Mike Forde knows plenty about summer transfers. Over the last 15 years, he’s recruited some of the world’s greatest footballers to the Premier League.
But this time, he’s the one making the switch.
After leaving Chelsea last year, his consultancy work began to heavily permeate the US market and various NFL and NBA franchises became clients. Over the last few weeks, he’s relocated full-time to New York and set up Ingenio Management, a business that sees him advise various owners, presidents and general managers from major sports organisations on how to reshape their business strategies.
“The reason I’m doing it is because it allows you to work quickly and selectively with the best minds in the world and around the best content at the highest level of sport. That’s a great opportunity,” he said.
Forde was a key component of the most successful era in Chelsea’s history. In the six years he was Director of Football Operations, the club were crowned European champions, won the Premier League, a Europa League and three FA Cups. He worked closely alongside some of the brightest and well-regarded football managers of the modern era like Jose Mourinho, Guus Hiddink, Carlo Ancelotti and Rafa Benitez and had a wide remit that covered recruitment, performance analysis and sport science.
Over the last decade, Forde has seen growth from marrying a football club’s commercial opportunities with the sporting side.
Traditionally, pre-season always proves a delicate balancing act.
“One thing often missed in sport is what we call ‘invisible training’. When a player finishes one game and starts another four or five days later, what does he do in between? What’s his recovery cycle like?
“You make sure they’re given the best opportunity to recover and prepare for their next training session, while also meeting the commercial demands.”
Over the last few weeks, Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal has spoken at length about the club’s relentless and immovable off-field activities during a pre-season tour of the US and how it harms preparation.
Forde feels such a reaction is perfectly natural but that the minimal timeframe is unforgiving for everyone involved with the organisation.
“Tension points always come in pre-season because you’ve got 40-50 days to play with. The key is to keep the tension healthy. The coach has every right to protect his training space and what he knows to be essential in developing players in the best possible way. But the commercial team is there to generate revenue for the managers to spend and all coaches want good resources to buy players.”
With a university background in sport science and sport psychology, Forde was in his early 20s when Sam Allardyce brought him to Bolton.
Both had spent time in the US (Allardyce as a player with NASL side Tampa Bay Rowdies, Forde as a Masters student at San Diego State) and both were inspired by what they saw there.
Everything was geared towards finding a competitive edge.
At Bolton, Forde travelled extensively and meticulously studied the approaches and strategies of various sports and business organisations around the globe. One week he was observing Honda’s Formula 1 testing in Barcelona. The next he was meeting with the chief executive of Saatchi and Saatchi in New York.
“There are three things that drive performance. One is talent on the pitch (players), two is talent off the pitch (managers, staff) and the third is environment. Therapy units that are now prominent in rugby — they were built 10 years ago at our training ground. We had alternative therapy rooms for our players to switch off.
“On the coaching side, we looked at other sports for inspiration. Dave Alred, Jonny Wilkinson’s kicking coach, would do a lot of training with staff. We had vision specialists come in and work with players and staff.
“And there was data analysis. We worked out what the variables were that drove winning. So the innovation was in every department.”
Recruitment was different at Chelsea than Bolton, where 40% of the squad changed every summer.
But, according to Forde, the same fundamental transfer principles apply regardless of the club. “The first step, before a window even opens, is what we used to call ‘Scout your own squad’. What do we need? What’s the cultural fit? What are the technical demands? The physical demands?
“So we get a picture of that first and then we go to market because otherwise you let the market dictate to you. You let agents dictate to you and I’ve never met an agent with a bad player.
“The market forces are huge and underestimated in terms of building your team. You’re not in full control. You can evaluate what you need, you can evaluate where you can get it but it depends on a lot of things.
“A few years ago, there was a big premium on wingers — the likes of Arjen Robben, Angel di Maria. There was a shortage of that particular type of player so they become very expensive to buy if you want to tackle that need. So, you’re always evaluating the economics. If you’re a big team and you’re signing big players, you’re doing your work six, nine or sometimes 12 months out so there’s a lot of preparation from data and various reports. It’s a long, drawn-out process and the bigger the player, the more time you have to spend to make sure it’s the right option.”
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