The one when the FA met McKinsey

 

It has been remarkable, although not surprising, to observe the «debate» following the elimination of England last Sunday; increasingly angry exchanges supporting and attacking Saint Gareth Southgate, examining his record, philosophising on whether a coach has to be English.

As I’m, these days, trying to avoid any Twitter soapboxes, I can digest everything calmly, floating atop the rivers of dogma and vitriol. Because there are indeed some excellent points made both sides.

Sidebar… a self-imposed Twitter exile is a positive, which,  after the dopamine cold turkey subsidies, prevents knee-jerk rebuttals, and allows you time to frame your own opinion, having the advantage of digesting all the smart people. Punditry now is best as second mover, I conclude.

This tweet, especially, from a doyen of M25 English sports media, Henry Winter, caught my eye.

The Inquest !!!

From Henry, this surprised me. It is not in character. So much so, that I wonder if there was some personal snub that happened just before. It sounds like a typed-in-anger comment. Fascinating.

My own history at the sharp end of football’s governing bodies allows me to chuckle silently. There will be no real inquest, and maybe Gareth deserves that there isn’t.

Today, Gareth was confirmed as staying!

But what if a post-mortem WAS done properly ? Professionally.

What if they called in McKinsey or BCG?

How would that episode go? You’d pay for THAT All-or-Nothing show, wouldn’t you ?

The one where BIG CONSULTING meets the FA Exec Committee.

We will never see it but, in my own head, it could go something like this.

(Forgive me if anyone gets offended, or misrepresented. This is fiction, and a bit of fun. If they can get away with The Crown… Substitute McKinsey for BCG or Bain if you want. It doesn’t change anything.)

Debbie Hewitt MBE, FA Non-Executive Chair, opens the meeting and welcomes the “pod” from world renowned strategic consultancy McKinsey:

Ladies and gentlemen, immediately after the defeat in Qatar, Mark (Bullingham, Chief Executive Officer of the FA, ex ad agency guy), and I have asked the consultants here to prepare this introductory meeting for us and to review where we are, with fresh eyes. Not that we feel that there is anything fundamentally wrong with the game, or the FA, or that all our strategic 5 year plans need a pivot. Indeed, we all believe that our progress, under this Board, and Gareth, and especially the women’s game, is all moving in the right direction. But it’s always good to check. So I suggest we get right into it. Over to you Stanley.

Stanley (the fictional name a cap tip to Mr Rous) knew Debbie socially, their kids had touch points in the school theatre. They weren’t that close, but on good nodding terms. Debbie had asked Stanley for today’s meeting.

Stanley had been at McKinsey for 25 years and, a long time ago, made himself independently wealthy. He was a kind man who, nevertheless, had not been immune, over the years, to an increasing soupçon of arrogance. He tried to control it, but… when your persona is as a senior partner at McKinsey, it’s kind of part of the deal. If you want clients to be paying you seven figures a gig, you need to exude elite confidence and ability. He looked just like Jeremy Irons in Margin Call…

Do you know why they pay me the big bucks?”.

Extreme gravitas, with English gentlemanly grace, but more than a hint of danger.

Thank you Madam Chair, this is indeed an honour. I am here today with my two colleagues, and, off the bat, we all readily admit that football isn’t really a vertical of core competence for our firm.

He was lying. It’s McKinsey, they don’t do underpowered. They always do their prep.

Saying that, George here does have a season ticket for Scunthorpe United, if that ticks the elite football box in 2022? Monique (my senior manager) instead is from Marseilles, and thinks the Lionesses are really cool… so we’ve got that going for us, I guess. We come with humility.

Already, Jack Pearce from Bognor Regis Town and the Sussex County FA relaxes easier in his chair. He had been dreading this. The government regulator stuff was bad enough, he thought. Politicians in our game, not ideal! But fancy-dan consultants? No bloody way! Still, they seemed friendly, he thought, and he instantly liked George. Diddy team camaraderie?

Jack was in for a shock.

The best way for consultants to sell is usually to create fear, or greed. Stanley stood up, and walked over to the table, and poured himself a coffee. Back to the group, he started:

Look, we are busy, you are busy, and we are not going to sugar coat this. We are giving you this day for free and if nothing comes of this for us, our world doesn’t change. We are still McKinsey, and you will still be 60-year-old underachievers.

Audible gasps from the committee room.

Rick Parry, the famous ex CEO of the EPL and Liverpool, says nothing and wonders whether all this is going be a problem or an opportunity. He’s always felt well qualified to run the FA. He senses blood on carpets.

Stanley turns, reads the room, sips his coffee, knowing that he now has their attention, in a GlenGarry GlenRoss kind of way. Third prize is you’re fired.

