If you've ever carried out any research on the subject of Player Care, there's a very good chance you would have come across Hugo Scheckter, and for good reason. Having looked after some of the world's best players during his time at Southampton FC and West Ham United, Hugo has established himself as one of the leading authorities in this relatively new, but increasingly important sector - after all, a happy, motivated player is far more likely to perform at their best than one who's not.
With this being the case, Hugo has launched his own consultancy - The Player Care Group - to share his learnings and help clubs get the best out of their own players. Here, he shares some of his experiences within football and gives us an insight into The Player Care Group, as well as some great advice for anyone interested in starting a career in this exciting side of the industry.
Hugo with Maya Yoshida, James Ward-Prowse, Virgil van Dijk & Sadio Mané
How did you start working in the football industry?
I started coaching when I was 17 years old and I was still at school. I was never a great football player but one of the teachers suggested coaching because I was always watching matches, reading football magazines and in general, was really keen on the sport. So, I obtained my coaching badge at the age of 17, started working with a few teams and continued that sports management progression through my time at university.
I went to university in America, which was a great experience because there is a real focus on extra-curricular activities, especially sport. I became involved in the football team, the cricket team… as many sports teams that I could really. My first full-time job was in America for Indy Eleven, which was a new team at the time. It was really interesting to be a part of a start-up franchise – an opportunity you don’t get to have in the UK. To be able to see that organisation build from the ground up was really cool.
The club was only founded in 2013, right?
Yes. I joined in October 2013 and when I started, we had the manager and one player and that was it. It was really interesting to build a team, find fans, locate a training ground because we didn’t have one of those... It was hard work and I am not sure I would do it again but as a starting role straight out of university, it was incredible to be a part of it all.
Source: Indy Eleven
You then moved from the USA to work for Southampton FC. Aside from those logistical differences in coming from a club that had recently been launched to one with much history, did you find there were obvious differences between how the USA and UK manage their team operations? Was it difficult to adapt?
Yes. Going from an organisation of 12 to one with 250 staff was massively different. A key change was that at Indy Eleven, I used to work in sponsorship, player contracts, team travel, kit, FIFA registrations… Then at Southampton, I was just within player care.
I had, however, been at the club as an intern when I was at university so I knew enough people there and I knew the club ethos so it wasn’t a huge culture shock. What I did notice though was those items that I was maybe spending 5 minutes a month on at Indy Eleven, were suddenly a big part of my whole job at Southampton. So it was a change of pace in that regard. Also, having departments like IT and HR were great because we didn’t have those dedicated departments at Indy!
Do you think the area of player care is underestimated in terms of its importance to a football player’s career and how has the area developed from when you started in the industry?
I was the first Player Liaison at Southampton FC and I think it has changed so much in the 8 years I have been working in this area. It has gone from a ‘one-man band’, that will sort some things out for you, to a real department at a lot of clubs.
I think it is being taken more seriously and clubs are starting to understand it is not as big a financial investment as they possibly thought it was and it is one that can have such a positive impact. I don’t think the education on player care is quite there though and one of the things that I am trying to do when I interview or write about this area, is to sell player care as a concept because I don’t think that exists right now.
Erwin Koeman, Ronald Koeman & Hugo during their time at Southampton FC
Given the unprecedented year we all had in 2020, did you find that your role changed as the year went on? A lot of players and industry professionals were quite open about the personal challenges that the pandemic created for them. Did this change your focus and the requirements of your role?
Yes, in fact the role changed a few times during that period. The first time was more from an operational side because we had to look at what we were going to do as staff to support the players. Nobody had ever experienced such a situation before. The doctors and other medical staff were also in the unknown because it’s not like they have ever been through pandemic training! So, we got a small group of staff together who were key in facilitating a response on how we were going to do things and what we were going to say to players – educating them on what the government information was. New guidance was being released every day, sometimes every hour and even if you were on top of it, it was still hard to work out what you could and couldn’t do at times.
