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Max Fitzgerald - Head of Media, Wolverhampton Wanderers FC

Max Fitzgerald - Head of Media, Wolverhampton Wanderers FC

Max Fitzgerald is the Head of Media at Wolverhampton Wanderers (Wolves). Max shares details of his career progression thus far, as well as detailing the highs and lows of working in a media team. This feature provides a great insight into football media, from an individual who has also previously worked at AFC Bournemouth and West Ham United.

 

How did you start working in the football industry?

I guess it was partly luck and partly perseverance. I went to Bournemouth University to study journalism – they had a great course and I am also an AFC Bournemouth supporter, so being able to go to university there and have the opportunity to watch them play regularly was exciting for me.

Max during his time at AFC Bournemouth

 

I quite quickly became involved with the club through volunteering and one particular summer, I stayed in Bournemouth when all of the other students had gone home to carry out a lot of work for the club. An opportunity then arose because they wanted their first, full-time Communications and PR person – primarily, to work with the commercial team. I applied for the position, was offered it and chose to leave university to take that role.

 

Leaving university for the job must have felt like a brave move at the time?

It felt like the right decision. I would have had to repeat my first year anyway because I had broken my leg quite badly and ended up missing too many classes and consequently, was falling behind. So when the job at Bournemouth came up, which was a dream job for me too, it felt right to leave. I wouldn’t have been able to balance education and work and I ultimately decided I wanted to prioritise working for the club.

If I am being completely honest too, education hasn’t always been a huge strength of mine, especially higher education in which self-learning is key. School was fine but university was more of a social experience and finding out what I was good at. I wasn’t going to ace my degree and also, by the time the job was advertised, I had worked out that I didn’t want to be a journalist. Through working at the club, I knew I wanted to be on the PR side of football and not a journalist.

I started working 3 days a week but it quickly became full-time. It only took a year to become Head of Media and Communications, which was exciting. Within 4-5 years, we had been promoted twice and were in the Premier League.

That’s why I said it was partly luck because I was at a club that, for the first time in its history, had been promoted twice and was playing at the highest level of the football pyramid. I couldn’t have foreseen that!

 

Your career path to date is a good example of progression and development within football media. For example, the number of people you manage now is double that of your previous role. What do you put that success down to?

Management of people is something I enjoy and I feel I do it well. I am not the person who has all the creative ideas but I like to build a team of people who can help me with that.

Moving from Bournemouth to West Ham was a big decision at the time because I was leaving behind something I loved. I knew the West Ham job was going to be a bigger challenge for me but it also gave me the opportunity to cement my position in the football industry. It is quite a small industry, once you’ve got yourself into it, and in having the experience of being the Head of Media at two Premier League clubs (Bournemouth and West Ham), it put me at a good place in the industry to progress.

I do remember sitting in the office at Bournemouth though and thinking, ‘I could be here for 20 years and love it but I would also feel that I hadn’t progressed as much as I could have.’ I knew it would be better to take myself out of my comfort zone and away from what I knew.

I have to say, I do get a bit of friendly stick from people about having worked at 3 clubs already; I move around more than a football player does!

 

What are the key skills to be able to fulfil a football media role well?

Communication is an obvious one. To be honest, in football clubs now, media teams are so large and contain such different roles that to try and pigeon-hole skills that apply to all of those people is quite hard. When I first started within media, I was doing most of the jobs myself: matchday programme, website, interviews, media relations etc., so it was probably best to be an all-rounder but with the additional skill of being a confident communicator.

Max addressing the media along with Wolves Manager, Nuno Espírito Santo

Ensuring you have good working relationships across the club is key too; from the first team manager all the way through to your colleagues in the shop and the ticket office. You need to be able to do this to effectively communicate each department’s messages out to the fans. The fans are also extremely important – you need to know how to communicate with supporters. 

 

How important do you think additional languages are in working in football? Throughout your career, has it been a personal challenge to communicate with players, managers and other football personnel due to language barriers?

I wouldn’t say it is important but I would say it is beneficial.

