As we shared last week AVST attended a meeting of the Fans Consultation Group. Here is a transcript of that meeting.
Attendees for Aston Villa Football Club: Steve Round, Director of Football; Tommy Jordan, Head of Communications; Lee Preece, Football Operations/Projects Manager
Representing supporters: Mo Razzaq & Kris Carr, Aston Villa Supporters Trust; Steve Gough, Aston Villa Independent Supporters Clubs; Anne-Marie Fern, Heroes & Villans; David Michael, My Old Man Said; Scott Jones, Villa Talk.
Could you define your role and key responsibilities?
We have the owner, Dr Tony Xia, and the CEO Keith Wyness they needed someone who was going to be in charge of the football performance for the club. Performance comes under many issues as you need someone to try and align all the departments at the training ground. So, my remit is working with the manager, the first team coaching and together, oversee the coaching methodology of the club – right the way through from senior players down to six/seven year olds and to get that aligned as the ‘Villa engine’. I answer to the CEO and the owner so when he comes in this week we will be discussing the progress we have made. Innovation and change is important in our evolution. We have re-done all the organisational/structural/recruitment strategies. I’ll liaise on this between Steve, the CEO and the owner.
What was your involvement in the managerial search?
Both Keith and I were heavily involved in the manager search. That was a really interesting one because I submitted ten candidates and we carried out due diligence on all ten. There was a statistical and data analysis research project which I consulted out to a data analytics company. It’s a company I knew and trusted the guy who was running it. They looked at all performance aspects of the managers. Everything from win ratios, win percentages, style of play, social media personality, character – everything. The number one target on my list was Steve Bruce. When the manager search came back it was a forty-page document and the number one recommendation was Steve Bruce. It was excellent fact to back up our instinct and advise the Chairman – this is our one to six from that ten. In the end, we went with a recommendation to the owner. The owner made the decision and went with Steve.
The previous recruitment policy concerned supporters – how have you rectified it?
I made some tough decisions on my first day and changed some personnel. That’s never easy but I felt it was the right thing to do. I have brought in Ian Atkins to head up European recruitment. I worked with Ian at Everton, he’d worked at Sunderland and Everton as head of European recruitment for eleven years. His knowledge is incredible and he’s got a fantastic work ethic, he’s an ex-player and manager, he’s a pro license coach and a proper football man – he’s also a big Villa fan! I also promoted Tony Coton to head of domestic scouting. Tony, again, has a wealth of knowledge in football at the highest level both as a player, coach and scout. We have kept on Dave Downes as head of U23 recruitment. There are some really good people here already who just needed help and guidance. I brought in a guy called John Harrower who worked at Nottingham Forest, Derby County, Newcastle – quite a few clubs. He’s come in as scout coordinator so his role and responsibility is to make sure all the scouts report in to the database and we collect all the relevant information. We’ve changed a lot in this department and we’re getting there. I’ve only been in three months but we are moving in the right direction.
What are your thoughts of moneyball – using data to sign players?
We’ve brought in real football people and we’ll mix that with one or two of the guys that have the analytical/moneyball data that you hear about which is a bit of a bone of contention to me. The moneyball thing came about because of baseball and that’s very statistically developed – like cricket. But football is always in a state of chaos. On any given day, football is a random, human, fluid game, so data and analytics only back up the instinct of the people looking for the talent. And I think football has gone away from that. They’ve gone too analytical and too data-minded and a lot of people are paying the price for it. You’ve got to get back to the real people who matter. scouts identify the talent and data backs that up. Villa is a massive club with high expectations. Our scouts with a massive knowledge on football need to know that a particular player is capable of thriving at our club.
What about the future of the club – the academy and bringing young players through?
I’m also working with the academy and the head of department Sean Kimberley – who I must say has done an outstanding job on the resources and the neglect he’s worked under in the past few years. David Hughes has left the Welsh FA and will come in as U18s coach. We’re interviewing for a head of medicine in the academy and we’re interviewing for a chief scout for the 10-16 age group. We have no scout there which is incredible. We’ve done a deal with the local team – Phoenix – who bring a lot of local boys through. All the best young players in the city need to be coming to Aston Villa. Villa always used to have one of the best academies in Britain so we need to take the city back, then we need to take the Midlands back then we need to be competing nationally with the best. We’ve got such a good catchment area and such a good facility. Historically, Villa has led the way in youth development and we need to get back to that.
Other changes you’ve implemented?
