When Mark Robinson was officially appointed Head Coach two months ago that wasn’t the only major change at our club.
Behind the scenes a revolution was taking place that introduced a whole new structure and an entirely different way of running our club and how we source and develop players.
In an expansive and revealing interview, our chief executive Joe Palmer explains why change was necessary, and how the old way of doing things is being replaced by a five-man football panel, the introduction of innovative data profiling – and a brand-new and exciting philosophy…
Q: Why have we changed the traditional way of running our club?
Joe: Primarily, to get more value from our budget. That really is at the crux of everything. Everyone knows we have one of the lowest budgets in the League but that doesn’t mean we can’t be competitive. We just needed to find a different way of operating – one that would help us get more value from the players we signed and the players we develop. One that would give us an edge.
Q: How is all that possible?
Joe: By implementing a new philosophy and a new way of doing things. That starts with the Academy and how it develops players, and it continues all the way to the first pro contracts and players' pathways into senior football, plus the type of players we bring in externally.
Q: Robbo was given the title ‘Head Coach’ when he was appointed - as opposed to manager. Was this part of the new thinking?
Joe: Absolutely, yes. There are very few businesses in the world where one individual would have singular control of such a large budget. Managers bring in their own ideas of the players they want and how they want to play, but this can be a costly exercise, often with wholesale changes. Then if that manager fails, a new one is appointed and the whole cycle kicks off again – at a relatively large cost to the club. The club should control the philosophy and the policies and a coach should be selected on their belief in that same ideology and ability to work within that ecosystem.
We wanted to break that cycle and create a model which guarantees continuity. We also wanted to make certain that fundamental football decisions were being made by a group and not just one person.
Q: So, a football committee has been created – but who sits on it?
Joe: There’s me, Robbo, our new recruitment and analytics manager, Will Daniels, and two senior scouts.
Q: Isn’t there a danger you will all disagree with one another?
Joe: Far from it. In fact, the biggest problems are usually at clubs with a head coach and a sporting director – or a single manager and owner. How many times have you seen them falling out? Mainly because it’s just two people at opposing ends of the spectrum incapable of finding any common ground. Nobody can find a way through that deadlock.
A football committee, however, gives us five people instead of two and they can’t be polarised in the same way. If you have a group working collectively to make a decision then that can work so much better than two people with daggers drawn.
In fact, all of us are basically on the same page; we think the same way about the game. In fact, that’s the best bit, the fundamental agreement between us. We are all very open minded, we are all data driven and excited by analysis and numbers. We all believe in thinking outside the box and brining in players that add value to the club and to the team culture – in short we all have a mindset to make brave choices.
Q: Is this something Robbo has bought in to?
Joe: One hundred per cent, yes. In fact, he is key in terms of the strategy and the new way of thinking. The foundations are being laid for Robbo to take us into the next season and beyond. He’s essential to the success of this new structure. Robbo wants things to be done at their absolute best level and it’s because he can see the wisdom and thinking behind these changes that we’ve been able to bring them in.
Q: What’s impressed you most about Robbo so far?
Joe: I think very highly of Robbo. Since before his appointment, I’ve always resonated with the way he talks and thinks about football and I truly believe in his ability. He once said to me: “I eventually always succeed in what I do.” Wow, I thought, his mentality is so similar to mine - his drive and confidence in his own ability - and it gives me a strong trust in him.
Whenever he’s made decisions on the pitch they’re nearly always ones that I’d make myself and that’s rare for me. I love the fact he’s bold with his decision-making. He’s his own man, he does what he believes.
He’s also a very intelligent guy. I like the way he approaches things. He’s very logical and creative and we are definitely in good hands. Everyone knows he lives and breathes the club but not many know or understand that he’s not a life-time career footballer. He’s well educated and he ran his own successful business.
Few people in his position have that background and those skills and experiences and they definitely make him a better person and Head Coach. It genuinely shows. He thinks about things differently, he brings people together collectively.
Q: So, how will this committee work and what role does football analyst Will Daniels play?
Joe: As a group, our priority is to give Robbo the tools he needs to succeed and to take some of the burden off him so he can focus on getting the best out of the players on the pitch. Recruitment is a tricky and time consuming exercise. Will is focused on finding Robbo the players he needs, whilst also helping to assess the performance of the squad and our current players, giving Robbo vital insights to help him manage the team.
Q: What is this data and what does it tell us?