«Monique, would you like to take this from here?»

Stanley felt that the female, inclusive thing would go down well, but, objectively, she was also his sharpest presenter, in that French superior kind of way. A young Natalie Wood, black knee length pencil skirt, beige silk top, perfectly accessorised. A mistress of the universe. And she knew it. At some point she would step out for a Gitanes.

She started, click-revealing one by one, a list of bullet points, but never ever once looking at the screen as they appeared. She knew her deck. Of course she did.

«England has been, for 30 years, the economic superpower in football, with the only global league, generating billions into the game. In most industries, this leads to elite performance, ahead of the competitors. Here, interestingly, it doesn’t!»

The professional pause, to let the passive-aggressive blow land.

All 4 of the non-executive directors shifted nervously in their chairs. These were the kind of challenges that, they immediately realised, should have been coming from them.

Monique sweeps back her fringe, rather dramatically, like someone just after doing a line: That thought had crossed the mind of a few over the years. She was, however, utterly magnetic.

«Since 1966, in World Cup knockout games, England has NEVER beaten any of the big teams, those that win things. That is, in anyone’s language, sup-optimal. This is the FA, this is the home of football. Not only, doesn’t it come home, it doesn’t even get close. But you folks seem cool with that!»

Monique glanced at Stanley, as he disguised a smirk. The way the male lion knows when the hunter female is going in for the kill. He knew what was coming. Monique played on her looks to hide, until the last moment, the machete in her Prada handbag. Stanley had seen this before. In many ways, it was an unfair fight.

«Do you know, ladies and gentlemen, how many English coaches have won the Premier League
since its inception in 1992?
»

Who would fall into the Scottish trap? The FA lawyer Board members in the room, whilst not knowing the answer, were smart enough to keep schtum. The silence was excruciating.

«The answer is zero».

 

Monique looked at Debbie, with one of those plastic smiles, and twisted the dagger.

«How many English coaches, trained in this wonderful complex of St George, operate at Champions League level, either here at home, or indeed anywhere?»

She didn’t need to give the answer this time. And she didn’t. In consultancy, there comes a moment when you’ve made your point and you remember that these people may soon be your client, paying you for several Nobu Park Lane lunches.

«I don’t think you are showing the FA the respect it deserves!»

 

Kate Tinsley complained. (Kate serves on The FA Remuneration, Nominations and Group Audit Committees, as well as the Grassroots Advisory Panel).

Monique of course had been baiting them for exactly that comment.

«No, Ms Tinsley, I’m giving the FA EXACTLY the respect it deserves. I am actually going easy!».

She glanced at Parry, who was secretly enjoying this, if not showing it. 

«How many English managers and players operate outside these shores, at elite level?».

« Managers, none! Players? 2? 3?».

«Let’s not forget that your two most successful England coaches had both worked overseas. Is that a coincidence, that they were exposed to overseas footballing culture?».

Not everyone in the room could have named Venables and Robson, if she had asked. She revealed the take-away on the screen, in smaller font than the rest. You almost had to strain to read it. She let them, sitting back down. 

«As long as you go on with this its-coming-home entitlement, it never will…

… English football is arrogant and insular, and that is a terminal combination.»

Politeness and manners were lost in that moment. Jobi McAnuff, an ex-player with a very decent and respected career, and a good man, had had enough at this point:

«I’m not sitting here listening to people who know nothing about the game, scold me like I’m in primary school. I’ve dedicated my life to football in this country and I’m proud of our values and tradition

 Debbie asked for calm. 

Monique handed the clicker to George, the Scunthorpe lad. 

Having deliberately lowered expectations before, Stanley now had his secret weapon locked and loaded. 

George was tall, with the spectacles of an intellectual. A young Peter Sellers. His rosy cheeks and regional accent gave him the advantage of people mistaking him for a shy, pleasant, young man. The kind grandmothers like. He, instead, was a killer in disguise. Always had been. Stanley adored George. He was authentic. He was for sure a future partner. 

«Please forgive my colleague … she’s French»

immediately relaxing the room, allowing strained guffaws. Jobi sat down again. 

Stanley, who had deliberately sat next to Debbie at the start of the meeting, leaned over and whispered something in her ear. She smiled. The more perceptive in the room began really wondering what was going on here. 

Click… another slide appears.

This time with various newspaper and twitter clippings, post game, spinning in like Citizen Kane.

«The referee did us in.», 

«We were the better team.»

«One more push and its ours.»

«The English coach must always be from these shores.»

