This blog post does not aim to debate this individual sacking based on performances, but aims to argue that Barnsley’s complete business strategy does not set the club up for success.

I think that the sentiments of many Barnsley fans, who learned the fate of Danny Wilson on Thursday, were perfectly echoed by a question from Radio Sheffield’s Andy Giddings, to Oakwell Chief Executive Ben Mansford, in his interview following the departure.

“I suppose though, if you had a long term plan… this is, what, February? It only started really in the summer though… I mean has he [Danny Wilson] been given enough time to build that long term plan?”

To which Ben Mansford gave the short reply “Well we feel it has Andy, yeah”.

This blog post does not aim to debate this individual sacking based on performances, but aims to argue that Barnsley’s complete business strategy does not set the club up for success.

Those that know me will be aware that for the first time in six years, I have actually been unable to comment on the on-pitch proceedings at Oakwell given my move to the U.S.A. right before the start of the season. But regardless of the fact that I haven’t been able to get to Oakwell, I can say that ironically, this sacking has been coming since long before Wilson was ever appointed, and could be traced back to Mark Robins’ departure in 2011, or even further back than then.

As was stated earlier in this post, the whole thing boils down to business strategy.

I choose the point of Mark Robins’ departure as the inception point for a particular reason. It was the point at which, probably for the first time, the club’s leadership expressed the need to ‘run the club as a business'. I am not here to debate whether this is or isn’t the right thing, as since I’m a ’94 baby, I know nothing else but the money-driven premier league era which forever consigned the working class professional footballer to the history books. But what I am here to debate, is that if this is the way in which the board at the time (and consequently the current one) wished to proceed, then they have done so in the wrong manner.

A business strategy in layman’s terms is the means by which a business sets out to achieve its end objectives, and a typical high level strategy statement will go something like this: “We want to grow into a £x million revenue company by 2018, by selling to an x% bigger market share, growing organically by x% a year”. Business strategy exists in both the long and short term, and my main concern with Barnsley FC, is that it doesn’t, and never has had a long term business strategy in mind, and at most, the board thinks in 6 month to possibly 2 year periods at a time, and in the majority of cases, even the 2 year plan is not seen through, as told by the numerous managerial and playing staff departures. Don’t get me wrong, I do think that since the inception point I referred to, there have been the beginnings of an improved and more forward thinking strategy, but the execution has been severely lacking, and some of the goals have become somewhat convoluted, particularly since the appointment of Ben Mansford, and our relegation to League 1.

Our strategy, which was reflected in the appointment of successful Rochdale manager Keith Hill, was to develop youth, bring in players who had somewhat lost their way, and develop them alongside some more seasoned professionals, all in the name of making the club self-sufficient without the need for our benefactor Patrick Cryne.

Off the back of what had just been achieved at Rochdale, Hill was evidently the right man for the job. For the first half of the season the strategy was going swimmingly, but of course the turning point came, when quicker than a flash the arguably three best players were all gone in an instant. Whilst much has already been said on the Ricardo Vaz Te deal, the details are not so much as important as the overriding principle which should have followed regardless of whether he stayed or was sold - the manager needed backing. Keith had been trusted to implement a strategy, and did so with aplomb within his remit. One of the basic business mistakes was to pull the carpet from under Hill within an instant. Of course the end goal was to break even and be profitable within the longer term, but to expect that within one season, whilst also expecting the team to perform on the pitch is completely ludicrous, even in BUSINESS terms.

You don’t have to be Richard Branson or Alan Sugar to know that businesses are not expected to turn a profit and be successful instantly, and  in fact such characters will often be the first to tell you about how much investment they had to put in before they ever saw a return. Investing for the long term is in the very nature of business, and is basically why there are such things as venture capital and business finance firms. In short, the strategy in the long term, was only ever going to work if the right decision was made in the short term - the decision being to back the manager financially.

