10 Min Read
Jan 19 2023
Rich Dorman began his football journey with Blackburn Rovers academy before going on to make a handful of appearances in his native Wales. A move to the USA saw Dorman earn a college soccer scholarship for the Boston University Terriers. Followed by stints in Wales and Finland, Dorman now calls Scandinavia home, taking on the role of Technical Director at SJK Seinajoki in 2018 after a successful six-year spell which saw him stack up 141 appearances for the Finnish side.
“I didn’t have footballing talent to reach a big level, so I was always looking into the education route. I was in the Blackburn Academy until I turned 16, then ended up in the Welsh Premier League playing men’s football, and then I moved to America having been offered a soccer scholarship. And when I went there it was more about getting a good degree, while carrying on with the football which helped fund it. And during that period I thought, okay, maybe I can keep going in my football, but I ended up getting a business management degree at the same time. After University, I got the opportunity to go to Finland and took a risk, had a good time for three months and ended up then joining the team (SJK Seinajoki). That was in 2012, and the team had been taken over by new ownership and they had a dream to build the club, the club rose from the third tier all the way to the top of the pyramid.”
Clearly Dorman is someone who can adapt to change, as we can see from his transition from Player to Technical Director. After a bad injury towards the end of his career, Dorman started to consider the next steps of his footballing journey. Hungry for success and using his experience in business management he started to brainstorm how SJK Seinajoki could further develop.
“Towards the end of my career, I broke one of the bones in my leg and it gave me a bit more perspective on the need to think about the next steps in my career. At that time I decided to write a business plan for the club, how to go from this small club that they were, to something that could be bigger, be more stable, instead of the success just being reliant on having a good Head Coach or Manager each season. When I proposed it to the owner the end result became on offer for me to be part of leading that change. That lead to a dilemma as I had to decide if I was ready to retire from playing and then start a new life.
In the end it was the right choice. I probably could have continued playing for a year or two but to step into this type of role was an opportunity I couldn’t give up. Now I’ve just finished my fourth year in the position which in the club we call ‘Technical Director’ and I head up the sports department. ”
Being at the club for six years and rising through the divisions, Dorman had seen both the good and the bad of how the club operates. On-field success was now occurring but behind the scenes, improvements could be made. With this time out through injury, Dorman looked at how he could further help SJK Seinajoki dominate Finnish football and breakthrough to establish themselves in Europe too.
“In the end, the club had raised itself to the highest level in the country. But the structure of the club off the field, had not kept pace. And what needed to happen then was the structures around the on-field part needed to catch up to allow the success to sustain for many years. So for example, after one Head Coach left, the club changed Head Coach seven times in one season and was chasing the success that one person had built before.
So my business plan came at a good time for the club, they also went with a young COO, CFO and then I was appointed Sporting Director. So, the plan I presented was an opportunity but it was in a way something that I just worked on while I was injured. I’d seen the good and bad times with the club and then it felt right to just try to help in some way by using some of my educational background.”
The business plan was the starting point but the reality quickly set in as Dorman set about with his vision. He soon realised how different things are looking down on the grass from the stands.
“When I made it (the plan), I was a player and then I submitted it and said these sort of things that we should do. And then the day I retired it was completely wrong. Because you step from playing into the office and you see everything very differently of course. It was an eye-opener to move from one side to the other, and to see what is realistic and how it could be done. It was the starting point that brought about my mindset of thinking how to improve the club in order to be more stable and have sustained success for a period.”
In recent times we have seen numerous former players making the transition from Player to Sporting Director, Neil Adams (Norwich), Eni Aluko (Angel City) and Edu (Arsenal) being examples of this switch. While many believe that the change is a natural one and some would assume that a successful ex-player will make a good Sporting Director, there are multiple skills that a player might not be aware of until they make the move. Despite having a degree in Business Management, Dorman speaks about some of the struggles he faced when transitioning into his new role and how he has managed to learn on the job. Many of these are shared experiences with those new to the role.
“You’re part of football so you know the ins and outs of it but you don’t know how to negotiate, you don’t really know how to lead other people. I was in Berlin, visiting Union Berlin and their Technical Director was very critical of ex-players going from playing to Sporting Director roles. His analogy was that you take a retired horse, you cannot turn them into a jockey.
I was very fortunate that the owner and the staff believed in me to eventually become a better Sporting Director. The skills that you have from playing are quite limited really when it comes to fulfilling the role and it took me one or two years to really grasp everything.”
What helps Dorman differentiate himself from other ex-professionals heading upstairs is the fact he has come from an educational background. His university journey gave him unique skills & perspectives, which have been useful foundations. Integrated with his first-hand knowledge of football, Dorman has taken this holistic approach growing into the position he finds himself in. With being in Finland for six years playing, this has also benefited Dorman, using the connections made throughout his time at the club, helping him further develop these into healthy working relationships.
“I think at the time of taking this position I had been with the club the longest. I’m from an education background as well so it wasn’t that I was totally clueless coming in. It’s just that I think that the skills I had were quite basic and perhaps due to not using them day to day as a player. But I did have a good enough background to handle it and survive this long and then eventually, progress even further with the club.
Having a good connection with the current leaders of the squad helped at the beginning. And then, knowing the league very well, and how the players performances were like was a good asset, especially in the first year or two, because you knew all the players, you knew what type of personalities they were, not just their on-field performance so that was a strength, of course. And I think the business degree it had given a holistic approach not just football, the negotiation part or what I’d learned about marketing, the finances etc. It gave me skills that I could connect with different people inside the club that were working on the office side”.
As the role of Sporting/Technical Directors across the globe is constantly evolving and changing, new challenges present themselves on a daily basis. In the four years of being Technical Director and having to overcome numerous obstacles, Dorman spoke about some of the next big challenges anyone in the role could expect to find.
“I believe everything in football goes round in sort of cycles. Now it’s completely away from the manager format where the Sporting Director is making more of the decisions. Maybe that will become more the norm and then teams will be looking for other advantages, how to use the knowledge of the Head Coach more. And I think that’s a challenge that Sporting Directors will have, is how to give more power back to the Head Coach. How do you get the competitive advantage over other teams, when the formats and structures are becoming very similar. And then to compete and be better than other clubs it will come down to how effective each department can be in comparison to other teams. How much you can get out from the resources you have access to.”
For someone who is looking to become a successful Sporting Director, the Association has shown how it can be a place where aspiring Sporting Directors can take advice and share challenges they face. ASD membership ranges from experienced professionals within the industry to those on the pathway towards this position. New members can benefit and take the advice from the more experienced and take it into their line of work. Dorman states some of the advantages of his attendance at some of the events set up by the ASD in his development as a Technical Director, taking the shared knowledge of other members and trying to apply it within his club.
“The value for me is to be in the room or on a call with similar people in terms of the challenges you face on a daily basis. Going from a player, where you have 20 friends every day, where you’d be with them for hours, to this role now, it’s a lonely position in comparison. So, the Association of Sporting Directors puts you in a room with people who are facing the same issues, who are going through similar things that you can discuss ideas and find a better solution of how to handle a topic. That has been the biggest value for me from my membership so far.”
While four years may seem like a long time to be in a job for, Dorman is constantly learning new skills every day and is using the Association to help him further advance in his role. Since taking over in 2018, Dorman has been a success story so far in Finland and as he looks to develop and excel further in his role as Technical Director, he will be hoping that this is just the first step in what will hopefully be a highly successful career.
This article was composed by Colm Hand and Liverpool John Moores University student Daniel Harrison.