Luck is Where Preparation Meets Opportunity: Some Notes on My Career Journey
This blog piece is long overdue. I set myself a challenge to write a more career focused blog as I’ve spoken on a number of podcasts about my career journey and I wanted to try and distil some of my thoughts into a more coherent shape.
The blog is in part my attempt to collate some of the advice I have given in response to the emails, calls and conversations with people who have asked variations of the same question; how did you get into the football industry, what’s the magic formula to combine a job with a passion for sports and/or football and how is it possible to replicate such (relative) success.
The good news is that there is no magic formula. Luck may play a part but, in my experience, hard work, dedication, perseverance and resilience are the traits most likely to lead you in the right direction. My belief is that putting small, manageable processes in place is key to successful outcomes. More of that later.
But let me first tell you a story which is taken from my book Done Deal. My love for sport, and in particular football, was forged on the rather uncomfortable red wooden seats of Row 11 Seat 146 of the main stand at Anfield, Liverpool. That was the seat where I sat, transfixed by Rush, Barnes and Beardsley in their prime. As I got older, I still loved the goals, glory and controversy, but I also became interested in the off-pitch transfers, contracts, finances and the wider football ecosystem. I devoured all the newspaper, Ceefax and (later) digital information I could get my hands on. I found that such knowledge stuck that bit easier. If only Swiss Ramble and his stellar analysis had been available in 1988.
My (rather hopeful) idea back at Manchester University in 2001 was to combine my love for football with my job. Ultimately, I’ve had to play the long-game. It’s been almost 20 years in the making. Over that time, I’ve managed to learn some invaluable lessons and my aim is to share the most pertinent with you.
Three Key Takeaways
- Invest In Yourself: Build your knowledge webs by making routines and developing processes. Find enjoyable ways to develop your skill set.
- Concentrate on the Invisible: The hard yards are done when no-one else is looking. Build your network through finding ways to help other people.
- Change Your Mindset: Your abilities will improve with practice and are not fixed. Mix a growth mindset with characteristics like grit and perseverance. Embrace long-term thinking.
A Knowledge Web
I needed to start somewhere in combining sport and law. My dissertation on the famous Bosman case during my undergraduate degree, and my Research Masters on Competition Law and Football Broadcasting Rights with the exceptional sports academic and now friend Mark James, laid my knowledge foundations.
I found that as I gained a deeper understanding about particular topics, things started slowly knitting together. It continues to be a long-term investment strategy. Let me give you an example. The owners and directors test in the various football rules prevents certain individuals from owning/controlling a club. This includes preventing the same person having a 10% or more shareholding in another Premier League or Football League club. As a result, club ownership requirements across the English leagues and in European competitions became important for me to understand. I ended up writing about the topic during my Masters year and getting my article published in The Entertainment Law Review.
It meant I had to learn about the multi-club ownership ENIC case (and more recently update myself on the Red Bull UEFA case). The cases centred on whether an owner was able to influence two clubs competing in the same UEFA competition and whether there would be an actual or potential conflict (i.e. where an owner may decide it would be beneficial for one club to win or qualify at the expense of the other). Integrity issues were also at the heart of third party investment (TPI) concerns, where companies ‘owned’ the transfer rights of football players (including the high profile cases of Tevez and Mascherano). In 2015 FIFA decided to ban this practice due to integrity concerns, preventing a situation whereby a TPI company could also own a club and that club could play against the players that they ‘owned’.
As you can see from this example, issues from takeovers to club ownership, integrity matters to TPI topics all collide and interrelate. The deeper you go, the greater the connections.
In the past I had tried to explain this to someone by comparing my knowledge gains to a spider’s web (bear with me!). As I continue to build and develop my knowledge, my web grows from a narrow epicentre to a complex, intertwined web. It slowly expands as my knowledge grows. When another topic is read and digested, another web is formed so that multiple webs connect overlapping themes. These multiple webs, over time, form densely populated columns, with each column layer continually evolving.
