Ten Years in Office
Words: Andy Ross – Off-Air 2 – Released March 2017
Almost a decade has passed since Alan Burrows walked through the doors at Fir Park for his first day in paid employment at the club he loves.
Since then he has progressed at a rapid rate, transforming media relations at the football club, taking up the General Manager position in 2014, and then finally moving to the positon of Chief Operating Officer in June 2016.
It’s an incredible story of progression for Alan, whose impressive work on creating fan-forum WellTrustFC.net back in 2004 brought him to the attention of those in charge at Fir Park.
“I remember at the time it was MSN Messenger that fans would use to talk about Motherwell with their pals. A lot of us had grown a little bit tired of the negativity surrounding the club, we hadn’t long come out of administration and we started the message-board around that time,” Burrows explained to ‘Off-Air 2’.
“A lot of people made friends with each other through the website, it was a sensible place to talk about all things Motherwell and it became quite a sociable thing too with us attending events and matches together.
“For me it also filled a bit of a void in my own personal life in terms of changing jobs and some relationship issues – so it helped me through some difficult times and, ultimately, in many ways contributed to the path which I eventually took, which while I worked hard to get here, I also had a bit of luck too.
“I only look back on that fondly and quite often when things are especially stressful here, I sometimes look back upon it and wish I could go back to those days.”
In 2007, Alan was presented with a fantastic opportunity when he was asked to come on board at Fir Park to assist in improving the club’s website and communications between the ‘Well support and the football club.
It was back then where the transition from fan to club staff began, although he confesses it’s something that hasn’t come too easily.
“You think you know what the club is like when you live outside the bubble and that has proven to be the case,” he explained.
“When I came in at the start I was sort of in the background, if I had come straight into my current role I would have found it immensely difficult, there’s no doubt about that.
“I retain all the emotion of a supporter, I don’t think it would be right for me ten years on to say I genuinely have a real pulse of what it is to be a supporter in this situation. When you have been on this side for a decade your perspective of fan issues and what it’s like to be a supporter changes a little bit – what I can say though is that you retain the passion and continue the love affair for Motherwell F.C.
“That is the thing I think I find hardest to do – how do I get less emotional about it all given the role I am in?
“I tend to take a defeat very hard and it takes me quite a long time to pick myself up from a loss. That’s not just from a supporter point of view – I know the effort that has went in to building up to a game and doing well, as I do the difficulties of things not going well. It can be a tough shift at times, but at the same time I would never change the ten years I have had here.”
Arriving shortly after the departure of Maurice Malpas, Alan has been lucky enough to work during some very successful times at Fir Park.
It was encouragement from Mark McGhee, then in his first spell at the club, who encouraged him to work on building relations with the Scottish press – something which the club have reaped the rewards of since.
The work of Alan, as well as his team of Ross Clarkson and Ally Reilly, was gaining increased recognition and their hard work, dedication and willingness to experiment with various forms of digital and social media earned them an incredible eight ‘Best Media Relations’ awards in eight successive seasons.
It was a far cry from the situation that he was faced with on his arrival at the club, where quite often communications were a major flaw due to a lack of resources and budget.
“I had seven years in the communications department and those were a good seven years too – we had a lot of European ties, finished high up in the table on numerous occasions, When things are going as well as that they quite often manage themselves, the issues come where things aren’t going as well,” said Burrows, who has witnessed Motherwell play twenty-two times in Europe since taking up his post in 2007.
“When I came in the club had no media infrastructure whatsoever in terms of PR and communications. Graham Barnstaple was effectively pushing water up a hill at the time as he was doing a great deal of the work on a voluntary basis in his own free time.
“Initially, my only remit was to make the website a bit better and make our lines of fan communication a bit stronger, it was the management team at that time who encouraged me to really take engaging with the press on board as part of my role.
“By the time my role in the communications side of things came to an end that had become my primary focus, having daily interaction with the media and getting as much positive information and stories about the club out there as possible – I think we were quite successful at doing that.
“It’s become cultural at the club that we communicate with the media and crucially that we have a trust in the media and the media trust you too.
“The success allowed me to bring in Ross (Clarkson) and Ally (Reilly) and now Lewis (Irons) is on board as well, it’s a fantastic team, made up of very talented workers.
“Engaging with the media is almost expected of you now as people strive for information, for quick-fire news as well as video and social content – I think we were fairly ahead of the game when it came to that sort of thing, we were one of the first to use Twitter, we had MFC TV which went free-to-air on You Tube, and the live online commentary of matches.
“I would hope that whatever happens at that football club that it’s now ingrained and is part of the dynamic of the business regardless of whether it’s me or anyone else that’s in the post.
“Not all positive benefits have an obvious cash impact right away, the move from MFC TV behind a paywall to YouTube and free-to-air looks like you’ve got off an income-line. Although what we did is assess the trends and noticed especially the explosion of social media, so we got on board with the train of thought that content like what you see on the MFC YouTube channel helps promote the club and through that you hope for secondary sales through the shop, the ticket office, and the likes.
“I still believe in that to this day and we are in a fairly good place, I’m very happy with the staff at the club right now. We’ve had good people at the club in the past, who have moved on for a variety of reasons, but the staff I have in place currently are the best I have had the opportunity to work with.