In the early days of the pandemic, it was really important to relay the key information so players and staff wouldn’t get ill or get caught out by the rules that were in place. I became a lot more team focused because of that; rather than concentrating on individuals, it became much more about communicating as a team. My assistance was still there for individual players when they needed specific support but to be honest, during the first lockdown, there wasn’t too much we could do. You would call players every day to check on them but for some it was too much, for others it was enough…
The situation meant that we had to change our model and try to find answers when nobody really had answers at that time. Even towards the end of that period my role was changing. I had the responsibility of managing the testing process and it was a huge piece of administration and took a lot of time out of my week. On the other side of that, while it was such a change, I was really happy to have a job during that time and having that opportunity to work throughout that difficult period. It wasn’t easy but it wasn’t a bad situation to be in either.
On that subject, has the pandemic taught you anything in terms of developing your consultancy business? I don’t want to downplay the immense difficulties that have been faced by all or disregard the fact that many people have sadly lost their lives and/or lost loved ones but looking at the effects the pandemic has had on business, the football industry and player care specifically, has the unprecedented situation almost been an eye-opener in terms of the difficulties/impossibilities of planning for the unexpected?
I think there are two points on that. At the beginning of the lockdown period, my staff had a lot of time because they weren’t working as they would normally. Because of that, we were able to finish a number of long-term projects we were looking at.
In terms of the pandemic itself, it was impossible to have foreseen that situation and therefore have an emergency pandemic plan in place. However, it does make you look at emergency planning in general and how you would be able to adapt to certain situations. For example, how would you manage if there was a fuel shortage? You can’t have a plan for every scenario because you don’t know every scenario that may occur but it’s perhaps less about that and more about being confident that you are adaptable in managing situations in the right way.
The pandemic has made us think about what is essential and what is really important in football operations. It almost allowed us to take a step back and start from scratch. On the other side, our job didn’t stop because of that. Players have had about 3 weeks off in 18 months and most of them couldn’t travel in that period so it has been difficult for both players and staff in terms of burnout.
I think players are falling foul of the rules now because they are trying to let off steam. I think they have been continuously pushed and while the go to for a lot of people is to comment on how much money they earn, for me, you run the risk of ruining the product by pushing them. Players are going to be so tired by the end of the season, which will affect the quality of the football and cause injuries.
Broadly speaking, the media does focus on how much money footballers earn and not so much the human side of these individuals. Do you think there is perhaps a lack of empathy in that footballers are being pushed to play during a pandemic?
Yes. It is difficult to be so public with empathy because you have nurses working flat out every day, earning far less money and so there is that element of problem vs problem.
It is a tough one because I do have sympathy for players and one thing I have learned is that money doesn’t mean you don’t have problems. Yes of course you have that security to pay your mortgage and put food on the table but to be honest, a lot of the time football players are quite lonely; they feel that people are getting close to them because they want something from them whether it is money, tickets, shirts... They often isolate themselves so they won’t be taken advantage of. You and I for example, don’t have that problem.
It is not a bad life to be a football player but it certainly has its own issues and player care is about trying to understand that and giving them somebody to talk to. I’m not a counsellor but I am somebody who understands their world and can be trusted as their peer.
You have some incredible recommendations and testimonials from players, managers and other industry professionals. It must be a real positive to have recognition for your hard work?
It was quite strange because I have good relationships with the people I have worked with and I think part of that is because I never really ask them for anything. I think this is the first time I’ve had to ask them for something and it was uncomfortable having to go through my contacts and almost ask them if they minded saying how great I am. It is quite odd to ask someone to write a message about how and why they like you.
My reason for doing so, is to show that I have worked with great people and they have trusted me. When you have a club badge attached to your role, it almost opens doors for you but going out on your own freelancing is different and you are out of that football ‘bubble’. I had to contact those people I have worked with and ask them to go on the record. Each quote has thought behind it and I wanted to ensure that those people who endorsed me had genuine appreciation for the work I have done with them. In time, I would want those testimonials to be phased out and replaced by those people who have hired me because of the player care consultancy work I have done for them.