I regret not studying another language but at the same time, that type of learning isn’t something I am strong at. At university, we had to learn how to write short hand and I was so far off being able to do it well. I think it would be a similar experience for me in learning a language because the level of time and dedication required each day was something I struggled with.

I wouldn’t say it has been a barrier to doing my job well though. When I was working at West Ham United, I had two colleagues who spoke French and one who spoke Spanish as well – both of them fluent. When I was first made aware of that, I thought it was incredible because it would be so helpful in communicating with our players. But what I actually found was that it prevented me from building a personal relationship with those players because I always asked one of my bi-lingual colleagues to communicate with them, rather than speaking to them myself. When there were problems or requests that I needed to manage because I was the most senior member of the team, I realised I didn’t have a developed relationship with those particular players, so had less trust and less influence on them.

What you tend to find though is that foreign players have a good level of English, or they pick up the language quite quickly. That probably comes across as a bit lazy; I don’t mean it to be because learning a language, is definitely beneficial – I just haven’t found that not speaking another language has been a personal barrier.

 

You have worked at three Premier League clubs now. Has it been difficult to adapt to different media operations?

To be honest, I think all clubs run every department differently but in regard to media, I find that it tends to be built in the image of the person who is managing the team. For example, when I was working at West Ham, it was tricky for me at first because it was all new but by the time I had left, I had been able to implement some of my own philosophies and beliefs on how best to communicate with people and the press. Likewise, I feel I have been able to do that here (Wolves).

Max with former West Ham Head Coach, Slaven Bilić

 

But every football club operates in their own way – they are quite strange organisations to be a part of because they don’t run the same way other industries do. Football clubs have a lot of expectation put upon them and they often see a change in management structure too. You soon realise that all owners and chairmen are unique. I have found that it is not an industry where ‘one size fits all’ applies and there won’t be a club anywhere that does everything well – each club has good parts and bad parts.

Also, some football managers care a lot about what their players do and they feel strongly about having an input on how much media involvement they have. I have been fortunate that the managers I have worked with have all shown the media department a lot of trust in managing the players’ time. The real difficulty can be at those times when the club wants something different to what the manager wants and then you have a bit of a battle. A lot of the time, the manager will win because results are the priority and that’s his responsibility; he gets what he’s asked for. However, there are times where the owners of the club will win the battle because they will push hard to show that they are in charge and what they are asking for is the priority. I suppose that is an example of something I have had to adapt to at each club and to also make sure that I have good relationships with the manager, the players and the chairman because ultimately, I will do my best to try and deliver for all parties involved when a situation with conflict arises.

 

What do you think is the biggest misconception about working in a football media role?

Probably that it isn’t as glamorous as people may think it is. Although right now, we are in a bit of a privileged position because we are able to attend fixtures and benefit from being a part of the testing bubble.

You do get to be a part of the pre-season tours too – I have been to Shanghai and the USA – but those tours are one of the hardest times in this role; it can be such hard graft. You are not there on a holiday or to be given the opportunity to go sightseeing! If you do have time off, you are usually so tired from your work schedule that you don’t do anything with that time anyway. Many departments and individuals need something from you on those tours and for me, I have found it to be one of the most stressful times in the job.

 Max representing the club at the Asia Trophy

Another misconception is that the media team has the same time off as the players, which we don’t! Generally speaking, media is the only department that sits between the football side of the club and the administrative side so you have to work the same relentless schedule of the football team but then when the summer comes and its close season, you are then working with the administrative side to support them. There are departments that are able to slow down at times in the year but we don’t really have too much downtime. We have a lot of travelling as well and that is time you can’t get back.

 

On that note, do you think not having a work-life balance is one of the most difficult parts of your role?

Yes, but for me I always knew it was a big part of the role and you’re either somebody that can deal with it or you can’t. I am more than happy to be on call 24/7 to ensure my employer is happy and while it can be hard at times, such as when you are on holiday, I feel like I can deal with it.

