Talking to Kevin Thelwell, Head of Football Operations at Wolves

We spoke to Kevin about his work at Wolves. His role is essentially that of a Sporting Director so we were interested to understand what path he took to get there and how he sees his role now and in the future.

What has been your career path to date?
Following a short professional playing career at Shrewsbury Town I continued to play predominantly in semi-professional football.  I began my coaching career with the Football Association of Wales following my appointment as the Football Development Officer for Denbighshire, North Wales in 1998. During that time I also continued to study and successfully completed a Bsc (Hons) degree in Sport Science at Manchester Metropolitan University.  In 2002 I was appointed as Director of Coach Education by the FAW with the responsibility of coordinating and developing coach education at all levels in Wales. This included the organisation and delivery of UEFA Advanced Licence and Pro Licence courses which proved to be a fantastic education.  In 2005, I was appointed as Director of Youth at Preston North End before moving to Derby County in the 2006-07 season to become Academy Manager.  I combined this role with that of acting first team coach, helping the club win promotion to the Premier League in my first season.  In 2008 I was appointed academy manager at Wolverhampton Wanderers before being promoted to the role of Head of Football Development and Recruitment in 2012.

Can you explain your role within the football club
The Club wanted to have a greater degree of diligence, transparency and support across all areas of the Football Department and recognised that the Manager role was difficult enough without having to hold responsibility for huge areas such as Recruitment, Academy, Medical Services, Sport Science and Performance Analysis, contracts and negotiation etc.  On this basis they chose to appoint a Head of Football role to work alongside the Head Coach to provide the required support around all of these areas.  Essentially, at Wolves, Ken (Jackett) is responsible for the preparation and management of the first team whilst I support him and the Board through the management of all other aspects of the football operation (as above) – making sure they are fit for purpose to give us the very best opportunity to succeed in all of these areas.

This is a role that is becoming more common in football. Why do you think this is?
I think there are many reasons for this.  Firstly it is a model that has been successful for many years on the continent and in other sports and as such Clubs are always trying to find ways to gain competitive advantage – become more organised, more focused, more strategic – I believe that the role allows clubs to achieve this.  The recognition that the sheer size of the “Manager” role in modern football has become almost an impossible task for any one individual – to be successful at the highest levels and with the demands of the role, support is needed to be successful.  I also believe that Clubs now have an increased understanding that stability and continuity are important factors in success – a change one / change all approach is counter-productive in terms of staffing, philosophy etc

Like all roles a person needs to be equipped with skills and competencies. Can you describe the skills and knowledge you need to make an impact in your role
The role is very broad (although I appreciate it differs from Club to Club in terms of levels of responsibility) and as such I believe that a diverse skill set is required for the Sporting Director role especially when you take into account what can be a very challenging and pressurised environment.  The ability to communicate is vital if you are to be successful in the role – on a day to day basis you are having discussions with the Chairman, Chief Executive, Head Coach, Players, Staff, Agents etc as well as significant others from other football clubs and as such if you are unable to communicate your perspective in an appropriate way (and this can very different depending on the topic / individual involved) then your role could become a bit of an uphill struggle.  Strong management skills including organisation, strategic thinking and a process driven approach will help you to manage the diversity of the role on a daily basis.  The Sporting Director also has to have a clear philosophy about how the club is to succeed across the departments he manages and clear values on how those departments are to operate to get the very best from each situation.  Finally, let’s not forget a strong work ethic in what is a very demanding role!

Can you explain how your role sits alongside the head coach
Initially I would make the point that in no way is the role set up to threaten the Head Coach in anyway.  In fact, quite the opposite, it is very much a supporting role to give the Head Coach the greatest chance of success.  At Wolves, Ken and I work very closely, I am based at the training ground and our offices are next door to each other.  We talk several times a day about all aspects of the football operation and work together to find solutions to any problems that might arise.  We are clear that we cannot always agree and we have a relationship where we are both comfortable to speak freely.  Any decisions that are made are usually made following discussions that also include our CEO, Jez Moxey who we also work closely with.  To date we have found that these relationships and by being organised in this way allows us to make strong and informed decisions in the best interests of the Club and the team.

You attended the Sporting Directors Summit hosted by VSI at the Etihad. What are your thoughts on the Sporting Directors programme at Manchester Metropolitan University Business School
Firstly I would make the point that the Conference should be viewed as an outstanding success.  It was well attended by key people that were able to gain huge value from what was an excellent panel of guest speakers.  In terms of the Sporting Director course – due to the fact that in this country the role is still very much in its infancy it is very difficult to gain access to a programme of support that could prepare you for this job.  If the role of the sporting director is to succeed then it will only do so on the strength of the work done by individuals in situ.  As such, having access to such a course that is hugely relevant, dynamic and supports the development of the skills required can only be a very positive step forwards.

Kevin Thelwell
Head of Football Development and Recruitment