My aim was (and continues to be) to grow each column vertically (expanding my knowledge on each topic web) and horizontally (making more columns). Once I had this foundation, everything I read, heard, spoke about and learnt attached to the relevant web and column; which strengthened and enhanced my core understanding of a particular topic even further.
I read a fantastic Swiss Ramble twitter thread recently and in order to fully assimilate his stellar financial analysis, I felt the best way was to actually break-down some of the key metrics and write a summary blog. That was my way of delving into the numbers, finding the key takeaways and strengthening my football broadcasting revenues web.
The key point here is that it’s vital to invest in yourself. My process continues through building (horizontal) knowledge webs and (vertical) columns, which helps me reinforce my learning and ultimately connect inter-related topics and wider themes.
Read, Consume, Repeat
I do get excited about reading new in-depth and updated content. The UEFA benchmarking Report, for example, is a treasure trove of football finance insight, as are the FIFA TMS reports. The recent Football and the Law textbook is one of the most comprehensive football industry books I’ve ever read (the EU and football chapter is particularly insightful – nothing to do with the fact that I co-authored it.).
So how do you go about investing in yourself? I can tell you what I did and continue to do. Back when I was a trainee and a more junior lawyer, in order to increase my sports law knowledge, I challenged myself to read two articles a week on the fantastic LawInSport website. I didn’t beat myself up too hard when some weeks I didn’t quite manage it but overall my knowledge on a range of topics grew exponentially. This was a planned, purposeful, regimented, routined process. It meant I could offer opinions based not on a superficial understanding of a complex topic or a ‘passion’ for sporting and football issues but because I had done a lot of the hard yards from reading cases, regulations, laws, articles and comment pieces. I talk about this process with Harry Hugo from the fantastic GOAT Agency in this podcast.
Such knowledge investment led to fascinating conversations with people at the heart of particular high-profile cases and gave me ‘go-to’ topics that I felt I could confidently speak about across social media, TV and radio (i.e. Financial Fair Play, third party ownership, Premier League broadcasting rights, agent regulations and football disciplinary process etc).
In building my knowledge base through mainly consuming written content, I realised it was just as important to concentrate on how particular issues were described instead of just focusing on the content. There are certainly times when I will re-read particular paragraphs or sentences and phrases (especially in the Economist) just to let them seep into my subconscious because I know the prose will help my own drafting.
Taking this theme one step further, I would urge anyone to read as much good fiction as you can find. For me, it switches my mind away from work, rejuvenates my outlook, provides me with new perspectives and refills my creativity reserves. My favourites include anything by John Wyndham. I would also recommend the sensational professional development book, How to Win Friends and Influence People. It is essential reading for building long-term relationships.
Importantly, being up to date with current affairs is absolutely essential. Out of necessity at university when interviewing for law jobs, I subscribed to the Economist and whilst each weekly edition is a tad daunting due to its dense font and detail, it is something I recommend to everyone. My trick is not to read every article (I tend to only read about ten articles per week). My particular favourites are the tech quarterly reports, UK politics, Brexit and commentary on the FAANGs (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google).
And it’s not just the written media. I give talks to students and presentations at conferences and I’m fascinated by how people convey messages, themes and ideas, in part, to try and incorporate particular techniques into my own talks. I love watching TEDTalks and how people are able to distil incredibly complex themes and messages in practical, engaging ways. This Carol Dwek TedTalk is one of my all-time favourites. Indeed, a Gary Vee interview with Larry King really resonated too (my lightbulb moment in the interview came in the last few minutes about Gary’s blue sky thinking). I’d encourage anyone to invest their time and make a routine out of finding enjoyable ways to develop their personal skill set. Indeed, podcasts are my new thing right now. Not only have I got my own that you can listen to called the Done Deal Football Podcast but there are some incredibly perceptive podcasts by people like Seth Godin, Gary Veynerchuck, James O’Brien and Guy Raz.
Invest in yourself, upskill, find areas you are motivated to develop and enjoy the consumption process. It may be fiction, personal development books, TedTalks or something else. Keep on the journey; it will pay dividends in ways you can’t even imagine.
