How A Consultant Took Charge of a Struggling Football Team and Maybe Won the Title: A Love Story

So here’s a disclaimer. There is no real love story in this piece unless you consider the love of football and of management techniques (snort). This was just to make the title appear more snazzy and to attract a wider audience (something marketers would know all about). However, this piece does have a consultant and he does take charge of a struggling football club and maybe he does win the title but you’ll only know that if you read on. So let’s begin with our “A long time ago in a galaxy far far away…” bit.

The owners of Mediocre FC (MFC) were worried. The club had endured a disastrous start to the new campaign, and currently sat 10th in the Money Spinner League (MSL) having already lost 4 of their first 10 games. This was a big comedown for the club from the dizzying heights of last season where they had played some of the best football in the league and finished in second place, narrowly losing out to the eventual champions, FilthyRich.

The club chairman had just received the letter of resignation of the MFC manager and was contemplating how he could prevent this torrid start from turning into a full blown crisis. The European conglomerate that had bought the controlling stake in MFC only four years ago had done so amongst many protests from a faction of the board and the shareholders. Although the performance of the club since had been satisfactory, it still hadn’t been good enough to vindicate the huge investment and the chairman was only well aware that if they were to falter now, the vultures would again start circling, demanding his head on a platter.

The chairman, being first and foremost an astute businessman, knew that the problems of the club ran deep and needed to be rectified soon. So he hired Pay Through Your Nose & Co., one of the best consulting firms in the world to propose a solution.

As luck would have it, Mr. Greedy McQuid (he probably had some Irish in him), one of the best consultants in the firm having just made partner, had just finished his current assignment. Not only was he one of the best Organizational Design consultants in the firm, he was also a boyhood MFC supporter. He was devastated by the state the club were in and felt he could turn it around. So after long negotiations he convinced his firm and the MFC board to appoint him as interim manager to reverse the decline.

Mr McQuid reported for his first day in charge with a detailed framework. He was going to treat the club like an organization and thus identify the malaise that plagued it. He had divided the team and support staff into 3 functions: Defence, Midfield and Attack. After a detailed study of their performances over the season he had concluded that the 3 functions suffered from a sub-unit orientation: they cared only for their role, not for the greater good of the team. The midfielders were slow to support the defence by dropping in deep to help out when the opposition had the ball, the defence was reluctant in pressing up the pitch to help counter-attack at pace, the forwards didn’t work hard enough to win the ball and blamed the midfield for lack of service.

He knew that there was a greater need for integration and communication in the team. He was certain they had the resources and the technical capabilities, after all this same team had been playing brilliantly just a few months ago. But he needed to bring in an organization-wide change and change always meets resistance.

In his first team meeting, he announced a more fluid, more compact approach would be how MFC would play now. He wanted his players to be more mobile and leave fewer spaces for the opposition to play through. This went against the style of the club and he had been expecting murmurs of disapproval. What he got instead was an outright altercation from none other than the club captain. He was widely regarded as one of the best midfielders in the league and had been with the club for over a decade. However, Mr McQuid had observed that over the past season or so his performances had been erratic and he wanted the team to play in a style more suited to him. The captain thoroughly derided his strategy and ridiculed him for thinking he could succeed without any experience coaching a football club. The captain also had a small band of close-knit followers who supported him and Mr McQuid knew they would cause a destabilizing influence in the dressing room. After the meeting ended in a farce, Mr McQuid was left wondering about his next move.

His first game in-charge was in 3 days and he chose not to play the captain. The decision was roundly booed by the media and the fans and after MFC could only scrape through a fortuitous draw, looking a bare shadow of the team from last season, there were bets being placed on how much longer this odd managerial appointment would survive. The next game was after a 2 week break and the manager had to come up with a plan. Over the next 3 days he held multiple meetings with the senior players in the team, including the captain none of which yielded any positive results. However, Mr McQuid was convinced his plan was the right one. He knew that he had to bring about change and considering the resistance it would have to be revolutionary in nature. So in a press conference he announced that the club captain was not part of his rebuilding plans, and would be sold to the highest bidder in the next transfer window. The announcement sent shockwaves through the world of sport. So in order to keep his players focused on the task at hand, he took the team to a remote training camp and cut off all communication with the media

But the objective of this retreat was more than that. He knew he needed to build a new set of values and norms in the team. To contend with the changing nature of football, he knew his team needed to be more fluid and communicative. They also needed to understand the roles of the other players and help support them when needed.

