Mark Ashton’s office at Ashton Gate is situated to the back of the Lansdown Stand. Photos of friends, family and celebrations with Lee Johnson and the coaching staff post-Manchester United adorn one side while a Peaky Blinders poster is fixed onto another wall, in a nod to his Midlands roots.
But pride of place in the room, in which so many key decisions at Bristol City are formulated, discussed, dissected and ultimately executed, is a giant TV screen directly opposite the CEO’s desk.
The “data dashboard” is effectively City’s own in-house version of Sky Sports News, broadcasting up to the minute transfer news from around the Championship, Premier League and beyond that concerns the Robins as well as information on potential targets fed in by Ashton, Lee Johnson and the recruitment team; form, analytics, news stories, inside information and more.
It’s an absolutely vital tool in ensuring the club stay abreast of the whole transfer landscape 24/7, inside and outside of transfer windows, and allows them to act on every situation and eventuality when business kicks in the summer or on January 1.
Such is its importance, the screen is hurriedly switched off and the remote hidden as Bristol Live is allowed into Ashton’s inner sanctum to talk about the how the recruitment department has changed at Bristol City on his watch in the second part of our exclusive interview.
Ashton goes into detail on the mechanics of the team, how decisions are made, the level of detail that goes into identifying potential targets, why January is a tough time to recruit but that the Robins remain in the market to strengthen the squad in January, while further clarity is also provided on Kalifa Cisse’s role at the club, with the former centre-back arriving in June.
You can read part one of the interview HERE and part three will be published on Wednesday with Ashton talking contracts, Josh Brownhill, the financial landscape in the Championship, FFP and what it takes to get a club into the Premier League.
Has there been a decision either made by yourself or the club that perhaps you’d like to go back and do differently?
Well, I think hindsight is a wonderful thing. I always say to Steve, Maggie (Lansdown), and the staff, look, I will make ineffective decisions. I’ll get things wrong, but when I wake up in the morning, the things you can guarantee from me, you’re going to get hard work, you’re going to get honesty and I’m going to try and do the right thing.
And as long as I’m doing that, we’re going to go in the right direction. As long as I get more right than I get wrong then we’re going to be moving forward.
But look, I would be a liar if I said to you, I’m not honest enough to look myself in the mirror and say I might have done that differently or I’d have done that differently.
Is there anything that stands out?
I don’t think there’s anything major, I think you I look at scenarios and I think I could have handled that better or I could have been more effective or I could have made that decision quicker, but I don’t think there are huge ones.
You know, you look at the biggest area that probably sits under me is recruitment, and it’s really easy to look back and say wouldn’t have done that in hindsight, but what we learn from that? To not do that again.
So, yeah, I think there are a multitude of things, little things that I would have done differently, but I don’t think there’s anything huge but there are always things I could’ve done better.
On the recruitment, how is it changing and how have you changed it?
Firstly, they live next door now. They were at the training ground, but I’ve brought them here. I think we’ve got, and we’re nowhere near the finished article, more sophisticated. We are better prepared.
We have far more different skillsets in the recruitment team than we’ve had historically. And we have a clear plan in what we’re trying to do, and I think all of that added together has allowed us to become far more effective in the last two to three summer transfer windows.
I think we are one of the biggest traders and have been consistently over the last two summers hence we’ve just announced a successful set of accounts, which is very unusual in in our industry.
It’s an evolution, and I think it’s the one area that you’ve got to move with quickly and you have to keep advancing knowledge.
I give an example of how we work: We’re now moving towards a transfer window, my work didn’t start in that transfer window my work starts far, far earlier.
When we write a plan for the summer, I look to do probably 95 plus per cent of my business in that summer window, not the January window.
Hence why, when we recruited this summer, I tried to recruit one of the learning points from last season, we needed a bit more depth in key areas. So, I made sure I felt that, with Lee, we got that depth and that’s been tested.
You then move to a January transfer window, which are notoriously difficult for everyone because players are overpriced.
Clubs don’t want to sell the recruiting in gets smaller and smaller. And if you are at the top end of the division is even smaller because people who are competitors don’t want to sell to you.
Do you then take the risk of going overseas players that haven’t had game time etc? It is difficult, so I would always want to do minimal business in January, in that January window.
But we have a clear plan that we set in this summer that we try and stick to.
I think when you talk to the likes of Jon (Lansdown), who has seen transfer windows here for a very long time. What always surprises him now is that it’s very rare we don’t get a number one target.
We don’t at times, law of averages, but we are more or less were at a plus 90 percent hit rate on our number one target.
And you can say that about the summer just gone?
Yes, yes, and the best way I can describe the recruitment team to you. I’ve got hierarchical org charts everywhere, which is my staff, but I don’t talk to the staff in charts.
What I do is I talk to them in wheels because our strength is the collective.