Let’s not forget that this was Keith Hill we were talking about, a man who wouldn’t have taken the kid in the candy store approach, but someone who would have made solid investments to deliver his long term and short term goals. Although in the catastrophic 12 months at the end of Keith Hill’s tenure, his tactics, team selections and media pieces became increasingly wild  beyond the point being tolerable from an already eccentric character, I think it is safe to say that they were purely driven by increasing desperation at the situation which was well out of his hands - a situation that had only worsened in the summer, as evidenced by the kinds of player brought in, despite the fact that the club made a small profit in no time at all.

As Keith Hill’s departure was confirmed, the long term strategy was temporarily put on hold, and rightly so, the club went to crisis management mode. I don’t need to tell anyone that fixing a small chip in a car windshield is much easier and far more cost effective than replacing the entire thing once it’s broken beyond repair (Autoglass already did that). Well the same applies to business. In not backing Keith at the right moment, the club created a far more difficult and expensive situation than a wage hike for Ricardo Vaz Te, or investment in a proper replacement would have ever cost. Luckily, the crisis management worked, and between David Flitcroft’s miracle work and Patrick Cryne agreeing to give some maneuvering room in the budget, the club survived.

Whilst you can excuse any business, in our case our football club, from going into crisis management mode, the key thing at the end of the crisis is to return to the strategy that was originally put in place, whilst learning from our mistakes and tweaking it to suit our current environment. The John Stones money was prime for implementing said strategy. The investments could go into developing our own players, and naturally some of this had to go into the academy. Instead, the money was wasted on team buses, and giving contracts to players who were of rotation quality at best, only for the majority of them to be out in the cold for the majority of the season. Despite promises of the likes of Reuben Noble-Lazarus and Danny Rose getting around 30-40 games apiece, they failed to muster even 20 between them.

From what had started as a fantastic, sensible, and at first successful strategy under Keith Hill - all that was remaining was words, and the strategy was tossed further and further aside as the season elapsed. Our academy graduates were not being developed, and as time went by, even our ‘broken toys’ were thrown well and truly out of the pram in favour of ‘experience’, and thus we had returned full circle to the situation which led to Mark Robins’ departure in the first place, where players who didn’t give a rat’s ass about Barnsley were paid ludicrous sums to ‘play’ football.

Summer came by, and the messages of rebuilding and looking toward a long term strategy, using our own players and developing others in return for a profit, could not have been more encouraging. Signings such as Conor Hourihane and Sam Winnall reminded me a great deal of the signings of Craig Davies and Scott Golbourne in the past. Players who’d done something of note at a lower level, and had plenty to offer in terms of potential. These types of player, combined with the likes of our academy graduates and a couple of classic ‘broken toys’ could have certainly brought success. That is not to say instantaneous success, but a decent start to a long term plan.

Here is the kicker in what was being said over summer, and in what is being said now in the aftermath of Wilson’s departure. All of this was expected as part of a long term plan, yet we were expected to go back to the Championship as soon as possible, which given numerous interviews from players and former staff alike stating that the play-offs were still within reach, was likely expected as being within this year.

As I premised this post, whilst I cannot comment on anything after the Coventry away game in terms of on-pitch performance, all I can ask is how was the manager expected to play a berth of youngsters, whilst still aiming to get promoted? That said, if the aim of developing OUR OWN talent was part of the manager’s remit, then why have we discarded the likes of Noble-Lazarus and Rose on free transfer deals without giving them so much as a sniff, whilst bringing in other clubs’ youngsters who we won’t see past this season?

As evidenced by the sheer number of players used this season, and the fact that the playing budget is allegedly one of the highest in the division, the strategy has become completely convoluted, and the lack of cohesion is why Danny Wilson left the football club, whether by his own fault or not. As I’ve said, the aim was to get promoted by trying to develop our own players and deliver return on investment.

The two things are completely contradictory strategies. The board was expecting harmony between things which were mutually exclusive. That is to say that, yes there are several ways of getting promoted, one of which is to spend money and go gung-ho trying to get out of the division, as worked for Sheffield Wednesday (albeit not straight away), or try to build something long term with our own youngsters, thus saving a bit of money and becoming profitable in the process. What you can’t expect is to throw some half-hearted mash-up between money and youngsters into the fray, and expect it to produce the instantaneous results that we wanted - whilst turning a profit.

