moores University student Daniel Harrison.
Photo credit: The Sun