Concentrate on the Invisible
In Matthew Syed’s fantastic book You Are Awesome, he talks about the iceberg effect and what people don’t see; the hard work, dedication, rejection, disappointments and sacrifice. These are the invisible actions that fall below other people’s radar. It’s the prioritised, consistent hard work, when no one else is looking, over a sustained period of time.
I have tried for over 15 years to put in the hard yards. No-one sees what goes on behind closed doors. I have researched and written over 150 blogs pieces on my own website, read tons of fascinating cases, met hundreds of people and worked exceptionally hard to develop mutually beneficial relationships. These are the unseen things and it is hard work. The Luis Suarez Patrice Evra case is a good example. The judgment was over 130 pages long. In order to understand the case and blog about it in an informed way I read it at least five times. I was working at my previous law firm Fieldfisher at the time and remember finishing between 7-8pm and then motivating myself to continue drafting the piece sometimes up until 2-3am. I needed to write the blog quickly whilst the story remained topical. Of course, it was difficult to stay motivated but I had an underlying passion for the subject matter. It’s one thing saying you love football; it’s another thing to understand the key issues impacting the industry by developing your knowledge base and skill-set.
Ultimately, I was enjoying reading and writing about an area that interested me but I realised that these are the lengths that motivated people go to day after day relentlessly (and in my case so far, over a sustained period of almost two decades). It’s not easy to maintain that consistency of effort and approach and there have been plenty of times when I’ve tailed off and motivation has wained but I thrived and was energised through the routine of creation. I was posting content knowing that I had to be up to speed, practical and concise otherwise I would get found out pretty quickly. I only realise now that the end goal of being a dedicated football lawyer was to a certain degree, out of my control; what I could do was concentrate on the things I could control and it was the process of doing all the hard yards which I found fulfilling and interesting. I was concentrating on the process, not the outcome. Find what you’re interested in and persist.
The same was the case with my book Done Deal. Once I received the 22-month deadline to provide the first 80,000 word manuscript to my publisher Bloomsbury, my wife and I planned how I was going to deliver it on time. That didn’t even include the nine months spent honing my 10,000 word sample transfer chapter and book synopsis to get in front of Bloomsbury in the first place after stellar advice from my now book agent David Luxton. Once we had sketched out the chapters, sub-topics and page headings, we estimated the time it would take me to write each subject in turn, and the planner revealed I was already two months behind!
The calculation was that I would need to write for ten hours a week for almost two years (it ended up nearer three). This translated into four hours on a Sunday evening and three hours each on Monday and Tuesday evening. I found comfort in the process perhaps because the bigger picture was probably too daunting. I preferred concentrating on the specific smaller actions which in turn built into larger chapters.
Hopefully you can see from the above that it’s absolutely imperative to find something you are willing to invest in over a long period of time and sustain such dedication because you enjoy the process. As I mentioned to Sam Soma in his excellent Engaging People Podcast, my view looking back on my journey to date was not to necessarily worry about the end goal, but think about the skills and knowledge I was going to acquire in the process. If you enjoy the process, the outcome is more likely to take care of itself.
There is no magic wand, just a continual desire for self-improvement. My basic premise, though I didn’t consciously realise it at the time, was to invest in myself through knowledge upskilling over a consistent period of time.
Your Invisible Network
The knowledge investment is only half the invisible story. I’ve heard many people say that you’re only as strong as your network. I couldn’t agree more.
From my Masters Degree onwards back in 2002 I made a concerted effort to try and build relationships with people in the sports and entertainment industry. Conferences, breakfasts, coffees and asking for introductions were my staple diet. I would email industry figures that had written pieces in newspapers, blogs and had been interviewed. I explain in a bit more detail in this LawInSport podcast I did with the super Sean Cottrell. I would complement them on their work and mention specific points to demonstrate that I had assimilated their views. My approach was to develop those small, first steps into stronger relationships whilst also playing the long game.
A piece of advice I’ve learned the hard way over the years too; when meeting people who are effectively doing you a favour (and you’re asking for help, advice, mentoring etc), change your short term thinking from “How can they help me”. That may be the ultimate ‘end-goal’ but the real question, which takes considerably more time to think about, plan and then execute is, “what can I usefully do for you?”.
