Simon Timson: Manchester City's performance director reveals his recipe for success

Former head of UK sport on implementing sustainable systems for long-term success and how the club are putting an emphasis on the individual

It’s not just on the field where top Premier League clubs are seeking to find an edge on their rivals, and champions Manchester City are a prime example.

Whilst Txiki Begiristain and Pep Guardiola have spent the past 18 months bringing in seminal talents in Ruben Dias and Jack Grealish, the City Football Group’s chief football operations officer, Omar Berrada, was seeking out gifted individuals to work behind the scenes.

He alighted, primarily, on performance director Simon Timson for a new role that’s designed - in as far as possible in such a capricious industry - to future proof success.

Even though the role and concept of multi-faceted, performance experts is still in its relative infancy in football, Timson has as a rich a pedigree in British sport.

His suitability for the role is unquestionable. He moved to East Manchester from the Lawn Tennis Association where he put in place a 10-year plan which has just celebrated the emergence of Emma Raducanu as a Grand Slam champion.

Before that he helped Amy Williams to Olympic skeleton gold in Vancouver 2010, worked with the England and Wales Cricket Board and was the director of UK Sport that oversaw a record medal tally at the Rio Olympic Games in 2016.

It’s quite the resume for a man who openly - and modestly - claims to be a jack of all trades but master of none, but who is clearly an innovative facilitator.

He has been at City now for more than a year and the role has become much more defined.

“Performance director means something different everywhere you go,” explains Timson, 50, whose early life objective was to become a PE teacher - ‘because that was the established way into sport in the UK in the 1980s’ - but quickly switched to psychology, completing his PhD at Leeds University.

“It’s a broad role in general that means something different in each organisation, but in football it is more focussed and a little bit more niche. At City it encompasses the science and medicine and performance analysis services to men’s and women’s first teams and academy ... It is about very clearly using evidence to define where we want to get to as a team or a club in terms of player development and performance."

Timson has spent his time at the club developing and implementing sustainable systems - "the boring, less sexy stuff" as he puts it - to identify and nurture talent for the long term with primary focus on science, medicine and performance analysis.

“Where are we trying to get to? What's the plan for getting there? What are the processes and systems we need to put in place? Those are the important questions," he says.

“What’s the structure and how do we nurture and grow that over the long term so we have sustainable success? I simply help really good, bright leaders and coaches at City to build those systems."

Timson is one of those rare people who knows that the better he does his job at City, the more likely he is to find himself looking for a new challenge in the long term, such is the lot of a performance director in an organisation that majors on talent identification and promotion from within.

“One of the things I am most proud of is that in almost all of my jobs, there has been an internal successor appointed from the sport and the programme who has built on the platform, the principles and the strategies implemented. And then they have been more successful," he says.

“It gives me great satisfaction because I see one of my core jobs here at City is to develop the people in tandem with the plan. I am not an expert in any one area but I do seek to get talented people around the table and create an environment where those people can leverage their expertise to deliver a clear plan.

“Here we want them to be innovative and to push boundaries. I want them to understand what the coaches want to deliver and how best we can help them do just that. It’s about servicing the coaches and the players.”

City's success under Pep - in pictures

One area he already feels has progressed rapidly is that of performance analysis, a tool vital to managers in all the top leagues.

“We’ve made big gains in the last year and the way in which we structure it and support the coaches in the right way,” says Timson.

“We discovered, for instance, that the evidence shows that the vast majority of teams change their normal approach to a game when they play City’s men’s first team. They even iterate the things they do differently. We’ve changed our analysis methods to accommodate that. We no longer try to predict the unpredictable.”

Instead there has been a shift to improving an already strong coach/player relationship with the emphasis on the individual.

“One of the biggest steps forward in sport in the last five years or so has been coaches, sport scientists and medics realising it’s not all about trying to get an athlete or player to change the way they behave or think, it’s about adapting the way they behave and communicate towards them and the challenges you give them in order to get the best out of them,” he adds.

“It has been a huge shift. The most successful coaches, scientists, analysts ... are the ones who can embrace individual differences and understand them. They work with it and encourage it right from the youth team level.

“We need to understand personality and behaviour more. Take performance analysis for instance, some players want information in the dressing room 40 minutes before kick off, some of them want it two days before, some just want a video to watch by themselves, some want you to sit with them for an hour and go through it, some want to sit with coach and go through it. That is one of the frontiers or boundaries in sport that can be pushed still further and is something we are trying to do at City.”

For Timson, doing the basics well on a consistent basis is the starting point for any future success: don't crawl before you can run, although he prefers a culinary metaphor to describe the process.

“Fundamentally most sports are always looking for a silver bullet that doesn't exist. Do the basics better than anyone else and you are not going to be far away. If you choose the right boundaries to push in the right way and at the right times - that’s your icing on the cake. But until you do the basics better than anyone else don’t worry about that. Until you can bake a brilliant sponge don’t worry how good your icing is.”

Updated: September 28th 2021, 7:15 AM
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