The rise and rise of Robert Rowan

How does a guy working in a bank in Rosyth end up as head of football operations at Brentford?

By Richard Winton

This article first appeared in Issue 1 which was published in September 2016.

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He might only have been 23 at the time, but Rowan already had five years of senior football experience to his name.

“I was sitting in a toilet cubicle in a bank in Fife listening to Brentford’s director of football talking about salaries, contracts and start dates…”

Robert Rowan slipped his phone back into his pocket and returned upstairs to his desk at the Rosyth branch of Lloyds Bank. The customers whose loan application he had been dealing with when Frank McParland called had left, having been hurried out of the door when the answerphone message flashed up on Rowan’s screen.

It was August 2014. The Fifer had been working in the bank for three months and was beginning to consider it his career until two interviews in the space of two days rekindled his hopes of a job in football. “I’d told the bank I needed a day off because I had an interview with the English FA,” he recalls, conspiratorially. “But the Brentford thing was on my day off…”

The “Brentford thing” involved a trip to Blackpool on a Tuesday night. The West London club were playing Blackpool in a Championship fixture and asked Rowan to meet them pre-match and join them to watch the game. “The problem was, I was working the next morning so I had to drive down then leave pretty much straight away after the chat,” Rowan says. “I remember heading up the road to Kirkcaldy really hoping I’d get the job but at the back of my mind I was thinking ‘fucking hell, I’ve got work in the bank tomorrow morning’.”

He did get the job as Brentford’s scouting co-ordinator, as confirmed in that ill-timed answerphone message a few weeks later. But how does a guy working in a bank in Rosyth get a job in the English Championship?

“I told them I’d only do it if I could be the sporting director, but Stenhousemuir had never had one before…”

He might only have been 23 at the time, but Rowan already had five years of senior football experience to his name. Celtic, Bolton, Rio Ave, Eskisehirspor and the Scotland national team had all leaned upon his scouting talents; he had coached in Sweden; and he was combining his role in the bank with a position of prominence at a Scottish League One club.

His spell at Stenhousemuir came about purely by chance. Much of his work with the Scottish FA had involved doing analysis for the national teams at all levels and, through that, he developed a relationship with Scotland under-17 coach Scott Booth, who had just been appointed manager of the Larbert club. “He asked me to get involved and got me in front of the board of directors. That’s when I made the ‘sporting director’ pitch,” Rowan explains. “I didn’t think for a minute it would
work and, actually, I don’t think the
club were ever convinced they needed
me, but they let me have a go at it.”

While filming games, showing clips to players and holding analysis sessions may not seem revolutionary, it was entirely alien to a squad being asked to turn up for an additional third training session every week. Then there were the continual clandestine phone calls from a Rosyth bank toilet. “A strange way of working,” Rowan concedes, of trying to combine two distinct careers. “That went on for a couple of months, but it was probably a mistake getting involved in the first place.”

On reflection, Rowan recognises he was too hasty in accepting the Ochilview opportunity. It had been a few months since his position at the Scottish FA had been made redundant following the dissolution of the recruitment team and came just as he completed his probationary period at the bank. It felt like his last chance.

And it felt like a long time since the day a couple of years earlier when he was asked to meet Craig Levein’s chief scout, Mick Oliver, at a Premier Inn beside the Kincardine Bridge. “I’d been at Celtic for a year when he got in touch,” Rowan recalls. “I was given this footage of a Slovenia side that Scotland were due to play and he asked me to do a report. It must have been okay because he gave me a job.”

That job entailed tracking players from other countries, looking at potential Scotland internationals and recruiting performance school pupils who were only a few years younger than the 20-year-old Rowan. Quite a responsibility for someone whose football experience consisted of a few months at Celtic.

“We decided to walk to Celtic Park but it was hosing down and our £1 umbrella wasn’t big enough…”

Rowan had never been to Glasgow on his own before. In fact, he hadn’t been to many places. He was 18 and was at college in Fife. Little wonder he was a bit bewildered as he stepped off the bus at Buchanan Street station.