You do have to have an understanding family who accept your workload for what it is and to be honest, it isn’t consistently that pressured – there are periods where it is less challenging or quieter. But yes, it is probably one of the most difficult things to deal with in this role.

 

Would you say that your role is often reactive rather than proactive and you have to be skilled in managing that to do this role well?

Yes. You need to be able to stay calm in pressurised situations.

I do find it hard to prioritise being proactive because the reactive side to the role is so big. On the one hand it is great because every day is different and I have 50-100 emails that I didn’t expect to receive but on the other hand, it is hard to balance that with being proactive. I rely on my team for that though and I will take work from them at times so they are able to focus on creative ideas for content to entertain and grow our fanbase. That creative content is important to me but it is just hard to juggle it with the other parts of my role.

 

What is the most enjoyable part of your role?

I think it is just the fact I work in football. There have been times when I have thought about the demanding nature of my role and whether I should try working in another industry to see what it’s like. I only had part-time roles before working at Bournemouth so I haven’t experienced working life outside of a football club. But I have spoken to enough people who have left the industry and then regretted it and that makes me think of the ‘magic’ that exists within a football club – the way you are part of a team that are all pulling in the same direction. You celebrate success together and you commiserate the bad times together. It is quite difficult to put that feeling into words but I think supporters will perhaps understand what I mean. A lot of people would love to have this role and I do have to remind myself of how lucky I am to work in the football industry.

 The office - Molineux Stadium

What has been your football career highlight?

I have been lucky because I have experienced 4 promotions and no relegations so I have bounced around clubs that have been on the cusp of success!

When I moved from West Ham to Wolves, they were top of the Championship at the time and good things were happening. Obviously, you never know whether that will continue but I suppose jumping on that journey halfway through and then celebrating at the end of the season, I did feel a bit of a fraud. Some of my colleagues had been on the journey for years. Although, I was able to help and support with the promotion to the Premier League as I had been through that process with Bournemouth. I also had the experience with West Ham moving to a new stadium. There is a lot of work that clubs have to do when they are promoted to the Premier League.

Last year’s Europa League campaign with Wolves was brilliant as well because I didn’t think that was a realistic ambition for the club so quickly after promotion. But making those trips abroad to Istanbul and Yerevan in Armenia, was great. It is definitely a highlight because it brought my role to a new level - I was meeting with foreign press and visiting towns and cities that I hadn’t been to and we had a good campaign alongside that too. It could be years before I experience that again so it feels really special to have been a part of it. The media team are lucky to have those experiences and I would say to those who have those opportunities, to not take it for granted.

 Wolves promotion 2017-18

What advice would you give to those who hope to work in a media role in the football industry?

You have to work hard and make your own luck. Also, look for volunteer positions and work experience before you think about walking into a full-time role. There are so many journalism and media graduates who want to work in football and it’s hard to make yourself stand out on a CV - example match reports alongside a CV aren’t really enough.

I have seen too many apply for just one job so you really need to stand out. It doesn’t matter what level of football you gain that experience in, or whether it is with a club or magazine publication; just dedicating yourself to working hard and learning about the industry goes a long way.

I don’t think a career can happen by chance and whilst I was lucky to get my dream job before I had graduated, the number of hours I put into travelling and volunteering – with some of that being at my own expense – was huge. It’s all about making yourself indispensable to a club to the point that they feel they have no choice but to offer you a job.

Finally, you have to be passionate and persistent yes, but you also have to have talent too – having both of those things will open up opportunities and get you noticed.

 

And finally, where do you see your career in football in the future?

I’m not really somebody who looks ahead or has a master plan. Every role I have had strangely, has found me rather than me looking for it.

I honestly don’t have this big ambition of where I want to get to because I am enjoying what I am doing at the moment and I am working for a club that has its own ambitions that I get to be a part of.

I am open to opportunities though and you never know what is around the corner. I never thought I would have been at 3 clubs by the time I turned 30 and I wouldn’t have thought it would be the way I would progress in my career but it’s been great and every move I have made, has been a learning experience. I don’t have any regrets.

 

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.