Having high profile testimonials gives you headlines and interest from those in the industry but what’s more important to me is eventually gaining more recommendations from those that hire me.
Your career path to date is a good example of progression and development in general but more specifically within the area of player care. What do you put that success down to?
I am a person that is driven. At Southampton, I had carried out a lot of good work but it almost got to a point where it was easy because I knew everybody well; I had good relationships there and I had set everything up to how I wanted it to be. I probably could have stayed there for 20 years and carried out my job every day but I had the opportunity to go to West Ham and be a head of department, which was a big step-up and an opportunity I had to take.
Again, I reached that point at West Ham where I didn’t know how much further I could take my role and whilst I could have sat there and continued going through the motions, I knew I wanted more from my career.
My career is very important to me so I don’t really have it in me to sit and coast through jobs. I am hopeful that in time, my latest career move will be seen as the next step-up. If it doesn’t and it’s a step back, I will learn from it. I was just keen to try something new; I saw a gap in the industry that I wanted to pursue.
So opening The Player Care Group wasn’t a long-term goal that you have been planning for years?
No. I always knew I wanted to do things differently and I have been able to build a successful profile. Realistically, I am probably the only player liaison with such a profile and I have been quite public over the years in promoting what I have been doing – both the good things and the bad things. It has worked out well in terms of launching my business because I now have this network of people to reach out to.
I never really wanted to do this though. Perhaps a part of it was establishing a work-life balance too because I have been working flat out for 8 years, across weekends, Christmas, New Year… You miss out on a lot of things in your life. When you have to work an away fixture and not attend your best friend’s wedding for example, you realise there isn’t any flexibility in football.
I suppose it is a dual-sided career choice – part of it is personal and the other is professional but I think both sides will be successful and benefit by me making this career move.
How important do you think additional languages are in working in this area of the football industry? A lot of player care roles are advertised with specific languages or additional languages detailed as ‘essential’. Do you think the lack of languages is a barrier to being successful in this role?
I think it is good to have languages but you can speak multiple languages and still not do your job well, in the same way you may not have any additional languages and be a great player liaison. I don’t think it should be essential unless you are going to a club where they have huge numbers of players who don’t speak English.
For me though, I think it is far more important to encourage players to learn to speak English as quickly as possible. For any of us, we can’t fully assimilate to life in another country if we don’t speak the language. You can do your best sure, but everyday tasks such as going to the supermarket or ordering a taxi are difficult to do without speaking the language.
What do you think are the key skills needed to work in a player care role? Do you find that clubs approach player care differently in terms of who they have fulfilling that role?
It is massively different across the clubs. Part of what my business is aiming to do is to try and raise that level of player care in clubs across the world.
I think all teams have different models. In my experience, Southampton was unlike West Ham and having the same provision at both clubs wouldn’t have worked. I think you need people with a variety of experience. Right now, I know there are ex-teachers, ex-policemen, ex-players, business students, linguists…all fulfilling the player care role. There is this real mix of experiences and personalities and I think that is really interesting to see. Everybody has their own approach to doing the job well and that’s important because every club is unique.
There are obvious basics, such as being a great communicator and being charismatic. It’s a difficult role because in some ways you are below the players in hierarchy because they are giving you work to do but on the other hand, there are times you are more senior than them because when there are problems, you’re the person that has to go and manage that and sort the problem out. You really have to have the people skills to build respect with the players and most importantly, be honest and transparent with them. Football players in general, are wary of being taken advantage of and unfortunately, that does happen. It almost ruins the trust levels for others working in the industry.
Although football isn’t particularly known for roles where you have a routine i.e. every day is different and it can often be reactive, rather than proactive, what does a typical day or week in a player care role look like?
