Paula Watson is Director of Operations at Bradford City FC. Working for the club she has supported since childhood, Paula has such passion for Bradford City Football Club, her role and the community. With knowledge in many areas of football operations and spending much of her time spinning various plates, Paula is set to continue on her incredible career path that has seen her grow from a volunteer to a Director in just 4 years. Paula talks to Sascha about her time at the club thus far and shares her ambitions for what she hopes to achieve in the near future.
I loved my time at Friends of Bradford City. They were a supporters’ group who operated as a charity and worked with the club to raise funds for various projects.
If I go back to where it all started for me though, I’ve been a fan of Bradford City for such a long time. I started attending games regularly with my dad when I was around 8 or 9 years old. I studied for a sports degree too and always had an ambition to work within the sports industry but as so often happens, I finished university and circumstances changed; I had debts to pay off and suddenly finding a job in football wasn’t the most viable option! At the time, a lot of the roles within football were entry level salary and so I decided to start a career at ASDA, with the intention of paying off my debts and in time, start working towards a career in sport. It took me 15 years to get to that point! But to be honest, I had a really successful career at ASDA and probably never would have left if it wasn’t for the opportunity to work at Bradford City.
I was a Store Manager at an ASDA branch in Bradford and it was through the company that I became involved with Friends of Bradford City. I was involved with one of their fundraisers: walking from Lincoln to Bradford. It was to raise money for The Burns Unit, a charity set up after the tragic fire that took place when Bradford City played Lincoln City (11th May 1985).
It was from that point that I became more and more involved with the Friends of Bradford City.
As well as the Vice-Chair role, I started coaching for Bradford City Disability Football Club, who I also made the official charity partner of the ASDA store I managed. And that’s when I became involved with the football club as more than a supporter; I’ve never looked back!
After a period of maternity leave, I decided to take a career break for a year. During this time, I volunteered at the football club in the Disability Volunteer Programme. Thanks to Jaimie Dorward, I was given the opportunity to look after the programme and ensure that all of the volunteers were being looked after, that there was a welfare plan in place. It was such an invaluable experience and I really enjoyed working with the group of people I got to work with. What they got from working at the stadium was great, but the difference they made to the club, was amazing to see. It also added structure to their lives and for me, it was just such a great project to be a part of. The programme is still going now.
It was around 4 months into the 12-month career break that I realised not working was not for me. I said to a few people at the club that I would be going back to ASDA but I think they knew I secretly wanted to work for the football club. Actually, it probably wasn’t a secret! The Chairman asked me to come in for an interview – I had no idea what I was being interviewed for – but long story short, they didn’t let me go back to ASDA and offered me a job. I still have to pinch myself now because of the way it all happened.
I’ll never forget the phone call. The Chairman called me on his way back from an away match…
My background is in retail and I knew my skills could be transferred into a number of areas, although I didn’t think I could persuade anyone at the club to see that. At that time, the club were discussing bringing retail in-house so I assumed the Chairman was going to offer me a job within that department. But after my interview, I had a phone call saying they wanted to offer me the Head of Operations role – which was the first role I had - and I was so shocked. It felt surreal. It was great for me in lots of ways, including that it meant the Chairman could see I had the transferrable skills that I knew I had.
I wasn’t 100% sure what the role would entail but I knew I would be managing the stadium operations and the health and safety but after 2 weeks in, I found out I was in charge of the grounds team too! It’s certainly been a steep learning curve. It’s been brilliant though and 3 years on, I’ve been able to shape the role and take on more responsibilities, which is why I now have the job title of Director of Operations.
The Utilita Energy Stadium, formerly known as Valley Parade (Source: Bradford City FC)
I always say that if I had gone to a bigger club, in a different role and in a much bigger team, I would probably still be working in the first role I took at that club, but here at Bradford City, you can almost shape your own career and if you do a good job, it’s celebrated. So, it’s probably a testament to both the club and to me that I have been able to take on more responsibility. When I first came to the club, my role was overseeing the stadium and health and safety but now, I’m Senior Safeguarding Officer, Senior Equality Officer and in the last 12 months, COVID-19 Officer, although I’m hoping that role will not be needed in the near future now that things are looking more positive!
We are a really small team and I feel lucky that I can shape my job, and of course, it’s nice that the CEO believed in me to give me the Director job title.
It’s not the glamorous side of football; it’s not the side that most people want to do. Whether it’s toilet repairs, health and safety, or writing and managing the policies... But that’s the side I love so it’s probably why I have taken on so much because I am the only person that actually enjoys overseeing those areas!
One day, I will be looking at broken toilets with my Maintenance Manager and the next day I may be devising a health and safety policy but that’s what’s great – everyday is different. And that’s what’s exciting about working in football; there’s never a day that’s the same as another. And if you combine that with the excitement around matches and the overall buzz you bring to the community, it’s brilliant!
