Life As The Championship's Youngest CEO
As far as the first two years in a job at a football club go, dealing with a relegation battle immediately followed by a promotion challenge is tumultuous by anyone's standards, and that's before you factor in a global pandemic sandwiched between the two.
That might sound like a scenario that's hard to believe has really occurred to someone, but it is precisely what Dane Murphy has experienced in his first 21 months as the Chief Executive Officer of Barnsley FC.
What's more, at the age of just 35, Murphy, who was born in Connecticut, is also currently the youngest CEO in the Championship. Of the nineteen other people to be employed as the sole person in that role across the rest of the second division's clubs, only one - Birmingham City's Xuandong Ren - is under the age of 40.
Murphy's youth somewhat personifies the ethos at Oakwell, where manager Valérien Ismaël, himself only 45, heads up the league’s youngest squad, which has an average age of 23.5. The Reds survived relegation to League One in the final minutes of last season, but have soared since the appointment of Frenchman Ismaël in October, and currently sit sixth in the Championship, four points inside the playoff places.
I sat down for a chat with Dane – over video, of course, as we’ve become so accustomed to in these strange times – and I began by asking him what a typical day looks like for him at Oakwell.
"Typical days are tough, because everything seems to be atypical at the moment!" he smiles, his roots across the pond immediately obvious in his voice. “I think, though, that my role can be summed up as making sure that everything is functioning smoothly. There isn’t too much direct decision making, with my role more relating to oversight in connection to those who are the lead in each arm of the club on a day to day basis.
“We’re a small club with limited resources, so we just need to be certain that we’re all on the same page in everything we do to move the club forward. It sounds cliché, but we do work as a team!”
Working as a team is not an unfamiliar concept to Dane, either, and as a former professional footballer himself, he understands better than most that the team comes above all else. Having started his professional career in 2008 with D.C. United of Major League Soccer in his homeland, he then transferred to VfL Osnabrück in Germany’s 2. Bundesliga, before bringing a seven-year career to a close following a return to the United States with New York Cosmos.
Does he believe that his career on the pitch, an experience which few other CEOs can draw upon, has aided him since he made the transition from player to executive?
“I do think it gives me an element of perspective and experience, just from having been around the game for so long. It helps me make decisions that I think will benefit the most people in any given situation.
“Sometimes there can be disadvantages too, though. For example, you might feel too close and perhaps too moved by the results, which of course comes with sport and is exactly why we love it so much, but sometimes you do have to separate yourself from that and look to make the best decision for the club.”
The honesty and pragmatism that Dane displays is without doubt a key part of what makes a successful executive, with an understanding that not all decisions will be popular but have to be made in the best interests of the club.
However, even as he refers to the closeness he feels to the players and the results, he can’t stop himself from referring back to how much he loves the sport, which is the same for all of us. That love comes from an early age too, so I was intrigued by how Dane first discovered his own love of football while growing up in a country that boasts a number of more popular sports.
“I do come from an American sporting family. My first passion was basketball, which I loved to play when I was growing up, and my dad also played various sports too. He played American football as a quarterback, as well as basketball, and he was pretty beat up during his playing days!
“As a result of that, though, he simply didn’t want his kids playing that sport, because there were so many parts of his body that were just destroyed, even as a young man.”
Dane explains how one particular experience of his father’s shaped him, and by extension, Dane and his two older siblings: “He fell in love with football when he was working in the oil industry with people from all over the world. They were going mad over this sport that he knew a little about, but not too much, so he went and found out more about it. When he did, though, that was it for him, and he pushed all three of his kids into football too.
“That was around the time I realised I was not going to be physically able to play basketball at the highest level!” he chuckles. “On the back of that, I gravitated more towards football, which thankfully did work out for me.”
Work out, it did indeed. His move to Europe in 2009 followed a season in America’s capital city in which he made 15 MLS appearances, and he talks of how playing for VfL Osnabrück made him appreciate the undying love that a locality’s fans truly have for their football club, an experience that eventually drew him to Barnsley.
“Osnabrück revolved around that club, and despite the organisation playing all sorts of sports, football was the one the town stopped for every week. Later on , when the opportunity came up for a young American kid to come to the UK and work on the executive side of a football club, what I’d seen at Osnabrück meant that I couldn’t turn it down.