What I’m saying here is that whether we need greater investment or not is almost irrelevant. Yes of course you need the investment to sustain even the youngsters and the more ‘organic’ growth model, which was evidenced by the downfall of Keith Hill - but that is one strategy. If the goal was an instant return, then a far greater level of investment was needed - or at least in different areas of the squad. Of course, you can argue Wilson might have done better with the tools at his disposal, as I’m sure many will. However, the club was not set up to succeed in the first place.

I am not claiming to have all the answers here. And actually in terms of business, football is incredibly demanding, given that in one business cycle (a season), failure can start a big downward spiral, given that if you get relegated, the fall in revenue makes what you’re trying to achieve even harder. However, what I am saying is that the club needed to choose a clear and achievable strategy, and go for either the long game or short game (of which success is guaranteed by either choice), and then stick to it.  Even if the long term strategy is taken, the short term decisions support the longer term goal.

And so when we came to Thursday, when Ben Mansford said in his interview that Danny Wilson had gone for ‘business reasons’, I was absolutely flabbergasted, regardless of my largely irrelevant opinion on how much his tactics, team selections and performances had influenced his departure. The ‘business reasons’ stated are clear in the club statement for all to see, stating how we have a large budget, fan base, and whatever else. Whilst that is all perfectly well and good - did Danny go because he had failed to deliver what was looking like an instant push for promotion, or because he’d failed to put into place the seeds for a long term plan? If the answer was both, then what manager can deliver said outcomes?

Even more astounding is that, whilst Mr Mansford rather admirably said that the board doesn’t speak to potential managers whilst the incumbent is in office, the board seems to have failed to even drawn up a shortlist, or be clear and vocal about the success criteria and STRATEGY that the manager will have to follow, and the qualities that would be needed to deliver such.

Do not be fooled. This kind of thing does not need to be kept under wraps. If the board has a long term strategy, then they would know exactly the kind of manager they would be looking for, and should be vocal in those requirements, without naming names. What the majority of this boils down to is that I feel this board does not have either the ability nor bravery to set their stall out on a strategy and see it through. Regardless of the fact that my personal opinion thinks that we should go for the long term sustainable option, because I grew sick of careless journeymen ruining our football club long ago; the board needs to choose one of the two strategies (clearly the one they feel that is most attainable) and stick to it. I honestly think that Barnsley fans would buy into either the expensive route or the sustainable route, but this strategy needs to be clearly communicated, and be the centre of everything Barnsley FC does. At that point, I think that the club will have the supporter backing it needs, even in hard times, and will be set up for success.

As a last musing, one thing I think that Ben Mansford needs to be particularly careful of is his use of the word ‘business’ and it’s related terms such as ‘return on investment’. These things have to be lived by in the strategy. And if delivering return on investment is a key outcome, then this has to be upheld by all, including himself. His largely unknown remit will ultimately come down being able to bring revenues and profits to the club, but if he is unable to follow a strategy for longer than seven months, then he may find his own stock and ‘return on investment’ will be questioned.

As Chief Executive, Ben Mansford's job is to define a realistic strategy, but also to act unrelentingly to ensure that it is implemented correctly.

I will actually sanction a sacking if a realistic strategy is not followed, but since that has not happened at Oakwell in a long time, I struggle to see where any manager would have done better, as the stat that says we make a manageral change on an almost annual basis clearly shows.

I hope that this blog has brought a bit of perspective to the whole situation, and would love to gain your opinions in the comments below, or via my Twitter @MichaelRoach55. Please give this post a share, and let me know what you think.

Sending my regards from a blisteringly cold Chicago - thanks for reading!

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Grahame Bird said...

This is one of the most sensible articles I have read in long time. It hits the nail on the head and I think we have found a potential CEO to take the club forward. Great post, let's hope that those in power take note.

Unknown said...

Thanks Grahame. Flattered by the CEO comment but don't see it happening any time sooN!

David Clayton said...

Bang right