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Reflecting on five years of the Association of Sporting Directors


Colm Hand

10 Min Read

Sep 13 2022

Alistair Milner has been part of the Board at the Association of Sporting Directors for over four years, witnessing a period of growth which has coincided with the evolution of the Sporting Director role.

In conversation with Colm Hand, Milner outlined his journey with the association and shared some exciting plans which will see the organisation develop some new services for members, as it continues to support, develop and connect football leaders globally.

“Whatever we do is essentially based on connect, support and develop and in response to input from the membership and the Technical Committee, all of the content for the series of online events or the four in-person meetings that we’ll be having this year, will be linked explicitly to these goals” Milner opened with.

The establishment of the Association of Sporting Directors dates back to 2017 but conversations were brewing among some of the pioneers in the role for some time.

“I think Mike (Rigg) and a couple of colleagues had started to quietly work on creating a network of people in similar type roles. I mean, the interesting thing to remember is that many of the senior Sporting Directors that we know in the UK are “first-generation” Sporting Directors.  We are now seeing some move onto other clubs domestically and overseas, but the point is that the role and the title in context is still developing. It’s only now that we’re starting to see second and third generation Sporting Directors come through, formal education opportunities appear and career pathways start to emerge.

“Mike and a small number of colleagues such as Dan Ashworth, Nick Hammond, Paul Mitchell, Ross Wilson were really that first generation in the role and I imagine organically were looking for people that had experienced similar things, or were experiencing similar situations, etc. It was more as a support network than anything else at the time.”

Milner’s involvement came about through his relationship with Mike Rigg whom he had worked closely with for a period of time.

“I started working with Mike getting to know him while he was at The FA and then at Fulham. I sat on his shoulder in Sporting Directors’ offices at ten Premier League clubs in 2018/19 and the conversations were almost identical. The challenges coming back from those individuals, you could have swapped the club badges easily. It quickly became apparent that there was a natural network and all it needed was a few key people with the right intentions to ringfence it and help it develop.

“While Mike was doing some consultancy work with SRI [Sport Recruitment International] in 2018 it became apparent there was interest outside the UK. As part of his role with us at SRI he travelled to key football markets including the USA, Australia, China and continental Europe. It was very clear that it wasn’t only a domestic network, but it was a very global network.

“When Mike was out in the market speaking to individuals, he got a very warm reception, people were looking for that network, people were looking for outlets to ask for advice, share frustrations, create innovative solutions to the similar challenges that they were facing, albeit at different clubs and in many cases countries.

“And I think from The FA Level 5 for Technical Directors pilot course to that informal sort of education piece that Mike Rigg led, that’s the kernels of the Association of Sporting Directors. And from very humble beginnings, not that long ago, the growth has been accelerated.

“It was fascinating at the time with 20-30 conversations spread across five or six global locations, all generating the same themes, which gave everybody – Mike, Dan Parnell, Haydn Roberts, Joel Roberts, Sporting Director peers and colleagues confidence that the network had some long-term benefit for that collective of leaders. It was easy to lend a hand to support it, to make it more sophisticated and formalise it. 2018/19 was spent doing those things, acknowledging the requirement and the desire for a network and trying to put some shape and formality around it” Milner said.

For that process of formalisation, a number of key personal were brought in with Mike to support it. Dr Dan Parnell was already conducting ground-breaking research in the field and working closely with industry. Haydn Roberts had experience working in player welfare at Manchester City and strong legal networks and commercial experience.  

“There were a bunch of us that sat on the outside, we were involved in the network but sat outside the job. We didn’t work for clubs at the time, we weren’t Sporting Directors, but had an interest and a passion in the sector. And we all came from very different environments and we all lent a slightly different hand to Mike and his peers in order to create an organisation, the Association of Sporting Directors, and start to shape how it could benefit its members”.

Reflecting on the road travelled to date, Milner feels it’s gone hand-in-hand with the growth of the Sporting Director position within the industry. As time passes, clarity emerges, commonalities are clear and clubs also begin to see the benefits of appointing a technical leader.

