Having clarity on your vision and purpose as a technical director
Identifying your own strengths and weaknesses as a leader
Developing effective relationships with key stakeholders in order to develop the game
Guardians of the game
Technical directors of national associations should be ‘guardians of the game’ and aim to leave football in a healthier state than when they started in their role, says John McDermott, Technical Director of the English FA.
“I worked on a coaching course around 1997 and Sir Bobby Robson [former England national coach] talked about being ‘a guardian of the game’,” said McDermott, who was appointed as England’s Technical Director in January 2021, following nine months as Assistant Technical Director. “I think that’s so important now in the role I do as Technical Director to have a clear intent that when I leave the game it’s in a healthier state than when I first came into it. It’s trying to see that responsibility as a real joy.”
In order to leave English football in a ‘healthier state’, McDermott believes there must be a clear focus on developing ‘brilliant basics’. “As technical departments get bigger – and I’ve seen this within English football over the years –the most important thing is not to get lost,” explains McDermott, who was Head of Academy Coach and Player Development at Tottenham Hotspur for 15 years before becoming England Technical Director. “Over the last decade there has been a lot of talk about looking for the marginal gains. I think that’s fantastic and I really agree with looking for the 1% difference. But don’t forget the other 99%, don’t forget the fundamentals of the job.”
For McDermott the ‘fundamentals of the job’ involve helping coaches and players to get better. ”We have to continue to ask ourselves ‘what are we about?’,” explains McDermott. “We are about players, we are about getting coaches to help the players within their teams and we are about working with the clubs. So, that’s the one thing that I’ve learnt in the last 10 years: don’t forget the brilliant basics and work to be really good at them. Once you’ve got those fundamentals in place, keep looking for those margins.”
Having clarity on purpose and vision is a reference point McDermott returns to on a weekly basis. ”Having that vision and clear sense of purpose of what we are going after helps with reflection. When I’m going home at the end of the week, I will ask myself ‘What’s my job? Why am I here? And, what percentage of time this week have I spent on that?’. Of course, at times, you get distracted and there are things that always crop up – but you have to deal with that and not be derailed. It’s so important not to go chasing down things that aren’t fundamental in helping the players to get better or helping the coaches to help the players to get better.”
Self-awareness and understanding your strengths and weaknesses are key skills that technical directors need in order to be a success, says McDermott. “I think the skills you need as a technical director in order to be effective, are similar to that of a player. It’s about knowing what your strengths are because the scope of the job is so massive.
“It was Jimmy Armfield, [former England captain] who was a strong advocate of the phrase ‘know thyself’. He used to talk about the importance of knowing what you are good at and trying to play to your super strengths. I believe mine is player development, my experience in the game and it’s working with coaches.
“In knowing what you are good at, and maybe knowing what you are not so good at as well, you can start to get people around you to try and complement that. This will result in a team or group of people that have got a varied skillset to be able to deal with the full scope of the role.
“I think that comes from having the ability to be introspective, to be self-aware, but also to be able to delegate some of the things that are not necessarily your strengths.”
“In England you can’t go it alone”
Self-awareness has helped McDermott understand the importance of working alongside England’s other major football stakeholders in order to grow the game in his country. “In England you can’t go it alone,” he says. “It’s really important that we work closely with the Premier League, the English Football League, with the PFA [Professional Footballers’ Association] and the LMA [League Managers Association], as they are all really important key stakeholders. Just keeping them abreast and being abreast of what their policies are and what their thinking is, is really important. The collective power of the five stakeholders in English football is huge.”
Collaborating effectively with internal and external stakeholders involves ‘managing upwards’ and understanding the business of football, explains McDermott. “What I’ve found within this role is the importance of having to manage upwards and being aware of politics and the bigger picture of the business of football,” he explains. “Even within my previous senior management roles in clubs, sometimes the most important thing is taking on that responsibility to free up the thinking space for coaches to be able to work with players.”
Working at a national association brings different opportunities and challenges than those in the club game, says McDermott. “At national level you can get your ‘periscope’ up and get fresh ideas and see what’s happening around the world. Then it’s a case of trying to prepare the federation and trying to prepare the other stakeholders in order to prepare the game. When you’re in ‘club land’, you’re involved in the day-to-day, micro work, which is brilliant, but as a technical director, a colleague on a recent FIFA panel astutely commented, ‘our role is about winning the next decade rather than just the next game’.”
Technical directors of the future: carrying staff through uncertainty
Looking ahead to the next decade, McDermott believes technical directors will need the skills of anticipation, agility and innovation in order to carry their staff through uncertain times. “I think what I’ve learnt over the years, and probably more so in the last two years, is the need to be agile and the need to be able to innovate and anticipate what’s coming next. It’s about showing that agility and niftiness to be able to think on your feet at times.”
Dealing with uncertainty is a key aspect of leadership and one which will become even more important in the future, believes McDermott. “People don’t like uncertainty and it’s to be able to give that confidence that, even though we are in uncertain times, we’ll be alright, we’ll get through it and there is light at the end of the tunnel. I think being able to demonstrate that in order to carry your staff, the players and the game with you, I think that’s probably going to be more important as the world at times seems a more uncertain place.”
Technical directors are ‘guardians of the game’ and should aim to leave football in a healthier state than when they started in their role
As technical departments get bigger, it is important not to neglect the ‘brilliant basics’
Collaborating effectively with internal and external stakeholders involves ‘managing upwards’ and understanding the business of football
What do you feel you need to achieve to be considered a ‘guardian of the game’ in your country?
What does the term ‘brilliant basics’ mean to you in your work? How can you improve this?
How well do you know the ‘business of football’ in your country and how can you improve your knowledge in this area?