“I think Barnsley being a similar environment, in terms of being a family-run club with a family-oriented focus, where the town is the club and the club is the town, with each so tightly woven into the fabric of the other, is something you quickly fall in love with.”
With that, no one can deny the passion Dane has for Barnsley. The club has thrived since his arrival, with one of the most notably successful moments in recent months being the appointment of Ismaël. I asked him how the club went about the recruitment process for the new manager following the departure of Gerhard Struber – to the USA, of all places - and how involved he was in that personally.
“The process we use to make a managerial appointment is very similar to the way in which we bring in players too, which is very heavily focused on cutting through the fat to make contact with the right person that we know will fit what we’re trying to do at the club. Our philosophy on the pitch is obviously one of pressing, so we looked for the good pressing coaches throughout Europe, and even across the world.
“Our data analysts are able to create a system where they can filter through the names and pick out the ones we want. We had to be very specific at this point, where we were looking at all the data, so for example we’re looking at coaches’ out-of-possession statistics, their record against their competitors in their current league, all different kinds of things.”
He goes on to explain, once the numbers had been crunched, how it was Ismaël’s force of personality that shone through.
“Eventually, we got it down to four or five names, and that’s when we began the interview process, and at this point the focus shifted. We already know that these candidates are going to coach the team the way we want the team to be coached, which is in that German gegenpressing style, from our data gathering, so now we want to know if they can coach young players, which we’re always going to have at Barnsley.
“We also wanted to know if they could achieve the targets we were setting them on the limited resources we could offer them, and overall, Valérien obviously checked every box going!”
The Frenchman certainly has turned out to be an excellent appointment, showing the strength of Barnsley’s data-driven recruitment process. However, there are some situations that cannot be boiled down to raw statistics, and we’ve seen a huge example of a major crisis for every football club in the country and beyond unfold over the last year.
I asked Dane in just how many ways, and to what extent, did the arrival of Covid-19 affect operations at Oakwell?
"Oh... in countless ways!" he says, with a wry smile and a shake of the head. "I think the amazing thing, though, is that we did manage to get through it. Again, we are comparatively under-resourced against our competitors, and we don’t have as big a group working behind the scenes as some do, but I think that did help to hold us together and help us to weather the storm.
“We were holding daily, sometimes even hourly, meetings where we were trying to work out how to overcome this huge challenge, and I think that’s kind of the way you have to do it, drawing on everything we can. No one working in this profession had ever gone through this, but the fact I had a group of people in front of me that were intelligent and nimble and able to react to this well was a blessing for me.
“It’s a testament to how strong the entire organisation is at Barnsley Football Club.”
Truly, amen to that. I wasn’t with the club for long, but at Oakwell there is a tight-knit group of people that are weaving a magic spell that has seen the Championship promotion race turned upside down. Barnsley are the typification of the ‘feel-good’ story, the neutral’s club, the one who people can’t help but like because of the way they have been going about their business in recent times.
I concluded by asking Dane about his aspirations for the club in the future, now that the Covid situation appears far brighter, and the prospective return of fans to Oakwell is not too far away. Having spoken to Cauley Woodrow recently too, he mentioned how exciting it is to be part of the club at present. Does Dane feel the same way?
“Absolutely. If you could find me someone that had genuine aspirations of being fifth at this point in the season, that would be amazing! We are here, though, and I’ve said this several times – this is not a fluke. We’re here because of the diligent work of the players and backroom staff, who have never wavered even through the hardest of times.
“In the near-term, we’re just keen to back Valérien while trying to pick up as many points as we can from the final few games of the season in order to see where that places us, but long-term, we want to continue to sustain what we’re doing. We want to keep our methodology for bringing in new players going, and at whatever level they enter the club, whether that’s in the Academy, or in the first team, ensure they can build off our philosophy.
“We want to ensure everything we’re doing is always being improved upon.”
I want to thank Dane, very much, for taking the time to talk to me. Naturally, I am very much hoping that Barnsley can get themselves up to the top flight, but as the club and the manager have been repeatedly at pains to point out, it’s “one by one” when it comes to the final few fixtures. As Dane himself said earlier, though, sport is all about being moved by the results, by dreaming, and by falling in love with your team. It’s nice to dream.
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