By way of example, I recently received an email from Bart Jarzabek who is an undergraduate law student in Sunderland. He asked if he could help with my social media and explained that he had worked with Gary Veynerchuk’s social media team on their Polish channels. Bart holds down a part time job as a chef, is studying law, helps out Gary and is now adding real value to my social channels. He’s flipped the ‘asking favours’ model and has made himself indispensable. He’s got a bright future.
The take-away is that the more senior someone gets the more proportionately time-poor they become. Find out their need and help them accomplish it. It may be a case summary or desktop research in finding a particular statistic. Over a few years I’ve built a great relationship with Courtney Bryan-Isaacs as he establishes himself in the legal profession. We’ve co-authored blogs andhe has helped me to understand how different generations consume social content and how to connect with them. For example he’s offered invaluable insights into my Instagram strategies, which have amplified my reach on a channel I had not fully understood.
The strength or otherwise of your professional network is crucial. It will be invisible to many, but absolutely invaluable to you. Find ways to grow, sustain, maintain and visualise those relationships. Show willingness, proactivity, and a can-do attitude mixed with some creativity. Don’t expect things to magically happen within five minutes or even five years. Find the value adds for others and you’ll reap the long-term rewards.
Grow Your Mindset
One of the core principles in Dr Carol Dwek’s outstanding book Mindset considers the benefits of having a growth-mindset as opposed to a fixed mindset. She explains how:
“The fixed mindset makes you concerned with how you’ll be judged; the growth mindset makes you concerned about improving”.
“When people believe that their basic qualities can be developed, failures may still hurt, but failures don’t define them. And if abilities can be expanded – if change and growth are possible – then there are still many paths to success.”
I hear and read about many people who have suffered challenges, roadblocks, mental health issues and what many would consider failures in their personal and professional lives. A recent Take Flight podcast I listened to with the owner of creative agency Dark Horses, Simon Dent shone a brutal and raw light on his professional journey. I’ve listened to the podcast three times. It’s a brilliant piece of content.
It made me think about my own journey. Does every appraisal always go swimmingly? No. Does everyone love my book? Certainly not (look here for starters!). Do I need to constantly improve, learn and develop my skills? For sure. Matthew Syed’s book You Are Awesome (which I’ve read three times such is its impact) gave a simple, clear and straightforward message. You can get better, improve and extend your skills through hard work, planning and purposeful practice. The first step is to believe you can literally grow your brain and improve as a result. This in turn can help anyone develop stronger character traits like resilience, persistence, grit and sticking with the process – even if the results are not immediately visible. Being outside of my comfort zone is where I continue to learn the most. It’s gruelling and rewarding in equal measure.
It’s the stuff that no-one sees that sets you apart. The sticking power over years and decades of personal investment. Angela Duckworth discusses it best in her book Grit and in this exceptional TedTalk where she talks about grit being the staying power of combining passion with perseverance in order to attain long-term goals. It’s the necessity of working very hard to make that future a reality.
The aim of the above is to show that it’s possible. It won’t necessarily be easy but I believe that’s what makes it worthwhile. Things will inevitably go wrong; job interviews, client meetings, cases, talks where you just can’t articulate what your brain is telling your mouth to say, but you get better. You iterate, you learn to listen more, you understand what a client wants rather than sell what you think they want. You learn through experience.
Human conditions like self-doubt never truly vanish, fear of failure remains, impostor syndrome lurks. That is for many, myself included, what drives improvement and a desire to get better. As Matthew Syed articulates; to literally grow your brain. The journey is as important as the end-goal. Those red, wooden, pretty uncomfortable Anfield seats set me along my path but that was just the spark. The rest has been some good fortune but mostly hard work mixed with long term process driven resilience. Trust the process, accept you’re in it for the long haul and the rewards will ultimately flow. You never know what opportunities may be around the corner.
Don’t worry about being the best. Concentrate on being the best at getting better.
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