The difficult part is that football isn’t necessarily used to having policies and procedures in place – that’s what I’ve found anyway. In saying that, I think there has been a massive cultural shift in the football industry and the EFL have brought in a lot of processes to help structure football. There’s a lot more auditing that goes on, which I love to be honest. I like knowing where we are and how we get to the right place and audits give you those answers. But changing the culture of a football club is a difficult thing to do. We are quite fortunate here at Bradford; we are forward-thinking and we have one of the youngest CEOs in football. He’s just been appointed and it’s exciting. With that forward-thinking approach, you can almost create a legacy because you’re such a small team working together. I am so lucky to be working with a young, dynamic team and we have all shared ideas, and we know how we want to progress. We are all excited for the future.
I still manage to work with our amazing Community Foundation and be involved in great projects. A lot of the work I do around equality and diversity drives me towards the community side of things. For example, tomorrow, we are having a virtual coffee morning with our disability supporters’ group, and I love that I still get to do that. It’s great to be able to be involved in these projects with full support from the football club too.
I think I have been really lucky to be honest because I don’t think I have come across any negativity. I have just been seen for what I can bring to the table, rather than whether I’m a woman or a man. I’ve only had one comment which was, ‘Who’s that little woman?’ but it was probably said because I am 4’11, rather than it was said because I am a woman. And I can tell you, I stood up for myself anyway so it didn’t really matter!
But I try and stay away from the limelight to be honest. I like to just get on with the job and know that my team are doing a good job too. That may have something to do with me not experiencing negativity and perhaps if I ever stepped into the limelight in the future, I may open myself up to criticism. For now, I am happy knowing that supporters know who I am, what my role is and that I am here if they need help; I don’t feel there is a need to come out of the background at the moment.
You’ve got to be organised because you will be spinning plates all the time. The Covid-19 pandemic has added even more complexity this season. You’ve also got to be a real people person because you need to be able to encourage people to buy-in to what you’re doing. You’ve also got to like looking at policies and procedures, as well as relevant laws. I am currently studying for a NEBOSH qualification so that I have full training in the area of health and safety. You also have to be able to manage your time well.
But the key factor is knowing how to manage all of the spinning plates, what to prioritise and when.
I do have to say that I feel lucky to have support from those at the club and my family. My phone may ring at 1am due to an incident – I’m never not at work to be honest - but equally, I am so supported in the flexibility and time I get to spend with my 4-year-old son. I get to do the school run and I feel so supported by the club with that time. I get to work in my dream job, for the club I support, and still spend time with my family.
The stadium is aging so I want to work on modernising it. It’s a beautiful, traditional stadium but there are parts where the supporters rightly say, ‘When are you going to invest some money?’ So hopefully, I will be able to work with the CEO to make a real difference to the facilities. I would like to know that our fans are proud to come into the stadium. I remember walking into the ground at the age of 14 or 15 and seeing what the stands were like when they were newly opened. I walk around the stadium now and the stands are the same. That was 25 years ago! It’s no wonder fans are shouting out for modernisation.
Also, I am really passionate about the community projects and the Academy operations so, as Senior Safeguarding Officer, I want to ensure that every child that comes through our Academy feels safe. Whether they make it as a player with the club or not, I want to know that they leave the Academy with the feeling that they had a good time and felt looked after at Bradford City FC.
I don’t think I can fit anything else in! Somebody said to me the other day, “When you didn’t have Covid to deal with, what were you doing?” I said, “Trust me, I had plenty to do!”
Retail was brought in-house for a little bit and I did look after that during that time. We outsource retail again now though and if it ever came back in-house, it may be better suited to the commercial team rather than the operations team.
But I am really lucky that I have a great team around me.
During Summer 2019, we held a charity match to raise money for the Darby Rimmer MND Foundation, which was set up by Stephen Darby, a hero of the club from the season we got to Wembley in the League Cup final. One of Stephen’s friends is Chris Rimmer. Both, sadly, have been diagnosed with MND and so we arranged a friendly-match with Liverpool Football Club, who had just won the Champions League. To be able to bring them into the stadium was amazing. It was a sell-out crowd and we raised over £250,000 for the Foundation – it was spine tingling, a really special day.
Volunteer! Volunteer! Volunteer! I would never have got into the football industry had I not volunteered. I was lucky in that Bradford City is very accessible for people to volunteer and I don’t think all football clubs are like that but still, find a route in; find somebody to make a connection with and offer to make their life easier. That’s how I did it.
And if you get given a chance, grab it with both hands.
Still doing this job, fingers crossed…until I can retire abroad!
It hasn’t been the easiest three years. We’ve had a relegation and several changes of leadership, but in the last 3 months, things have started to turn around and we’ve had one of the best win percentages in our history. It’s still my dream job and although at times I have thought what would I do if a big club came after me, my career aim is to have a legacy here at Bradford City. When times are tough, I don’t think about anything other than wanting to drive things forward and help turn things around. I also love seeing the pride in my dad’s face because it’s his club and I am working here. You do see things differently when you work at a club you are a fan of but I haven’t fallen out of love with the club at all. It would take a big, big thing to take me away from here. I see myself working here hopefully, for years to come and creating a legacy of how I have made a positive difference to the club.
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.