8 Min Read
Sep 13 2023
Gareth Jennings has a wealth of international experience in elite football. He is currently the Technical Director of the UAE Pro League, Board Member of Grimsby Town FC, a member of the Technical Advisory Board at the FAW, and a Technical Committee member at the Association of Sporting Directors.
Jennings worked as Academy Director at Bristol City before moving to Leicester City in the same role during the 2015/2016 season, which saw the Foxes unexpectedly lift the Premier League title. A stint at Stoke City followed, where he had previously played professionally, before Jennings moved into a role at FIFA.
“I had the opportunity to move to FIFA, as the Head of Technical Leadership, which was a new role. A new department had to be set up and developed, so I was tasked with building a team of experts, internally and externally. We did this over two or three years and implemented a comprehensive program for Technical Directors, High-Performance Directors, and Coach Education Managers. The programme focussed on their own development and providing all technical leaders with a support mechanism. To support the programme we implemented a mentoring program and brought in several consultants that could support within those roles. Mentoring was particularly important for the Technical Directors because the role, which is very similar to that of a Sporting Director in a club environment, can be quite isolated. It was very similar to the support that the Association of Sporting Directors offers their members in terms of recognising how we can support these individuals, regardless of if they are currently working or in-between permanent positions.”
Following his work with FIFA, Jennings would move on to a prominent role in the southern hemisphere as General Manager of High Performance with New Zealand Football. He spoke about some of the challenges working within an international set-up compared to a club environment.
“In an international environment you don’t have access to players all the time as they are in their club environments, but it is similar in terms of the amount of engagement that you must have. You have the FIFA windows for both the men’s and women’s senior national as well as the Under-17s, Under-20s, and Futsal teams. It is constant access with different players in different contexts and it certainly keeps you on your toes! The big difference is you don’t get that daily interaction in the workplace with just one single squad.
New Zealand have players all over the globe. So it’s about how to maintain relationships, work with the players, and that also that extra cog in the wheel where you are directly engaging with their club. We quite regularly had squads, particularly with our women’s team, where 23 players came from 23 different club environments. You are trying to pull them all together and galvanize them but you have a really limited time to spend with them. It’s crucial how you maintain those relationships outside of the FIFA windows too.
The sort of skillsets that you require and the people that you are recruiting for roles are very similar to club environments. Obviously, you want the best people and you want it to be a great environment. You want to make sure that all your data is aligned and that the relationships that you build, top to bottom, are strong and positive” Jennings said.
After leaving New Zealand, Jennings began to support a greater number of football leaders in their development through personal mentorship.
“I have now transitioned out of the role at FIFA and I’m doing some consultancy. I’ve got a FIFA contract and I mentor club Technical Directors. I am a member of the Technical Advisory Board at the Football Association of Wales (FAW) and I also work with a couple of professional clubs globally in an advisory capacity.
I was doing some mentoring during the last year with a Technical Director who is in post at a smaller Member Association. He faces different challenges to that in New Zealand. This Technical Director had been in a Head Coach position in South Korea and China, and then got the role as Technical Director. He needed support around the leadership elements; how you deal with some of the relationships and the politics of being a Technical Director.
And I have also been supporting a high profile Technical Director. He’s currently out of work but we have an ongoing relationship where I’m just supporting him outside of the role. To be honest, even though I am mentoring him in terms of his development and how his progression, I feel that I get as much out of it as he does. We bounce ideas off each other and obviously it builds on my network which is great” added Jennings.
Jennings now finds himself in a new role as Technical Director of the UAE Pro League. This is another step in his international leadership journey within elite football.
“In my current position with the UAE Pro League, we are working across all 14 clubs with a clear objective to improve performances on the pitch. This is obviously quite broad in terms of the range of factors that will contribute to on-pitch performance, so my work encompasses supporting all the sporting operations for clubs such as developing high performance cultures, staff recruitment, talent identification and player development. We want to implement a long-term strategic plan for football domestically in the UAE that is sustainable but aligns with the international growth of the game.”
Recounting his vast experiences working within the game, Jennings spoke about the key aspects to being an effective Sporting Director.
“I think it’s recognising the priorities. It’s the same for everybody; recognising that moment in time where you need to check ‘what are my priorities now?’ Then there have obviously been things that have made certain changes around the world. The Covid-19 pandemic had a huge impact globally, both at club level and on the international stage with member associations. But one of the things that I think it has probably made us better at is systemic thinking and seeing that bigger picture. For me, being a system thinker is a key priority for the leaders of the future. Although you know your focus is very much on the football industry whether it be with a club or a member association, you are just part of the wheel. You must understand the impact that the decisions you make and the work that you do is having a significant impact on other parts of the system such as the fan base, the community, the profit and loss accounts, club finances, marketing, the board of directors, etc. All the decisions that you’re making are having a bigger impact so you must have that systemic view of the wider club, the wider audience, and the wider community. That would be the one area that people really need to recognise and understand without getting drawn in solely on your area of work” Jennings explained.
Being a member of the Association Sporting Directors, Jennings was hugely complimentary of the benefits of joining the association and what it offers to its members.
“Obviously, the network potential is great. Not just because some of the game’s best working knowledge and expertise is here but you get some great characters as well. The learning that takes place in some of the workshops is brilliant but the learning that takes place in some of those coffee conversations, where you just go off and have a chat with someone in a more informal setting, are just as beneficial.
I found that when I stepped out of my role with New Zealand Football and was looking for a new full-time position, that feeling of belonging to something was a huge benefit. The Association of Sporting Directors is the support mechanism where you think; “Brilliant, I do belong to something and I feel valued”. We know the industry that we work in can be quite cutthroat. Whilst our roles are very much looking at the long term, you can be out of a job tomorrow. To have an organisation that is supportive and makes you feel like you belong to a community is great.
When I came out of my role [with New Zealand Football] and it became public knowledge, the people that reached out to me were great and they were members of the Association of Sporting Directors. So that’s been hugely beneficial. Dan [Parnell] was on the phone straightaway and several other people within the organisation reached out just to check in. They have become an incredible support mechanism is which is so valuable” said Jennings.
Jennings has been highly influential in his various roles and his approachability makes him an effective leader within the industry. Across his roles with the likes of the UAE Pro League and the Association of Sporting Directors, he continues his leadership journey to support, connect & develop himself and others.
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