All my job is, I sit at the centre of the wheel. I’m the glue, I put the systems in the process and the right people in place. And then my job is to empower everybody to get the knowledge and information.
I don’t sit at the top of the tree and then dictate them how to work. My job is to get the knowledge out of people, and I think that’s where we’ve got far better.
We’ve got technical recruitment now, so we’ve got Sean (Gilhespy, Head of Technical Recruitment), we’ve got Dan (Calcott, Senior Recruitment Analyst) who we recruited from Manchester United about four months ago into that area, plus four or five other staff in their now. So that data analytical video analysis, worldwide recruitment is bigger here now than it’s ever been.
The scouting side we’ve now changed again and we’re going to bring some more people into that and then on top of that, you’ve got your contact network, which pulls in all different pieces of information, what normally informs me is my dash.
So 8 o’clock every morning, the recruitment team pull together a dashboard. In the dashboard is every club, and that’s whether it’s media stuff that you guys put out, whether it’s the nationals, whether it’s other clubs, whether it’s agents, whether it’s my contact lists – it all goes into one, and that’s updated 8 o’clock every morning and runs 24/7 on my screen so I can see the population of that information building towards January.
And as I get towards January, my other work almost gets sidelined and taken away because that has to become the focus.
Lee and I in that period have to embed ourselves in that world to get what we need to do.
And that knowledge and information allows us to make more effective decisions. So therefore, we tend to get more right. I think our hit rate of getting them right rather than wrong has improved.
But that is not just down to Mark Ashton, and it’s not just down to Lee. Ultimately, we’re the face and the front, but there are a multitude of people who are involved in that. The key is we all know our roles.
So, there will be moves to recruit in January?
Yes, I think it would be remiss of me to say no, but it has to be right. It has to be right. The worst thing we can do is take the wrong one.
Is taking the wrong option in January almost worse than getting it wrong in the summer?
Yes, because I think in the summer you’ve got pre-season. Lee’s got pre-season to get them up to speed and work with them. He hasn’t got that time in January because he’s in the middle of games.
That’s the challenge because that pond we recruit from has shrunk and its shrunk even more because clubs see us as a competitor, and we’ve got to get someone who’s up to speed or fairly up to speed and will fit the way we play. It’s not easy.
In saying that, we have options. But I’m too long in the tooth, you can be 99.9% sure you’ve got that option nailed, and at the death it’s gone.
Because the club get an injury and they keep him in. All of a sudden, it’s a spider web, once one movement happens three clubs away, the effect comes down to you and it gets you here.
And that’s why we have the data sets to see if we’re at risk of something happening that could affect our decision making.
Because from a from a supporter’s point of view, the January window has become kind of the missing piece …
I can understand it, and I can understand the emotion that runs around that. But what I would say is when I’m working in the summer or I’m planning a summer transfer window, I’m thinking about January.
So, I’m thinking right what depth have we got here? Let’s be really clear we’ve had an injury to Benik that no one could have foreseen.
The bit that I chuckle at, and I do chuckle is when I hear or see people say, ‘oh Benik Afobe was the last throw of the dice in the summer transfer window, it is because they haven’t got so and so, and it was gamble’. We didn’t gamble, we’ve been talking about Benik all summer, I would never put all my eggs in one basket.
I think the period before Benik was injured – the way he played, the way he fitted in – proved to everyone that actually, there was obviously a little bit of homework done there. But there’s a lot of people who do a lot of work to get us to that point.
It’s just my opinion but you look at the squad, I think we’ve got depth, we’ve got players coming back. You know, what do we need in January? Well, we lost Benik, Afobe. So, the logic is, if the right player is available in that position, then absolutely we look to recruit it.
But I make no apologies for saying this, it has got to be the right one.
What is the right player?
Well, he’s got to be someone who can make an impact and have an effect. Because what you what you’ve also got is you’ve got some good youngsters in the building who are who are coming through, and sometimes you can create the illusion that just because it’s a name that its better and the grass is greener and we can get them, when actually it’s not.
So, it’s getting that balance. We’ve got a very tight group, a good group of humans where there was a hell of a lot of mission, vision, values, behaviours-setting done in Tampa.
And what you don’t want is someone to come into that group who is totally against that and upsets that because that would undermine everything we’ve got.
I think we’ve got strong enough group to probably deal with that, and Lee certainly would.
So, the person’s got to be a person fit. They’ve got to be physically capable of playing the way Lee wants to play. And they’ve got to be able to improve us.
And what sits behind that, as you would imagine, is in a raft of technical information that Lee wants that the recruitment team work on.
So there’s a process behind it and I think one of the things that always frustrates me in transfer windows is that I almost feel the supporters pain because I’d love to be able to come out, tell them what I want and have them sit here and watch what’s going on, because it would blow their minds the energy and the amount of work that goes on.