Several weeks earlier, encouraged by the internet leak of a scouting report Andre Villas-Boas had compiled for Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea, Rowan resolved to author one of his own on the Champions League final between Manchester United and Barcelona in Rome. “I sent it to every club in England and Scotland. I just got a bunch of envelopes and addressed them to ‘The Manager’,” he says, laughing. “Thinking back, I wouldn’t do it that way again.”

Remarkably, Nottingham Forest, West Ham and Celtic replied, with the latter inviting him to meet with David Moss, the then head of academy recruitment. Hence the bus trip to Glasgow. “My mate was at university in Glasgow so he met me and we decided, for some reason, to walk to Celtic Park. By the time we got there we were soaking and when I was speaking to David, I could see my mate outside in the car park huddled under this cheap umbrella.”

Despite this shambolic scene, Moss was impressed enough to invite Rowan to help with Celtic’s youth and under-21 sides, scouting opposition teams. “I was young and naive and there was nothing too complicated about them – it’s just 11 v 11,” he says when asked what gave him the belief his reports were good enough. “I wasn’t cocky but I had nothing to lose and wanted to give it a shot.”

“I loaded up my car and drove down to London – it was a classic hippy scene…”

There was plenty to lose when it came to moving to Brentford, though. The promising career in the bank. His project at Stenhousemuir. Girlfriend Suzanne, who was staying in Kirkcaldy for the short term at least. “My wee Corsa was loaded up with stuff, bits hanging out of windows, at 4am and it wasn’t until I got halfway down the road that I starting thinking ‘what am I doing here?’ It was a 10-hour drive and I didn’t really know where I was going so I headed straight for the training ground.”

The underwhelming nature of Brentford’s base also came as a shock to a man more used to the luxury of Lennoxtown, but a familiar face helped ease the transition. Rowan had become friendly with assistant manager Davie Weir through their work with the Scottish FA and it was the former Falkirk, Hearts, Everton and Rangers defender who acted as his flat-mate during his first few weeks in London. “After that, I ended up flatsharing in the same building in with a guy from Dunfermline who I’d never met before,” says Rowan, who had hitherto never lived outside Kirkcaldy.

His living arrangements are now more conventional, with Suzanne having joined him in Ealing, but Brentford pride themselves on being apart from the norm.

Owner Matthew Benham is a former hedge fund manager and professional gambler who made his money by building statistical models to exploit mistakes in bookmakers’ odds. That adherence to mathematical modelling informs everything the Championship club does, with more than 20 PhD holders and around 50 analysts employed in Benham’s Smartodds company to identify the flaws in football’s prevailing wisdom for the benefit of Brentford or Danish side Midtjylland, which Benham also owns. It could be strategies to maximise set pieces, what type of players the club should be signing and from which markets, or even the style of play deployed. No convention is sacred.

Rowan is an enthusiast disciple and insisted on spending one day a week studying at Smartodds throughout his first year at Brentford. But Weir, McParland and manager Mark Warburton were not so convinced. The trio had guided Brentford into the Championship play-off places halfway through the 2014-15 season only to reportedly be told that the analytics suggested that, were it not for good fortune, they would be 11th. Understandably, a schism opened, with the Fifer stuck in the middle in his new role as head of football operations.

“That was a tricky time for me personally but I’ve learned a lot and I’ve done a lot,” Rowan says. “In a way, it was good for me to be thrown into that situation because I just had to get on with it and it’s given me the kind of experience that very few people my age have, in whatever industry they work in.”

Indeed, his daily remit now is more akin to that of a director of football. Be it arranging pre-season, having significant input in to the club’s recruitment, analysing opposition, managing the training ground or developing relations with clubs such as Manchester City, Barcelona and Liverpool, Rowan has a hand in almost everything that goes on yet is still only 25.

The fact he looks like he’s had a tough paper round helps hush some of the carping about his age. So, too, does his eight years of experience at international, Champions League and Championship level – something that was at the forefront in the minds of those at Celtic when they approached him in April about returning to Scotland to work with their first team. “It was difficult to turn them down as you don’t get the opportunity to work for such a big club often but I’ve now got a clear vision of where I want to go and how I will get there.”

Safe to say, this time it won’t be in a clapped out Corsa, Stagecoach bus or by walking through torrential rain.

This article first appeared in Issue 1 which was published in September 2016.

Issue 13
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