14 Min Read
Dec 31 2022
Ross Wilson’s journey so far in football has been an incredible one. Whilst a lot of Sporting Directors come from a playing background, Wilson has emerged from a football business background. Whilst other Sporting Directors might have had more years of playing ahead of them, Wilson was already starting to build up his network and gaining valuable experience from a young age.
“Starting at 21 in Falkirk, it’s clearly starting in the football business industry significantly earlier than most people would. I didn’t come from a playing background, so those that come into this area of work from a playing background probably have another 15 years to play whilst I was beginning my management, operational, leadership career”.
Wilson praises the working relationships he has had with everyone at the five clubs he has worked at so far in his career, taking things he has learned from the different relationships he’s built up at previous clubs and taking that into where he is today.
“I consider myself very privileged to have gone on the journey that I have for two reasons really. One, I love football, ever since I was a kid. The journey has taken me from Falkirk to Watford, Huddersfield Town, Southampton and ultimately to Rangers. Second thing is, I have been incredibly lucky that in all of those five jobs, I’ve genuinely enjoyed them all and I’ve got to put that down to the people that I have worked in each environment. The one common theme has been the people that I have worked with, within my teams and the people I have worked for have been fantastic”.
“Starting in my home-town club (Falkirk) for almost seven years, starting in an educational welfare role and then being promoted to lead the academy from an operational and strategic standpoint, to then do the same across the whole football division. I was then approached and got the Football Business Director job at Watford, appointed by a really strong Chief Executive in Julian Winter. Then moving up to Huddersfield Town, where I spent a brilliant three years, working with someone I’ve openly said many times is the best chairman and owner in the English Football League in Dean Hoyle. Building what we wanted to build – a real sustainable Championship football club after more than a decade in League One and League Two, so that was a brilliant project to lead. A brilliant time on the South Coast with nearly five years at Southampton followed, working with people who I can say are amongst my closest friends now, people I thoroughly enjoyed working with every day who over time became very good friends”.
“Ultimately, I had actually declined the Rangers job in the past for different career reasons but I always thought it would be something I’d like to do at some point and when it came around again, it was something I couldn’t knock back because I really wanted to help develop the club, to help get the club winning again if I could, but build a proper modern football club here in Glasgow and it is certainly three years that I will never forget, I’ve loved it all, its an incredible club”.
Working with such high-profile names such as Steven Gerrard, Sean Dyche, Giovanni Van-Bronkhurst and Ralph Hasenhüttl. When building relationships with people that have been so successful, working closely with them can bring a huge amount of benefits. Communication is a moral that Wilson has held closely to him throughout his career and believes it is something that has helped develop such relationships with so many influential figures of the game, always trying to work closely with them to help progress the club in which he is working for.
“One of the things that I’m most proud of in my career is a lot of these people are people that I would consider close, personal friends. I’ve probably had two or three different type of relationships. For example ones with people with unrivalled experience, a man called Alex Smith who was like the godfather of Scottish football at one point, Graham Taylor as my chairman at Watford, just brilliant people to work with and learn off, to hear some of the stories, just great people”.
“I think there’s two things that spring to mind right away, emotional intelligence is something that I talk to my teams about all the time, is one thing. And secondly, have a clear way of working and a clear knowledge of how you work as well. I think it’s one thing to have a really good relationship with someone and it’s another thing to have a really good relationship with someone and both have real confidence in what each other’s doing. So, ultimately from a personal standpoint, I try to apply honesty to all my conversations with people I work with and I think people will agree with that and that’s a big part of how I try and build my personal relationships. Also, because I started out young, enthusiasm has been what I’ve been about for a long time but also as my career has developed, making sure it wasn’t all about energy and enthusiasm but was to make sure I don’t dampen that energy at all but to ensure there is always a clear vision of how I want to do the job, how I want to work, how I want the club to be structured. I’m steeped in hard work, it’s a personal value of mine and I value communication strongly, I like to talk to people, I like to be with people, I like to be in teams, I like to link teams. So I hope those personal values combined with emotional intelligence and having a clear knowledge in your work is the thing that allows you to build those relationships really strongly”.
With the Europa League Final with Rangers clearly being one of the standout points in an already fantastic career, Wilson speaks about some of the successes he has had throughout his already stacked career and what he is trying to implement to get Rangers back to winning ways.
“I’ve loved my career so far and hopefully there’s still a while to go yet, but there’s not one single thing that I would say stands out as my best moment. But in every job that I have done I’m really clear on what my role has been, what my mandate has been and I’m really clear on what the club has expected from me and what we want to achieve and I’m proud that on a whole we’ve manged to do that. For example at Watford, it was a really difficult period in their history, the club desperately needed a new owner and what we had to do at the time was stabilise the football club and with Sean Dyche’s work on the pitch and with Nick Cox, as a key ally to me in leading our academy we were able to stablise and progress. As we transitioned towards a new ownership having Watford in the top half of the Championship with an incredibly difficult backdrop, with virtually no transfer or wage budget but to do what we did at the club at that time was great for the club and is something I’ll always look back fondly on because of that. I try to get back there at least once a year”.