But it’s like a swan. It’s all going on under the water. We can’t say anything until it’s done.
It’s no different now, everything’s started to build up, but the majority of it is noise and not facts.
And this is just an industry thing that happens. My job is to determine what are facts and what is just noise.
And that’s where my relationships, Lee’s relationships, other people’s relationships in the club with other clubs, key contacts and relationships and agents, we have to base their decisions on facts.
You know, sometimes with your paper, I’ll read something, and I’ll go you can’t be serious. That’s never going happen. But in fairness on the other hand I’ll read something and go, that’s a bit close; fair play, they got that one.
And so, all that information has to come into that, so everything you guys put in your paper then goes into the dashboard, because there will be a reason why you put that there.
And part of that process, that information gathering process is determining fact.
But we’ll go into January with options and requirements. But then with the grace of God, they can change because someone could get injured and then we have to move.
But what we do is we carry options in all positions, not just the positions we’re looking at. So, if something happens, we’re always in the game for what’s available.
Because you talk about players being overpriced, does that cause a reluctance to spend money in January because of that?
No, I don’t think that since I’ve been at this football club, I’m just trying to think, I don’t think there’s ever been a single deal that I’ve taken to my owners that they’ve said no to. No, they don’t.
We know what we do, so we would we only take them things that fit our model. And they’ve always been supportive. So, there’s no reluctance not to spend and there’s not a desire that we’ve got to spend this, they just do the right thing.
It’s simply that we take things to them we believe are right for this football club and our owners have been fantastic since the day I met them.
Can you explain Kalifa Cisse’s role, and anything he’s come in and changed?
Other than teaching me bad French words!
I like round pegs in round holes. I like systems, process, structure. I met Cisse several times before, via Lee, in just a networking capacity, but Lee said, ‘I want you to meet Cisse. Just have a think about him. Tell me what you think’.
And I met him and again, this is what happens with Lee and I, Lee just planted the seed and said, just tell me what you think.
It’s became apparent we’ve a very growing, diverse group of young men, internationally, speaking a multitude of languages, that we had a gap and a plus one for us would be to better support those players as players and as humans.
So Cisse was on the cards before Han-Noah (Massengo) and before (Pedro) Pereira. And so Cisse’s role is that of; he supports the coaches – so he does some coaching, he works with Lee, he works with Dean (Holden) and he works with Macca (Jamie McAllister).
He also works with me; he works with the recruitment team and he supports specific players on an international basis. He’s bilingual so that helps.
I think Cisse is one of these that we can help develop into a multitude of roles. So, he’s got no one guaranteed specific role or title, the agreement was let’s utilise his full skillset to our advantage, so he does three or four things and his personality is key, and he’s very well liked.
He’s very well respected and has helped me as part of that glue that’s pulling everyone together.
In terms of January, the net is cast wider now, its international, and is he part of that?
Yes, he’s part of that.
That will be apparent again in terms of the potential targets, I would imagine. If you go back 12 months or 24 months, was that knowledge of international markets there?
We had knowledge of markets beyond England, but we didn’t have the depth of knowledge that we have now.
So, let me give you an example, all of the international targets that are on our radar, we’ve got international targets on our radar now and for the summer. So, we don’t suddenly start watching them now. We’ve been watching them from months and months and months.
That doesn’t mean that more don’t arrive on the list or some disappear off the list it’s that that as the department has grown, it has given us time to absorb more knowledge, the depth of knowledge that you’re getting now, I think is far better than we’ve ever had.
But this is the most exciting thing about working at this football club. We’re nowhere near the finished product. We’re not there yet.
This is the best thing, we’re getting closer and closer to ultimate success, but we’ve got a ton more to go. And that’s the best thing about working here.
One former January signing was Lois Diony – a striker potentially arriving for big money … that obviously didn’t work out. Was that a product of not having that depth of knowledge, was there something specific in that that you learned from that experience?
So, we look at everything that we’ve done when we take the learnings out of it and with some of it, it’s timing. And that’s a big element that we’ve got is, while on paper that player could be right for us, is he right for us at that moment in time? What games has he played leading into that? What’s his fitness?
So yeah Diony was, as with Ryan Kent, and as with others, there were learnings to come out of that which were taken into the Pereira signing, the Massengo signing.
Why didn’t it work out, do you think?
I couldn’t give you one thing. There would probably be a multitude of reasons, but it just didn’t work.
You mentioned Ryan Kent there, the relationship, obviously with Chelsea’s been huge for the club and I’m sure will continue to be as well, but with Ryan Kent did that affect the development of your relationship with Liverpool in any way?
Listen it would be remiss in me to tell you everything, but I’m telling you we are consistently talking to, meeting with, presenting to the biggest clubs in the country. Our relationship with those clubs is first class. And that’s part of my job and Lee’s job so we do that consistently, consistently, consistently.