He knew his team was now in a state where they needed to focus on flexibility and readiness in order to achieve growth. Once this was achieved, he could start focusing on building better cohesion and morale and making the team members more assured of their value to the team. And once they had cohesion, they could focus on communication and attain more stability and control.
When the football began next weekend, Mr McQuid had come with a plan. The starting line-up held a huge surprise for everyone when they saw Young Blood, a 17-year old club youth academy product starting in the position of the club’s ex-captain. Young Blood had broken into the first team last season and made a few exciting cameos but he was still considered a work in progress and his position was radically different to the captain’s. The pundits had already predicted a defeat for MFC before they even took to the field and the predictions seemed to be accurate when the club went down 2-0 in the first half. Young Blood had worked hard but had hardly seen the ball. However, the second half saw a tactical reshuffle from the MFC manager. Young Blood was now playing as a striker with one of the established strikers frequently dropping deep and spreading the play with his precision passing. The change was totally unexpected and before anybody had understood what had happened MFC had already levelled, scoring 2 in a blistering 10 minutes. The opposition defenders were confused over whom to mark as the 3 MFC attacking players constantly rotated positions. The game had become very stretched and could’ve swung either way when suddenly in the 88th minute, the opposition defence was caught out by a wonderfully threaded pass from deep midfield and Young Blood was through. With only the keeper to beat he displayed composure much beyond his years and coolly finished through the keeper’s legs to send the fans and players into wild celebrations.

Young Blood Tearing Opponents Apart
Young Blood Tearing Opponents Apart

Over the next few weeks, the MFC strategy started to take solid shape. That last-gasp victory had given them belief that the system could work and it showed in the manner of their play. The manager treated the club like a small entrepreneurial venture rather than an old behemoth and ran it as a tightly-knit unit. Training sessions were often cross-functional with the defence training under the midfield coach and so on so each function was well aware of the others’ responsibilities. This was now a much more cohesive and well-integrated unit and they were playing like it. The first few weeks had seen many frustrated players and coaches, but Mr McQuid had formed task forces consisting of senior players and coaches to iron out the issues as soon as possible. And he oversaw each function and was aware of all happenings in the team, something he accomplished by keeping the team structure flat and not allowing any factions or divisions to spring up.

Now that only 6 games were left to play, Mr McQuid had managed to win around the neutrals and the critics. His team were playing an exciting brand of football and they had been on a very good run of form. They had lost a few games here and there but they were in contention for the title and almost certain to qualify for the European places. If they managed to keep up their level of performance and the top 2 teams fumbled, they could become champions.

The new look MFC vs FilthyRich
The new look MFC vs FilthyRich

The next game was critical – an away game at the defending champions, FilthyRich, who were trying to salvage their own title defence. The atmosphere at the game both on and off the pitch was explosive. The players were flying into tackles and tempers often flared. The external environment didn’t help much with the entire game played in a torrential downpour. The game ended as a draw, but MFC suffered a major setback. Young Blood, who had been a revelation playing just about everywhere on the pitch, was injured and out for the rest of the season. It was widely prophesied that the title challenge of MFC was now over and they would only be able to contend for a European spot.

However, Mr McQuid had one more trick up his sleeve. A big believer in slack resources, he had anticipated such a situation and focused on grooming young players to take the place of critical first teamers. The next game saw Battering Ram, another youth player who had been given some chances this season as a deep-lying midfielder, start in attack in the place of Young Blood. The game ended with a convincing 3-0 victory for MFC, with Battering Ram playing in the unfamiliar position as if he had been born there.

But, fairy-tale endings usually remain in the purview of fairy-tales. MFC won their remaining 4 games but so did the team that was at #1. The damage that had been done to MFC at the beginning of the season meant that their fate wasn’t in their control. However, they finished the season as runners up, an idea that had seemed laughable after their first 11 games. They won praise from all quarters for the style of their play and the MFC board offered Greedy McQuid the manager’s job full time. This was a dream come true for the young consultant and he said his goodbyes to Pay Through Your Nose & Co. and began the new chapter in his story. Well maybe we can have some fairy-tale endings come true after all. 🙂

-Nadeem

Nadeem is currently trying to make sense of Life, the Universe and Everything coming to the end of his first year at XLRI, Jamshedpur and working very hard at his summer internship.
He’s also a music lover, master of 3 musical instruments, undiscovered singing prodigy, class jester, wordsmith, and the secret identity of Superman all rolled into one charming package.

Read all articles by Nadeem here

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Nadeem Raj

Nadeem is a class of 2015 student at XLRI, Jamshedpur in the HR stream after working for 3 and a half years with TCS in the Program Management function. He is a big fan of literature and music and will be doing his summer internship with Novartis Pharmaceuticals.

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