“Supporting the creation of Dean Hoyle’s vision of having a real sustainable Championship club at Huddersfield, which was a job that took so much work, energy and hours of your life to really move it forward. Some of my best friends are at Southampton but also, we had some unbelievable nights, seeing Southampton playing in Europe I’ll never forget the atmosphere at St Mary’s when we played Inter Milan. To reach the League Cup final with Southampton which we should have won, receiving a World Record transfer fee for a defender in Virgil van Dijk at the time and always working with what we called a one-club approach that I’ve also tried to bring to Rangers as well”.
“The board here (at Rangers) gave me a clear mission when, which was to pull the football side of Rangers together, as before I came it wasn’t together, there wasn’t a clear one club strategy or vision to get the club winning again. So I’m really proud that we managed to put that clear strategy in place, whilst I was also asked to make player trading work for probably the first time in Rangers history. I spend so much of my time here developing the training group, growing our academy and ensuring all of the support functions are as strong as they can possibly be. This is Rangers though, you have to make the club win and the club had not been winning enough in the previous years and we’ve managed to do a number of firsts here, apart from aligning the club internally which I see as a major aspect of any Sporting Director’s role, to really align it internally. I’m always really proud when staff tell me how strong they feel inside the club, how aligned the club now feels, a clear way of working, a clear plan, winning our first league title in ten years under Steven Gerrard who did a superb job here, winning our first Scottish FA Cup in twelve-years, back in the Champions League and reaching a major European final is something I’ll never forget. But leading that modernisation whilst ensuring that we win and achieving two club-record transfers within seven months is phenomenal for the club given what I and others were asked to do, but as much as that’s been something I’ve enjoyed, it’s also true to say that I would’ve wanted even more wins in the three-year period of time. I wanted us to win more and I still want us to win more moving forward, everyone is clear on that”.
Each club Wilson has arrived at, he has had to adapt do different scenarios and targets, whether that be trying to consolidate a spot in the Championship with Huddersfield or trying to qualify and compete in Europe with Southampton and Rangers. Taking and applying different strategies gained from previous experiences has always been something Wilson has tried doing throughout his career.
“I believe I could not have done any of the jobs that I have done to the extent that I have done them without the jobs before it, because I think each experience has added something else to my own thoughts, my own vision, my own organisation, my own way of working. I don’t see the adaptation to different environments a challenge at all, I think it’s really important to embrace a challenge if you believe in it. I think it’s really important for Sporting Directors or leaders to not take on a challenge if you don’t believe in it, because I think that’s where adapting to a new environment would be almost impossible. I’m really clear about who I am myself, how I like to work, the types of people I like to work for, the organisations I like to work in and I think as a club you’ve got to be equally as clear about who you are and the types of people you want working for you as part of your journey. I’m really comfortable, if I don’t believe in any of those things then it’s not a job that I’d be interested in, so I’ve always found the new environments quite easy to adapt to because I’ve understood what my role is, I’ve understood the people at the club and as long as you have that clarity, accountability and you believe in it all internally, then it’s good”.
Wilson has been working within football since the young age of just 21. He states some of the challenges Sporting Directors face on a day-to-day basis and some of the challenges that we can expect to see as the role advances even more in the years to come.
“The challenge never stops, you might have 20 phone calls, no which one is the same, this is something that never stops and will only get greater. The growth of data in recent times has been a new challenge for most Sporting Directors to have to get their heads around, how that affects and impacts upon your work, your decision making, the insights you have whether that’s scouting or your contract managing, medical and performance or whatever that may be. That’s been a major growth that we’ve all had to get our heads around and understand which has been a big part of our journey here at Rangers”.
“I think the changing landscape of club ownership is really interesting for Sporting Directors in the next few years, we’ve seen the emergence of many multi-club models or owners that want to adopt multi-club models and we’ve become familiar with the Red-Bull model, but as we move to the next three-five years we’re seeing an increase in these type of models and it’ll be interesting to see how that affects club structures, how that affects the transfer market, ownership models, so I think that’s a challenge for Sporting Directors to understand and indeed embrace”.
Wilson praises the Association for having a group of like-minded professionals that he can bounce ideas around when some of these challenges present themselves, being able to talk issues out with other experienced Sporting Directors is something the Association aims at providing for all members.
“We’re all really good professional friends, whether that be Dan Ashworth, Mike Rigg, Nick Hammond, Paul Mitchell, Stuart Webber, whoever it may be, it’s just so valuable to be able to discuss situations and issues that we face day-to-day that you just couldn’t bounce off someone who hasn’t been there. Speaking about some of the challenges we face in the last question, if I threw them towards some people at the ASD then we can all bounce them around and talk about them and give opinions and insights. It’s good to be connected to a group of people who are on similar journeys, who have experienced similar situations. Dr Dan Parnell, I must say has been fantastic for the ASD, to really grasp it, to really lead it, as was Mike Rigg and I think we’re all very grateful to these two guys for how much energy they’ve put into making sure the association is as strong as it possibly can be right now”.
It’s clear to see the impact Wilson has made at each of the clubs he has worked for, going into each one with a clear vision and the hunger to push the club as far he possibly can. Now looking to cement Rangers’ status as a Champions League club and keep adding to Scotland’s most successful clubs trophy cabinet, Rangers fans should be impatiently looking over the horizon as Ross Wilson is not someone who will want to leave without meeting all the targets, he has set out for himself.
This article was composed by Colm Hand and Liverpool John Moores University student Daniel Harrison.
Photo credit: givemesport.com