There can’t be many football coaches worldwide who can count currency trading among their skills and experience. But not even a successful career in the City could keep Mark Warburton from the dugout. Matthew Amos met him to find out more about his unusual route into management and how he achieved promotion to the Championship for his club, Brentford, after his very first season in charge, with the club now eyeing up a double promotion and their first ever taste of Premier League football.
Going from City trader to football coach seems quite a leap, but are there parallels between the two roles or skills that you found were transferable?
A real knowledge of your business is, of course, fundamental in both roles, but there are also many parallels in terms of skills, the most obvious being teamwork, communication and decision making. As a trader I would work with around 15 men of a similar age to football players and similarly hungry for success.
I was responsible for buying and selling very large volumes of currency, so there were big risks involved and I had to use all the information available to me to assess those risks and balance them against the potential rewards.
I also see parallels in the fact that success in both jobs is sometimes out of your control. You can do all the right things, for all the right reasons, but because of fluctuations in the market or the randomness of a football game, you don’t always get your just rewards. To deal with the peaks and troughs in both fields I believe demands mental resilience, patience and self-belief. You have to believe in your methods and principles and be able to instil that belief in your people.
Do you think that experience outside of the world of football has given you a unique perspective on things or influenced your approach as a manager?
I live and breathe football, but I also know that there is a big world out there and many sources that we can draw knowledge and inspiration from. There are also lessons we can, and in truth must, learn.
For example, since the financial crisis of 2008, the banking industry has undergone a period of radical change; processes have been amalgamated and there have been many takeovers and mergers, resulting in a far more streamlined end product.
There is a risk that if clubs continue to operate with such high levels of debt and to buy players unchecked despite that debt, we will follow the same route as the banking industry. Alarm bells should have been ringing for a long time. I fear we will see 92 league clubs reduced to 60, which would mean even fewer opportunities for our young players. It would only take one big club to disappear for many others to follow.
Because of my experience in the City, I also tend to look at certain behaviours in the game and ask whether they would be tolerated in a different environment. In the City we worked under enormous pressure and there was undoubted passion in the work, with much shouting and screaming. However we always conducted ourselves in a manner that was conducive to a positive end product. If you look at the emotion in football, the obvious rewards for success and the inevitable outcomes for failure, I sometimes wonder if the quality of decision making is affected by that passion.
Football is, of course, particularly stressful and high pressure, because you have thousands of fans observing your each and every move, but I still believe we can and must learn from how top professionals work in different spheres of business.
I took some of my staff and players to the top of Canary Wharf to observe a global banking trading room so that they could see the work ethic, teamwork, subject knowledge and other such factors that are so essential to high-level performance. I’d encourage any club to do something similar as part of their CPD process.
Why did you want to move into football coaching and did you have a plan for how you would do that?
Working in the City is rewarding in many ways, but you can feel trapped. Also, I always loved football and wanted to achieve something in the game. I wasn’t sure what that would be, but having risen to a decent level in the City I knew I would only be satisfied in a position where I could instigate positive change.
Wherever I worked as a trader – be it North Carolina, Chicago, Singapore or Tokyo – I always tried to coach football, whether an Under-9s team, bank team or high school team. By the time I was 38 the ache to work in football was very strong and I realised that if I didn’t earn my coaching qualifications then, I never would.
I made a 10-year plan, starting with a year off. I was fortunate that I had a little money saved, so after researching which clubs seemed to be the best developers and educators in football – the likes of Sporting Lisbon, Valencia, Inter Milan and Ajax – I travelled to Europe to learn from some of the outstanding work going on there.
I did something similar when I was at Watford, but I identified clubs in Europe that were comparable to us in terms of size and budget. For example, Dutch side Willem II had the same academy budget and similar crowds and stadium capacity. Over the course of a year I spent time with these clubs, broadening my knowledge and meeting people with fantastic vision and experience, many of them still close friends. I observed them in their work, facing their daily problems and learned from what they did well and not so well. I was then invited by Aidy Boothroyd to take a full-time position at Watford’s academy.
He gave me the freedom to experiment and put into practice the things I had learned from my travels. I had seen clubs use partnerships with local schools and in association with Harefield Academy we were able to introduce a European model. It was enormously rewarding to see these 11- to 18-year-old boys develop and prosper, with many earning careers in the game.
You were sporting director at Brentford before becoming manager. What are your views on the use of this management structure?
I think it is essential and a growing number of clubs are recognising its benefits. You have to get certain fundamental aspects right though. There has to be honesty, trust and respect between the manager and the sporting director. First and foremost you have to get on well with one another. Uwe Rosler and I had a good, tight working relationship and were very honest and forthright with our opinions.
It’s also essential to have clear boundaries between the roles, and respect those boundaries. I now have Frank McParland supporting me as sporting director and it is very helpful to have him take care of certain responsibilities, such as on the financial side and dealing with agents, which can be very time-consuming.
Fortunately, when I became manager Brentford were in decent shape so no major changes were needed. It was more important for me to try to raise the players’ self-belief and win their trust in me and my ideas. It also helped that I had been involved in signing many of them, so they knew me already and the transition was quite smooth.
What is your approach to motivating players to achieve their individual potential?
Discipline for the team is important and naturally we have a code of conduct and level of behaviour that we expect from all players and staff. However, on top of these group standards every player has their own needs and requirements and we must provide the support network to service them.
I believe very much in giving people ownership, so I seek the opinion of the senior players and involve them in decision making where possible. It would be foolish to ignore their knowledge and experience and if I disagree with them I always make sure I tell them why. The senior professionals helped to prepare the code of conduct. If you involve people and give them ownership in this way, they are more likely to give you their respect and want to move forward as a team.
Our players have tremendous character, strength of desire and determination, and it was this that helped them earn promotion to the Sky Bet Championship last season. We suffered some serious disappointment the season before, which can cause many clubs to struggle the following year, but our players responded so positively and we were in the top six from the outset. You could sense that everyone felt the injustice of the previous season and wanted to right that wrong.
What’s next in your career? It seems you’re set for a new challenge when you depart Brentford at the end of this season, but do you have any long-term goals or a plan?
When I said I wanted to achieve something in football within 10 years I could never have predicted what has happened at Brentford, but who knows what will happen next. It may sound cliché, but I’d like to be able to look back and say, ‘no regrets’. I want my teams to play in the way I believe is right. Ultimately, whether you’re a City trader, a manager or a football player battling to return after a long injury, achieving your potential is about staying true to your beliefs and working hard.