You do have routine but you are always prepared for the fact that it will change. Yes, you do have to be reactive but a key thing is to put plans in place so when something unexpected happens, you learn from it and plan as best as you can to try and avoid the same thing happening again in the future.
What is the most difficult part of fulfilling a player care role?
When you are losing games, the mood changes and things become difficult. You will get blamed for things that don’t really have relevancy to the team losing but it is just part of football – you know you will be there to see the unbelievable highs and the unbelievable lows.
The work-life balance isn’t easy either and I always say to young people interested in a career in the football industry that football is a lifestyle, not a career.
What is the most enjoyable part of a player care role?
It’s enjoyable to be part of the team. Wherever you go, you have a group of people who all want the same thing and that is to win on a weekend. You all have the same goal and I like that side to it. There is some disagreement, of course but in general, everyone works as a team and pulls in the same direction.
You recently featured in The Athletic and FC Business. There is a lot of interest around what you are doing with The Player Care Group. How have you found that interest? Is it nice or has it been overwhelming at times?
It’s nice to have people interested in what you are doing and hopefully that will progress into clients for my business.
I am trying to do two things really – to increase the knowledge around player care and to target the specific people who will hire me for my business. So it’s two different avenues that I am trying to succeed in.
I am enjoying the interest but what’s really important to me is helping people, helping clubs and leaving clubs with a success story of how I have been able to help them.
On a personal note, you recently published online that you had been named as one of Attitude Magazine’s 101 LGBTQ Trailblazers for 2021 – a fantastic achievement. How did it feel to receive that news?
It’s mad. When you look at the people on that list, such as somebody who ran as a candidate for President of the USA and the CEO of Apple… and then there is me!
I haven’t tried to be a flagbearer – I have always just focused on being the best at my job. If I am inspirational to people, then great but at the same time, I don’t want to be defined as the ‘gay player care guy’, I want to be the ‘best player care person in the world…who happens to be gay.’ It is really important for me to make that distinction because so many times people can get bogged down in the characteristic of sexuality and not so much somebody’s success. It is especially important in the football industry because there aren’t a lot of openly gay role models doing well. For me, it was a gamble to ‘come out’ when I was at Southampton but then a year later, I was hired as the Head of Player Care at West Ham. My sexuality doesn’t change the way I work and it’s 2021 so it’s not really a big deal anyway! The players are often curious about it though.
But I am really appreciative of the recognition and massively surprised by it too.
What has been your career highlight so far?
I got asked this a while back and it’s difficult because I have worked at a cup final at Wembley and was on the bench which was really cool but because I am not a player or a coach, I feel like I can’t really say that a particular football match is a career highlight. So I think that getting the job at West Ham was a huge highlight for me. I was hired via a fair process and the success I had at West Ham was a proud moment for me. From hiring my team, to implementing a matchday liaison programme, that experience was great.
Hugo with the management team at West Ham United
More recently, the support and help I have had from people I have worked with and the testimonials that they have given me is great. It’s particularly nice because they are helping me and they don’t want anything back from me. Building up those relationships shows me that I have been successful enough in my football career that people want to help me – I really appreciate it.
Similarly, one thing that I do like to do is help those people who ask me for career advice – I do my best to respond to everyone. I do this because I remember when I was at university and I was trying to break into the industry and nobody would reply to my messages or help me. The few people who did are those that I still speak to and help now. So I take helping where I can as an additional responsibility. I haven’t kept a tally but I would guess I have spoken to and tried to help around 600 people.
I would like to set-up a player care education programme so that those who are interested in the area can complete a mini-course. I would also like to set-up a recruitment event too. It is important for me to know the next generation of player care talent coming through.
Are there any courses or suggested reading that you would recommend?
The Athletic article I have just been a part of is interesting – it will give people a good background on the day-to-day operations within player care.
In terms of courses, I am working through a course called Elite Athlete Wellbeing, which is in partnership with Loughborough University. It’s a year long course run by the Wellbeing Science Institute in Australia. It’s a really tough course but it’s revolutionary and hugely interesting.