Sports psychology and culture is massive now in modern elite sports. I have brought in Tom Bates from Brentford who now heads up that department. Sports psychology in football has been a bit of a
taboo. People have doubted it – does it work? But every other sport takes it and uses it massively. The advent of neuroscience has now dictated that psychology is real and is measured and it’s appropriate to many issues but sport especially and I wanted somebody in because I sense that
Aston Villa had lost its way a little bit culturally in the training ground environment. People are positive or negative depending on the results and the situation but I felt internally we needed to rediscover what Aston Villa really is. It’s a football club not a “brand” or “commercial tool”. I wanted that heartbeat to come back but I also recognised that there’s a hangover after a few years of decline so we needed to flip that mentality. I did a search nationwide to find the best sports psychologist/performance coach that I could. It happened to be Tom – he had worked at West Brom, Bournemouth, Birmingham and he was currently at Brentford so I was really pleased to get him. He’s had a massive impact. Not only with the players individually but just the resonance of the training ground – that was important. Confidence is building.
What other new faces are in the training ground that we’ve not heard much about?
I’ve just brought in Danny Donachie who has got a tremendous amount of experience and is an outstanding individual. I had worked with him previously and recognised his qualities. Then you’ve got the club doctor, physios, fitness coaches and performance analysts that deal with all the data for training and games down to the masseurs. That’s a very important part of first team performance. They’re looking after the medical welfare, the physiology and athletic ability of all the players. I’ve brought in Steve Harrison that used to be a coach here a few years ago. He’s arguably one of the best defensive coaches in English football. He comes in one day a week and works with the U18 and U23 defenders and anybody Steve Bruce wants him to touch base with in the first team. He also scouts games for me on a Saturday. He just loves it and he’s been brilliant around the place. We’ve also taken a guy called Dave Stewart from QPR. We’ve promoted some analysts from within too. That’s important that the staff that are already in situ get a chance.
Will the manager have the final say on all players signed by the club?
There won’t be a player signed that Steve doesn’t know about or have the final say. He is the fundamental decision maker. The recruitment department is set up for him to see the best players to select from. He and his staff also watch a lot of games and form the final part on player selection. The manager has enough on his plate managing the team, the players the staff, the media and the fans. If you look at our training ground we’ve got 60 that work there, then there’s the academy it’s a massive job. I’m quite keen to keep people motivated, inspired and challenged as they need to feel a part of something special so as long as we’ve got the right people in doing the right job then I am happy. I have a great relationship already forming with Steve so together I believe we are moving the club forwards
The other thing is performance analysis – the analysts film training and I make sure they can provide the level of detail that the coaches need. For example, last week we’d sat down at the start of the international break and had said we’re not scoring enough goals from set pieces – that directive came from the manager, to be fair. So we had a meeting to look at how we could improve on scoring from set pieces. Everyone was throwing in suggestions about set pieces and what could we improve. We’ve now come up with a criteria. The goal at Brighton came from the performance analysts looking at the opposition. Every club is doing that – more detail is always needed and we’re going to do it in as much detail as possible.
Are you happy that the coaching staff around the manager will give us the best possible chance of achieving success on the pitch?
I’m delighted to get Colin Calderwood in as assistant manager. I’ve known Colin for a number of years on the circuit. He’s a top coach and an outstanding professional. I think he’s going to be a massive asset to us. Coupled with the other guys we’ve got – Stephen Clemence who is a young, up-and-coming coach who is soaking up everything and forging a strong reputation. He is good in the dressing room as he’s not long out of it, so it’s a nice balance now. Gary Walsh is an experienced coach too. He’s a football man born and bred. The manager has been a breath of fresh air. The training ground resonance and atmosphere is starting to feel positive and confident. In our turnaround there will always be the odd set back – it’s football – but the training ground feels right at the moment.
What about the future in terms of building a structure on solid foundations?
I’ve not had enough time yet to be able to establish a methodology and a Villa engine – the style and the way we’re going to play. It’s been about short-term re-building and making sure the foundations and building blocks are in place. We’re going to start the process of coming up with a ‘Villa way’ and the Villa strategy on the pitch. Obviously the manager plays a fundamental part in that but we also want to build something that’s sustainable. In the future the way we do things needs to be right. Villa has always been a hard-working, tough, aggressive, forward-thinking, forward passing, dynamic club. I used to bring youth teams in the late 80s/early 90s to Villa and they’d spank us every week! It would be the hardest game of the season. The kids were talented and hungry; I think maybe we’ve gone away from that. We’ve got to get some of those basics back and then evolve the rest of it as we go. I’m pleased we have Kevin McDonald and his assistant Mark Delaney with the U23s. They know what it takes for young players to play for the Villa.
The club was like a ship sailing in one direction. With the takeover in the summer we’ve managed to slow it down and in the last month we’ve probably turned it around and now we’re starting to go in the right direction. There’s a long way to go and a lot of hard work and effort but I feel for the first time I’ve got heads of department that are dynamic, expert, professional and entrenched in football and we’re just starting to move forwards. You get that ship called Aston Villa moving forwards and fast enough – you try and stop it.
If you have any questions that you would like to be addressed at the next FCG meeting or specific issues that you would like to raise with the club please email firstname.lastname@example.org