Joe: Everything about a player’s performance - their one-on-one duels, their heading, speed, passing completion rates, successful balls into the box, positional propensity, and distances covered for example, etc. The whole story so we end up with a sophisticated profile of each player.
Q: This sounds like new territory for AFC Wimbledon. Where did all this come from?
Joe: In short, the betting industry. You only have to look at our neighbours Brentford FC. Brentford are now one of the world’s leading clubs in using data and analytics to successfully source players to improve team performance, but also optimise transfer value.
When you think about it betting companies have better statistical information than most sports clubs – they never lose! Brentford’s owner, Matthew Benham, comes from a strong betting background and has employed a sporting director from a betting background to drive this philosophy. Most clubs use data and have standard tools that help inform their recruitment, but Brentford are applying multiple layers of further data that few else are. That’s why they’re becoming so successful.
We’ve had a very good relationship with them for some time and benefited from some great loans. Will also comes from a strong football betting background and I was excited by what he could bring to our club and how that insight could help us find the competitive edge I mentioned earlier. It’s really exciting for us because very few other clubs have taken this approach as yet.
We brought Will in to lead our external recruitment and unearth the players that can bring us more value. Players who other clubs may have overlooked and most importantly, players that fit more closely to the team we are building. And to top it off, he’s a lifelong Wimbledon fan!
Q: What else do we hope to discover about potential players?
Joe: Aside from the performance statistics, we want to know if they are mentally the right type of player. This is an area Robbo is particularly passionate about; it’s a big factor for him. Will a player fit into the team, will they contribute, are they moaners, will they step up and take responsibility, are they positive or will they blame everyone else except themselves? Ideally, Robbo wants 11 players with strong mental characteristics. Leaders.
Q: You mentioned two senior scouts will also be on the panel. What are their main roles?
Joe: They will also be looking at the stats and the data – but then applying the sense check on that data – is what the data says what they are seeing on the pitch. You can’t source a player purely on data.
They will manage a team of scouts to assess the players we are targeting, but will also use their extensive contacts to work with agents and clubs for potential loans to support our objectives . It is important to get balance within the committee, so the senior scouts will have strengths in different areas - one has excellent non league experience and knows where to uncover hidden gems or the right sort of clubs to send our players to. The other has more knowledge of Leagues One and Two, plus Premier and Championship football for loans, and players dropping down from spells at a higher level. So between them we are looking have all bases covered.
That’s the concept. Over time we will develop our own analytical tools. We want to create our own platform that takes sources of data from lots of places and then creates new models of how we look at players. That’s our long-term goal.
Q: You mentioned the Academy earlier. How is that impacted by these changes?
Joe: We invest heavily in our academy, but have not managed the transition into the senior men’s game as well as we could have and as a result have let players go that have gone on to be valuable elsewhere. A player’s pathway shouldn’t stop when their scholarship finishes. Some are late developers and we must give more time to allow this to happen. The strategy here is to offer slightly longer first pro contracts and to send them out on loan. Many of you will remember that we abolished the U23 squad as we didn’t believe this was contributing effectively to a player's development. Players need real competitive experience, they need to be tested. So by loaning players out we reduce the financial risk to our playing budget, but also give them the experience they need to continue their pathway and reach their potential.
If we want them to be good enough for our first team then we need to be able to assess them properly and get them out there playing. That alone makes those players more valuable. The fact they have played a season in, say, Conference football, immediately increases their value, regardless if that is for our first-team or elsewhere.
Q: But how will we give them successful loans?
Joe: We started this process over a year ago, with Robbo heading up the loaning out of our players and we started the process of building more relationships with non league clubs that could become potential loan destinations for our players.
We are going to continue to develop this. It’s such a vital role and are putting more focus on the resource to do this. We will make sure the youngsters we send out are developing at the clubs they go to. We’ll continue watching them, getting feedback, and assessing how they’re doing. That’s the key thing. We’re not just sending them out and that’s it - see you next season. It’s a constant process of ensuring their development.
Q: How do all these changes make you feel about the future?
Joe: Extremely excited. I think we will get far more value from the players we bring in and the ones we develop.
As a club we have not profited sufficiently from out talent. Talent should either stay and help our own performances or create valuable income for us by moving on. For many clubs that’s their entire business model. We need to learn from that. If we can’t realistically hold onto a player, then we must make sure we optimise his value.
Our new structure gives us the opportunity to do that. It lets us run our club in the optimum way. I love nothing more than uncovering a hidden gem – be it a homegrown player or one from outside. Everyone wants to find or develop the next Messi, don’t they?