“The Association is five years old and has gradually developed a membership of over 400 professionals from around the world. What’s equally impressive is the quality of output and support that has been developed in line with the constantly evolving nature of the role of Sporting Director.  Clubs continue to work out what version of the role best suits their current situation and ambition. The Association naturally mirrors this and is informing the debate through expert input through to evidence-based research,” said Milner.

In terms of milestones, the addition of structure and key personal have proven pivotal along the way.  

“They might not have been formally recognised at the start, but ‘connect, support and develop’ has always been at the heart of the Association. They’ve been baked into the organisation from the outset and shape what we do.

“I think the key milestones are probably connected to formalising what the ASD is. Formalising processes, so how to become a member. Formalising the services, so online events, in person meetings, member services in terms of legal representation or career advice, etc. Formalising those I would suggest has given the ASD a lot more structure and therefore both commercial partners and members understand exactly what they are part of.

“There haven’t been one or two key milestones, but it’s a cumulative effect of key people joining the organisation, and then getting others to contribute to improving quality of services. Dan Parnell coming on as CEO was undoubtedly key in terms of focusing efforts and helping us formalise the structure of the ASD, which in turn helps people clarify what it is and how they can contribute. Dan, Haydn, Mike and Joel brought in commercial partners and creating regular & quality output, and therefore, financially affording the ASD some more time, to formalise the benefits and the services to members, that was a big milestone.

“Bringing in people on the Management Committee with the likes of Professor Barry Drust, Iffy Onoura, Paul Musa, Professor Ian McHale, that’s been super useful in in upgrading and improving the quality of services to members. Creating a Technical Committee has given us real integrity and insight into contemporary challenges – the support of these football leaders ensures our every decision is informed by the game.

“So along the way, there’s been a formalisation of the ASD and what it provides its members. But we’ve also tried to bring in key people at different levels of hierarchical structure, all supporting the mission of connect, support and develop” Milner added.

Milner was quick to acknowledge the role of others who have contributed at various stages and to differing degrees. Contributions range from members, committees but also those who have delivered at events which have all helped along the journey.

“Over the years, there has been such an impact from different people because of their passion for the sector, not necessarily because of the benefit to them. The ASD has been extremely fortunate that people that have put in their time, energy and effort to create an environment and a network that benefits the membership. They’re the people who have come in, gave time, have talks, some have served and contributed to the Management Committee, the Technical Committee, presented at online or in-person events, or come on board as commercial partners, etc. All of these people have provided their support and / or goodwill, no matter how small (or big), have helped get us to this point and they are part of the ASD”

The formalisation has led to the introduction of partners to help the ASD to improve it’s offering to members, with Milner excited to have organisations on board that fit the purpose and add real value to members.

“The topic of partnerships has featured in the ASD’s growth as well. So partnering with organisations on a commercial basis in a mutually beneficial way. We’ve been careful to select the right organisations in terms of having the right products that are required by the football sector but also organisations that have the right people inside of them to partner with the ASD in terms of connect, develop and support. So the likes of Hudl, Zone7, Okkulo, and Ahead in Sport have been incredible to have in the room.

Milner’s recruitment and talent consulting background has been key to understanding the people working within the role and the environments they operate within. The future of the role and how football organisations benefit from is hugely positive, and the ASD look forward to continuing to connect, support and develop.

“I’ve been intimately involved from a recruitment perspective and understanding that job title and what it means that all the different clubs. And I have spoken with lots and lots of people who have had the job title to understand their journeys and therefore bring an overall understanding and appreciation of the job title.

What we’ve come to realise is our cumulative expertise, experience and access to global talent affords us the chance to provide a recruitment and advisory services around talent to organisations that employ technical football professionals.

We hope by promoting the role, the job title, contemporary challenges, advising clubs, and therefore helping our membership position themselves when those opportunities come up, to stand a good chance of being included in longlists and shortlist and appointments.”

As the player transfer market shuts, the window for Sporting Directors remains open. The Association of Sporting Directors is thrilled to be expanding it’s services which will continue to support, connect and develop the membership. Organisations who are hiring senior technical professionals can access recruitment insights by submitting requests to [email protected].

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