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Researcher Spotlight: Dr Seamus Kelly - Assistant Professor


 UCD School of Public Health, Physiotherapy and Sports Science

The role of the contemporary professional football manager - performance under pressure

Dr Seamus Kelly’s research focuses on contemporary professional football managers. This is a highly challenging, precarious working environment with low rates of employment longevity.

Dr Kelly is passionate about understand the educational backgrounds and coping strategies for success in this field. He says;

"Pressures include leading and managing in an industry that is highly competitive and has low job security."

Dr Kelly aims to add to knowledge in this area to drive changes in the professional football environment, to assist in diminishing the challenges that professional football managers face. His work is increasing awareness around improving and supporting the mental health of professional football managers.

Due to his teaching in this area he also contributes to enhancing the education of football managers and coaches. This prepares them with other transferrable skills if they leave the management industry.

Dr Kelly has recently commenced a large longitudinal study examining professional football managers, their engagement with education and coping strategies in their professional roles. This research follows on from his Ph.D. which he completed in 2010 and a research monograph on management in professional football.

Dr Kelly explored these pressures in his 2010 to 2015 work. He has found that these individuals do not always have particular education or preparation for these job roles and in many cases employment longevity is an issue.

Professional managers have to manage a variety of people including not only players, but agents, directors and even fans. Dr Kelly’s' findings identify hostility and distrust as a common feature of the relationship between managers and the owners and directors of professional football clubs.

More specifically, from the standpoint of managers, this hostility and distrust partially emanates from the perceived motives of owners and directors and their interference in issues traditionally seen as falling within the manager's role.

The research highlights the very closed and insular world of professional football and also considers how the changing nature and status of the game impacts upon traditional roles and functions.

The professional environment has changed due to media influences and subsequent pressures. There is a culture of mental health difficulties within this area and yet still an associated stigma attached to this.

Dr Kelly notes that the UK is a highly volatile industry for manager development.

"The average tenure for a professional football manager is probably about 6-12 months and 60 - 70% of managers that are made redundant do not get another job in this area."

Many managers do not have formal education, although some are extremely well-educated. As the professional football environment is results driven, professional football managers experience chronic uncertainty, chronic stress and chronic health problems.

Dr Kelly has found there are many coping behaviors adopted by the managers such as substance abuse which can lead to family and mental health issues. Some high-profile players have drawn attention via the media, about mental health issues.

Dr Kelly thinks managers tend not to draw attention to similar issues they experience due to perceived stigma. If there is an admission of a mental health issue, they feel this may place them in a vulnerable position as regards employment longevity.

The crux of what has been discovered through Dr Kelly’s research he says is;

"Chronic insecurity, chronic stress, chronic uncertainty, phenomenal coping skills, phenomenal astuteness, excellent people management and an industry characterized by distrust."

Dr Kelly has also found a huge thirst for knowledge and education. Managers want to know the theory behind practice and how this can help them to manage players. Regarding the players themselves, he has also observed that many Irish players going to England to play football are early school leavers.

He has also identified the lack of structures, at many clubs in England and Ireland, for facilitating players’ adaptation to alternative careers following a career in professional football.

"They come back to Ireland without a sense of identity, feeling that they are perceived as a failure. Although they do not always have formal qualifications, they have different skill sets which have allowed them to be successful in industry such as reading body language, astuteness and football decision making game intelligence."

He thinks it is a mistake to assume if an individual does not have formal qualifications that they disdain education. He thinks some educational philosophy, particularly in football management would be a 'learning by doing' ideology.

Dr Kelly has found that many football managers utilize their own peers as a mental health support network. He has conducted interviews with players who have experienced nervous breakdowns which they have reported as being at home sick with the flu.

He thinks and hopes this is changing somewhat, particularly in the field of rugby where the mental health campaign is evolving but not always necessarily at grassroots levels. His research has found that if a player goes to a psychologist, some managers may perceive that the player is mentally weak.

His work in this area is highlighting the needs of both managers and players and helping to break down the stigma around mental health in this industry.

Dr Kelly is very enthusiastic around coaching science and sport teaching and education. He observes similar mental health pressures in his students as in athletes and managers - such as pressure, stress, fear of failure and loss of identity.