Moving up the ranks of the football club has naturally brought with it extra pressures and responsibilities for the 34-year-old.
In February, he, along with the board of directors, decided to end the tenure of Mark McGhee at Fir Park.
As someone who enjoyed a close working relationship with McGhee, he admits it was a difficult time for everyone, but stressed that while he has a say in the ‘hiring and firing’ process, the decision isn’t his alone.
“There’s a bit of a misconception about the hiring and firing of mangers and I’ve seen this play out a lot through my own Twitter feed, that the Chief Executive is responsible for appointing and sacking a manager – they don’t, certainly not at this club anyway,” Alan stressed.
“That is the responsibility of the board of directors, when you have to remove someone as important to your business as the manager is to a football club it’s obviously a massive decision.
“It’s not a decision taken on a whim. Of course I do have a significant input and I won’t shirk that responsibility, but in a decision of that magnitude it’s a collective thing and taken by everyone that sits on that board.
“I’m a people person, I like to talk to people and like to be around people. Every manager I’ve had here with perhaps the exception of one, you become very close to them.
“You build up a rapport and want them to succeed, not just for the club but for them as individuals – you can see how hard they are working and the huge amount of effort they are putting in.
“The key point is though that you must separate yourself from your personal relationship and take tough decisions – that’s what we had to do with Mark. It wasn’t pleasant and I didn’t take any satisfaction from it, but I felt in the best interests of the club it had to be done.
“I read things on social media saying we were reluctant to make a decision and I understand people have perceptions, but when you have a decision of that magnitude you’ve got to give those involved as much of a chance as possible to succeed.
“If it gets to the situation where you don’t feel that you can achieve what you set out to do then you act on it, but I certainly don’t think that Motherwell fans would like to become a club where there’s a ‘firing squad’ type mentality where people are tossed aside and not given the best possible chance to succeed in their role.
“You’ve got to balance it, considering everything they’ve been asked to do in terms of their remit, the budget, resources available, the performances, the view of the supporters – there’s a whole bunch of factors which make it a really tough decision where personalities have to be taken out of it and it becomes a job title.”
Social media has played a key part throughout Burrows’ time at Fir Park. From online message-boards, to bringing Motherwell’s media output to a level that made the club the envy of their fellow Scottish sides, there’s little doubt that it has been a useful and well utilised tool.
It doesn’t come without obvious negatives however and, quite often at times of difficulties at the football club, he has found himself facing the wrath of supporters.
He admits that side of his job can be extremely difficult to deal with, although believes it is one of the few downsides of working in a very public environment.
“It’s very hard and anyone that says otherwise isn’t telling the truth. I think people have different thresholds as to what they can and can’t take,” Alan explained.
“Nobody is harder on me than myself, that has always been the case. I remember meeting Les Hutchison and him describing me as a very typical West of Scotland male with a very negative outlook about myself.
“There have been several occasions where I toyed with the idea of removing myself from the whole thing (social media). Everyone that I speak to in senior positions in football tell me the same, that I shouldn’t be there and that only bad can come of being on there. I don’t necessarily agree with that, I have scaled back a lot recently, particularly after games for a consistency point of view.
“If it gets to the point where I just can’t take it, and I’ve hovered dangerously close to that stage on a few occasions, then I will come off.
“I don’t want to be burying my head in the sand and I want to be able to discuss ideas with fans as well as keeping in touch with news and what other clubs are doing – it’s a useful tool and I hope I can continue to use it.
“You could spend your whole days trying to challenge people or accept that you work in a very forward facing industry and it’s sometimes part and parcel of the job.”
Despite recent difficult times, the recruitment of Stephen Robinson as Mark McGhee’s successor has been a huge positive for Alan.
In the two weeks leading to Robinson’s appointment there was a great deal of speculation as to who would land the role and the decision to give the job to the man who worked as assistant to Ian Baraclough and Mark McGhee was met with a mixed reaction.
There is little doubt in the Steelmen’s Chief Operating Officer’s mind though that he landed the right man and explained that many of the names linked to the job by the press and bookmakers were never in the running for the job.
“Sometimes when recruiting for a job there will be managers who are not interested in the post or the club don’t feel to be suitable for the job,” he said.
“In the process of the interviewing for the job, three names that were interviewed didn’t even come out in the press – which was quite an unusual situation.
“That sometimes creates a situation where people don’t feel that we made the right decision because they would have preferred ‘Person X’ without actually knowing if they applied or even wanted the job in the first place.
“Stephen is a terrific coach, who is tremendously respected by people at the club. He was tremendously successful as assistant here and both Ian Baraclough and Stephen Robinson had much improved win rates with Stephen supporting.
“He is excellent on the training field and is extremely well organised, in fact he is already planning ahead for next season.
“Another factor that really impressed too was that he came into the interview with an opinion as to why things were going wrong and what he would do to make things different.
“It was his vision and his plan that really caught our attention, he resonated with the board. There were some impressive candidates who interviewed well, though Stephen was an exceptional candidate and we are all right behind him and are all desperate for him to succeed.
“Hopefully he will take us back to some of the successes we’ve had in recent times. Everyone knows that Scottish football is tougher than it was four-years ago, but that’s not a reason for not aspiring to be more successful and to be the most successful club that we can be.”