George looked at the Board members, all in turn, with exactly the right level of eye-contact, and said softly, almost apologetically:

«You do know that is nonsense, don’t you?»

 

«HOW DARE YOU, YOUNG MAN, THIS ISN’T PROFESSIONAL!», exploded Mark.

Mark Esiri, from private equity, and a top operator, was a very recent appointee onto the Board in May 2022. And he knew that the baiting was borderline at this point. 

George continued, not missing a beat:

«We can only solve this, like any problem, by facing into it. These excuses on the screen are weak. The refuge of the loser.»

«There are 3 football reasons why we won’t win these tournaments.»

The «we» again very empathetic in its delivery.

«Firstly, we don’t have our most technical players in the middle of the park. Did you see how they played Griezman? Our British football has always been about getting the ball forward as quickly as possible. It’s what the fans demand. Hence we tend to be good at physical high-energy midfielders who, frankly, are ill suited to the needs of tournament football. We have no one technical to control the ball, and the pace of the game. Because it’s not our culture. When these players have come along, from Hudson, to Curry, to Hoddle, to Scholes, we struggle to fit them in. Rather than making them the centre of the whole shebang, like Pirlo, Modric, Xavi, we shoehorn them into the wings, if we play them at all. In summer tournaments, in the heat, with a month of condensed football, our style of play isn’t conducive to winning in the later stages». 

Stanley was pleased with his protégé. 

«Secondly, you win big things with the spine of a team. Goalie, CBs, playmaker, CF. I would argue, ladies and gentlemen, that we are not good at producing any of these roles, with quality, in numbers, any more. Thirdly, great teams win the big moments.» 

At this point his clicker revealed the Jonatahn Liew article.

«We are not winners, we are entitled, and scared. Risk averse.»

«So you are one of those Armchair Alfs (Ramsey) who blame the manager?», said the CEO, until then, very quiet. 

«Not at all!», retorted George, his regional accent noticeably thicker at this point.

«It’s an institutional mindset that needs changed»,

Stanley cut him off and closed his folder. This had always been the plan.

«It’s ok George, I don’t think there is much more to do here. Let’s go.»

«Is that all?», asked Debbie, the Chair, and owner of the meeting, more than a bit flustered and annoyed. This, she didn’t expect.

«You are non-believers, Debbie,
why should we waste time on kabuki?
»

«I don’t even know what that means Stan», with more familiarity than was disclosed up front, thought Parry.

«It means, Madam Chair, that it’s 60 years you have been trying your plan, and you lose. Not even close to being up there. You have enlisted our expertise and now rejected it… I am not interested in that, you can understand?»

«I don’t think your 7 days work, and big brand, allows you to challenge the core of our work here. I don’t care who you are», said Peter, one of the lawyers. Peter McCormick OBE was an old hand on the Board. He felt very significant progress had been made in his seven years. He represented the money, the Premier League, the EPL, on the Board. Very credible and experienced in the realpolitik of leagues and FAs. No lightweight.

Stanley, at this point, brought the full force of his McKinsey arrogance to the fore (it’s always there, when needed):

«I am not here to tell you about Jesus, Peter, he either lives in your heart or he doesn’t. Every football fan wants to win. You don’t seem to… I really do thank you for your time, but I think we’re done.» 

Mark, the CEO, felt a twinge in his brain. He was after all one of the Mad Men. He knew that little speech was for him. Don Draper at his very very best. 

 

«What would YOU do Stanley?», Mark asked.

«We do really need to go Mark,
but I’ll leave you with a couple of thoughts:

  • Realise that the EPL agenda around marketing a global league, means they are obliged to have recognised stars, as opposed to blooding these young academy kids early. That has an enormous cost to the national team. You need to fix that. With Brexit, can you enforce a fixed number of non English stars? You have lawyers in the room. Forget diversity and inclusion stuff, just for a second, and work on getting a result on that. Bring in the EFL, PFA, and the new regulator.
  • Completely uproot whoever is in charge of coach development. We all know it’s an old boys closed shop. Terminate with extreme prejudice. 
  • Don’t sack Gareth, if only because there is no one else English. Let him have the euros. You have other battles to fight right now. But do sack your U21 coach. 
  • Start talking to Arteta for 2 years time. Someone who knows the game here very well, but can play football the modern way. With an imprint. Only 2 teams in the EPL play the kind of game that can win the world cup. If you can get Pep great….but I sense Arteta is more achievable. 
  • Have a look at the culture in here. At the FA. Elite sport is ruthless. Gareth is too nice. You fine people are all too nice. You should have told us to fuck off 20 minutes ago for this level of disrespect. You, however, didn’t. 

Good luck with your next meeting!»

And SCENE.


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