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Time flying for Olofinjana’s Swiss adventure

Since hanging up his boots in 2014, Seyi Olofinjana has worked for former club Wolves as U23 Coach before becoming their Loans and Pathways Manager in June 2018 and in 2021 he became the Technical Director at Swiss club Grasshopper Club Zürich. 

The transition from player to coach and to technical director is a path well-travelled but not many step out of their comfort zone with Olofinjana uprooting his life in England for the ambition of the Swiss side.

‘There was an opening at the club (Grasshopper Club Zürich) and I looked at it in terms of was it a good fit and was it something I wanted to do. Looking at the job description, it was about assessing ‘can I actually do this?’ ‘Do I want to move to Zurich to start with?’. The main consideration is whether or not I wanted to leave my family in England.’

Following some deep diving the former Wolves man applied and following a series of three interviews managed to secure the role.

‘When my family and I made up our minds that it would be a good move, next it was looking at how do we do that. So I applied, got shortlisted and had the first interview, then the second and third.

‘The first interview was a general conversation for them to get a feel for me. So it covered my knowledge of the club, my motivations and how I think I would fit in. The next stages involved a presentation. So in a way it was about them getting my input on why I wanted the job and then it was more looking for me to show what I thought I would be able to do. I dug in and provided some solutions and ideas, some of which for me are non-negotiables and others you need to tweak to suit the environment.’

After hanging up his boots, Olofinjana looked to broaden his knowledge and pursued the MSc Sports Directorship at Manchester Metropolitan University. This was in addition to having already acquired  degrees in Chemical Engineering in Ladoke Akintola University, Ogbomoso Oyo State Nigeria and an MSc in Project Management in Robert Gordon University,  Aberdeen  Scotland. The Nigerian views it as an important step to compliment his footballing experience as both a player and staff member at Wolves.

‘I have always wanted to be a Technical/Sporting Director. I had a good grounding at Wolves where I got a good idea of what the role looks like, the things you need to be mindful of, the shortfalls, the dangers and of course the benefits. But it is something I have wanted to do since I undertook the master’s degree in Sporting Directorship in Manchester Met with the Association of Sporting Directors’ Dan Parnell as one of the lecturers. Almost one year in and it’s been a role I’m very much enjoying at the moment and I’m looking forward to many great years to come.’

Moving from an established Premier League side to a club which had just secured promotion back to the top tier of Swiss football was bound to be contrasting and so it has proved.

‘The major cultural difference is the language as Switzerland is blessed in the sense that it operates in cantons with each having their jurisdiction and laws. Also very multilingual with French, Italian and German speaking parts.

‘The brand of football is also very unique with some very talented players which is evident in the national team qualifying for the World Cup.’

Olofinjana spoke about seeking out quick wins as he sought to impose his vision on the club.

‘We made some quick additions to the staff to further add to the already committed ones though the first assignment was appointing a coaching staff as well as come up with a playing system.’

Alongside some of the cultural differences, the club and league structure have provided some quick learnings for the Olofinjana.

‘To use the English saying, it’s always horses for courses when it comes to staffing and structures. Now, I don’t think we need so many staff like they have in Germany, Italy or England. Following promotion from the second division, there was always going to be a little making up to do so we had to make some additions.

‘I quickly learned that a lot is determined by the Federation here. At the moment, we are interviewing for an Academy Manager position and they either need to have a UEFA Pro-License or an A-Licence with a Swiss Instructor qualification. Those with a pro-licence tend to want to be coaches or managers and not involved with football administration  which limits your options in a way. Then there is also the language element too with Zurich being German speaking. Though I am learning German and having lessons twice a week from a reputable school (Abcsprachen School).’

The new environment and role led Olofinjana to reflect and adjust his working style to suit.

‘I needed to understand first and foremost the culture, the rules, regulations and the people – things I am still learning on a daily basis as Those are the barriers you need to get through working in a leadership as a foreigner in another country.

‘There is no template you get given to make you a decent sporting Director but the application of already acquired principles to each unique club and environment because every club has its unique needs. Everywhere is different and each environment will have differing needs. Just get the skills required to do the job and then when you get the job look at what is required, which is decided by the hierarchy and see what you can and can’t do from there.

‘Very quickly it is about identifying that we don’t need 15 million people but looking at filling the needed positions with the right personnel. We asked ourselves what does great look like and then how do we work our way there. What do we need immediately?’ That sounded easy but we still not where we want to be but at the very start of it.’

On the role of Technical Director, Olofinjana was quick to dismiss the need to have played the game.

‘I think it helps but I wouldn’t say an awful lot. You don’t need to have played football at a professional level to be a Technical Director. It’s about acquiring the skillsets required and having the ability to implement them in relation for what the job entails.

‘If I never had a professional career, I could still be the technical leader and the most important trait for me is that leadership piece.’

Grasshooper are hoping to consolidate their place in the top division with plans for further growth in the medium-term with Olofinjana and the owners working in the present but planning for the future.

‘For myself personally but more importantly for our owners, coming to Switzerland, it makes sense to strive to play in Europe.  it is about mapping out the graph on how we get there in the shortest period possible. These are the things you work on behind the scenes but for the players and staff, the focus is on a day-to-day basis the focus is towards Saturday and three points. We call it looking after the small wheel and big wheel.’ Olofinjana added.

Looking at the big wheel and medium term, Olofinjana is hoping to tap into the Association of Sporting Directors to broaden his knowledge and network.

‘In time I will begin to reap the benefits of my Association of Sporting Director membership as I grow into my role here. I know a lot of members already and my plan is to begin to tap into the group and look at what I know now and how I can build on those blocks. Looking at how I can develop myself is key and there are so many to learn from and share ideas.

‘One thing I am learning very quickly and I need to improve on is my communication if I want to be an effective leader. You need to be comfortable speaking with groups and I still need a bit of work on that. There is an awful lot the brain can do if you allow it to develop. The day you stop learning is the day you start dying. For me, there is always something to improve – 1%, 2% here or there.

‘Going back to the wheel analogy, if you don’t look after the small wheel daily, the big wheel will suffer. Even now I have begun to pause whereas naturally what I tended to do was just try fix a problem myself.’

His recent appointment and work with Grasshopper Club Zurich has seen several African Football associations reach out for his services in a leadership and technical capacity even within his short stint with the club but he remains focussed on helping with the ongoing work at his current work place.

Article wrote by Colm Hand, student on the Football Industries MBA at the University of Liverpool

Feature image photo credit: BBC

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