Six years ago, after Ben Ryan coached a Fiji team comprising hotel porters and a prison warden to Olympic rugby sevens gold, he was rewarded with a three-acre plot of land in the South Pacific, given the highest honour the island nation can bestow and soon discovered his face embossed across commemorative bank notes and coins. A job that began with Ryan going unpaid and stumping up for petrol in the bus to take the team to training ended with an extraordinary victory in Rio de Janeiro, after which he told of plans to unwind by playing golf and watching Brentford, where he has long been a season‑ticket holder.
Brentford is now also Ryan’s place of work after he was appointed the club’s director of elite performance late last month. In a summer transfer window in which Brentford hope to complete the eye-catching signings of Aaron Hickey, a 20-year-old Glaswegian full-back from Bologna, and Keane Lewis-Potter, a 21-year-old forward from Hull, the arrival of Ryan is perhaps most intriguing given the paucity of cross-pollination between football and other sports.
Several Premier League clubs have versions of performance directors – last week Tottenham appointed the former Bolton defender Grétar Steinsson to such a position – but few have experience outside football, with Simon Timson, who joined Manchester City in a similar role from the Lawn Tennis Association two years ago and has worked across cricket and skeleton, a rare exception. In the Championship, Patrick Wilson recently joined Cardiff as head of physical performance after spells in rugby union with Bath and Munster.
Innovation is nothing new at Brentford, a club always prepared to explore different avenues. In 2015 they hired Gianni Vio, a set-piece coach who last year helped Italy win the European Championship, from Milan and the next season they became the first British club to work with Thomas Grønnemark, the world’s first professional throw‑in coach who has since worked with Liverpool.
Vio is set to join Antonio Conte’s staff at Tottenham and another of Brentford’s former set-piece coaches, Nicolas Jover, is at Arsenal after two years with Manchester City. Their players and staff also work closely with a sleep coach, Anna West, and psychologist Michael Caulfield. In 2016 they shut their academy in favour of a B-team model but plans are under way to relaunch it after a recent Premier League rule change.
It is early days for Ryan but Brentford are confident the appointment of the 50-year-old, who has also worked with UK Sport and the French Rugby Federation, will be fruitful. Brentford believe Ryan, one of more than 200 applicants, slots into their existing framework and makes it more efficient.
The west London club were keen to appoint someone with a track record in a high-performance environment beyond football and recognise the value in Ryan, given his background, being able to empathise with Brentford’s Danish head coach, Thomas Frank. Ryan has been given freedom to leave no stone unturned in the club’s quest to improve player and staff performance. The heads of sports science, medical and football operations report into Ryan who, like Frank, reports into the director of football, Phil Giles.
For Ryan, the first few days have largely consisted of getting to know his colleagues but one of the first things he is involved in is ensuring Brentford’s move into a new and improved training centre at their Jersey Road base in west London will not hamper performances mid-season.
Asked whether it was possible to transfer skills between football and rugby after a session at AFC Wimbledon on the eve of last season, Ryan said: “Sometimes someone coming in from another sport just gives you a different perspective. It depends what your background is coming in, but I think it can freshen up your thinking sometimes. As coaches, we all want to be curious.”
Perhaps the most high-profile transition from rugby into football was the arrival of Sir Clive Woodward at Southampton in 2005, a bold experiment by the then chairman, Rupert Lowe, to enhance performance across all areas of the club, including their revered academy, which developed Gareth Bale, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Theo Walcott, Adam Lallana and Luke Shaw. Woodward, who guided England to their only Rugby World Cup title, shuffled between four different titles in 13 turbulent months.
“It is a pity he wasn’t there longer,” Lowe recalls. “The resistance was there but it was what I’d describe as dumb innocence rather than open conflict. The football world didn’t like, and doesn’t like, people from outside football coming in. It is a bit of a closed shop.”
Lowe describes football as “a luddite industry” but says younger players were generally more open to working with Woodward, who was first appointed performance director. Woodward was big on analytics and the marginal gains that these days may be viewed in a different light. He explored the importance of biodynamics at penalties and introduced eye exercises to improve players’ reflexes at crosses inside the box.
“When I brought Clive in there was all sorts saying that I was bringing in someone with the wrong-shaped ball, and this sort of rubbish,” Lowe says. “But structuring a successful team, it doesn’t matter if it is hockey or rugby, the essence of team sports is very similar.”
Brentford’s appointment of Ryan, Lowe says, is enlightening in an era when the industry propagates the view that spending money equals ambition. There is a sense within the game that more clubs may follow suit, too. “I’ve always thought that good management should always trump the size of people’s wallets and that’s the essence of what English football should be trying to achieve,” Lowe says. “Brentford deserve a lot of credit. They are a wonderful example of how a club is capable of demonstrating that it is management and not money that is the most important element.”