But I think it is more about practical experience than courses. You can study every course and have a PHD but you still won’t be hired over somebody that has practical experience on their CV. It is really one of those jobs where you have to get your hands dirty and add value at a club. If you are willing to put in the hours and work hard then I think it is better to do that than sit and study for a PHD or Masters.
What advice would you give to those who hope to work in the football industry?
It’s about networking – don’t just make connections but keep connections. Work out how you can help people too. Personally, I have had a lot of people asking for my help and my time and while I am happy to do that and think it is important, there are a lot of people out there who can’t offer that time and help. So you have to think about how or what you can offer to their organisation. Daniel Geey, a good friend and top sports lawyer, has always said, ‘What are you offering them to make you memorable?’ Relying on kindness will only get you so far so you need to almost prove to them that you can add value.
Is player care one of those areas of the football industry where you can learn from other leagues outside of the UK?
The Premier League, on the whole, is probably ahead but the initiatives being run in Australia are groundbreaking – they have been in the making for 5-10 years.
In terms of European leagues, we tend to be ahead because we put more resources into it. A part of what I am trying to do with my business now is to visit clubs in Europe and help them to set-up a player care system like we have here.
In general, though, if you are not learning then you are not improving.
Do you look at other sports for inspiration too?
Yes, definitely. I have visited the Miami Dolphins and spoken to teams within Formula One, Cricket, Rugby… Rugby seems to be a step ahead of football to be honest because salaries are lower and so career help and future planning is needed a little bit more. Football players don’t have so much of a pressing need because if they plan their lives well enough, they won’t need to think too much about a career after football financially, but they still need something to do, something to get them out of bed each day. Rugby players don’t have that luxury really. “Rugby League Cares” is also really proactive in that space which helps.
I have now started connecting with the Global Mobility community, which I hadn’t even heard of previously. It’s the community of internal departments at big corporations who move people around the world. I was asked to speak at one of their conferences and it was really interesting to listen to the other speakers and learn about their processes.
I am also on the same course as a guy who works for the Gaelic Players Association in Ireland. He is responsible for the wellbeing of 2000 athletes – it is just him. When he told me that I honestly thought it couldn’t be true but learning from him and what he does has been fascinating. He is so organised and efficient in his role and almost certainly much busier than most player care departments in the Premier League due to the scale of his task.
Football can sometimes be lazy because it has money so learning from other sports and people within those sports is hugely beneficial.
Is Women’s Football something you have been involved in, or would like to be involved in?
There is a women’s team at West Ham and we were looking to try and help them. I spoke with Jack Sullivan (General Manager) about what we could do to help and we agreed on running a drop-in session, where the player care team would be available for 2 hours a week for players to come in and speak with us and ask questions. However, what we realised quite quickly is that there are huge differences between the problems that the women’s team and the men’s team have, which is largely down to the differences in salary. For example, we would be asked to help find a flat share for 4 people in Romford whereas we were more experienced in being asked to find a 5-bedroom flat in Canary Wharf. We really wanted to help but we just didn’t have the right contacts for that level.
Items such as immigration, wellbeing and team bonding were things we could help with but the day-to-day problems are so different that we needed to have a new person fulfilling that role or spend time putting a new structure in place.
I think that the women’s game is getting bigger and bigger though, with teams such as Man City and Chelsea spending a lot on players. So I think that player care in the women’s game will become more prevalent
And finally, where do you see your career in football in the future?
It depends how well the business goes! If it goes really well then hopefully, I will be going around the world helping clubs, meeting lots of new people and working at the very top of the game.
Keen to learn more? Check out Hugo's intro to The Player Care Group:
Interviewer: Sascha Gustard-Brown
Sascha is highly experienced within the area of Supporter Engagement, having held the positions of Head of Supporter Engagement at Luton Town Football Club and Supporter Liaison Officer at West Ham United. She is currently working on small supporter engagement projects in sport and freelance writing in football.