Dr Kelly teaches on the BSc Sports & Exercise Management, MSc Sports Management and MSc Coaching Science courses in UCD. On the postgraduate course, he teaches about leadership, trust and identity.

Dr Kelly’s teaching is driven by his research findings. The content may change slightly every year but he uses a mixed method of delivery - reflections, peer to peer discussion, problem-based learning and critical thinking. "Critical thinking by Chatfield is a book I use regularly."

He drives the course so students construct their learning through their personal experiences. He then links experiential learning back to theory, so the learning is self-directed and in-depth.

"It’s all discussion based, that’s why I love the MSc. We have a mix of managers in different sports, heads of major sporting bodies, NGOs and local clubs and marketing managers. The application rate is through the roof."

About the researcher

Dr. Seamus Kelly is a College Lecturer in the UCD School of Public Health, Physiotherapy and Sports Science. Seamus has lectured on the BSc, MSc and Diploma in Sport and Exercise Management programmes since 2002.

He holds BComm (1996), MBS (2001) and PhD (2010) degrees from UCD and a Postgraduate Diploma in Teaching and Learning from DIT. His doctoral research examined many aspects of management in professional football and was based on interviews with players, agents and managers in the English Premier League, Championship and League I & II.

His work has featured in journals such as: Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, British Medical Journal, Sport Medicine-open, International Review for the Sociology of Sport, European Sport Management Quarterly, Soccer in Society and Sport in Society. Seamus has consulted with a number of National Governing Bodies (GAA, FAI) and professional football clubs in the UK and Ireland on the application of many aspects of his research. Much of this research focuses on aspects of player, coach and manager assessment and development.

In terms of research, gaining access to the closed world of professional football was due, in part, to his previous professional (Cardiff City, St. Patricks Athletic & Bohemian F.C.) and semi-professional (UCD & Longford Town) playing experience. Seamus is also a former UCD soccer scholarship recipient and was selected for the Irish Universities, Irish Beach Soccer and numerous Irish National League representative teams. He also attained one Irish B cap and numerous winners league medals from the UK and Ireland. Additional sporting achievements include GAA (Hurling & Football) playing experiences up to and including senior inter-county level with Offaly. Considerable coaching experience was gained with Shamrock Rovers, Drogheda United, Shelbourne and numerous senior inter-county GAA teams.

(opens in a new window)Seamus Kelly UCD Profile

(opens in a new window)MSc Coaching Science UCD

(opens in a new window)Sport and Performance UCD

(opens in a new window)UCD Sports Studies on Twitter

Associated References
Curran, C. and Kelly, S., 2018. (opens in a new window)Returning home: the return of Irish-born football migrants to Ireland’s football leagues and their cultural re-adaption, 1945–2010. Irish Studies Review,26(2), pp.181-198. 

Gleeson, E. and Kelly, S., 2019. (opens in a new window)Phenomenal decision-making in elite soccer: making the unseen seen. Science and Medicine in Football, pp.1-9. 

Kelly, S. and Harris, J., 2010. (opens in a new window)Managers, directors and trust in professional football. Sport in Society, 13(3), pp.489-502. 

Kelly, S., 2008. (opens in a new window)Understanding the role of the football manager in Britain and Ireland: A Weberian approach. European Sport Management Quarterly, 8(4), pp.399-419. 

Kelly, S., 2017. The role of the professional football manager. Routledge.

Kelly, S. and Waddington, I., 2006. (opens in a new window)Abuse, intimidation and violence as aspects of managerial control in professional soccer in Britain and Ireland. International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 41(2), pp.147-164. 

Kelly, S.R., 2010. The role of the contemporary football manager in the UK and Ireland (Doctoral dissertation, University College Dublin).

Kelly, S. and Chatziefstathiou, D., 2018.(opens in a new window) ‘Trust me I am a Football Agent’. The discursive practices of the players’ agents in (un) professional football. Sport in Society, 21(5), pp.800-814. 

UCD School of Public Health, Physiotherapy and Sports Science

University College Dublin Belfield, Dublin 4, Ireland.
T: +353 1 716 7777 | E: public.health@ucd.ie