Professional sport can be a brutal affair, with life-changing highs alongside the lowest of lows, as ex-footballer Gareth Mordey knows all too well.
He’d proudly captained Sunderland’s youth teams, from the U13s to the U19s, before discovering that the final step to the first team – then in the Premier League under Peter Reid – was just beyond him.
“I dropped out of professional football at the age of 20,” recalls Mordey. “Other players kicked on. If I’m honest, I knew I wasn’t quite good enough, but it still hurt after all those years.
”I had an ambitious mentality, so that if I wasn’t going to play at the top, then I didn’t feel motivated enough to stay in the game at semi-professional or part-time level. However the experience, contacts and life skills that I learned then have stood me in good stead.”
Many young ex-players struggle to accept that their dreams of sporting glory are over, but Mordey proved more resilient.
After taking time to consider a new direction, he worked as a match analyst for the Professional Football Association, before qualifying as a youth-team coach and setting up one of the first private football academies in the North of England.
Then an old acquaintance mentioned an opening as director of the Dubai Football Academy, Mordey flew out to learn more, liked what he heard and was quickly appointed.
After embracing everything which that role, and life in the UAE had to offer, he then moved to E-Sports in October 2006.
Mordey’s career has since prospered, as the E-Sports model has proved ever-more successful, and his family are also now happily settled in Dubai.
“It is difficult to believe how far we’ve come,” he admits. “When I came here in 2005, I only planned to stay for six weeks, but never left. When I joined E-Sports, we were delivering coaching to between 150 and 200 youngsters, but now we’re working more than 25,000 children and another 20,000 adults.
“Although football is obviously still my favourite, we also provide courses for swimming, tennis, badminton, gymnastics and other sports, for young kids right up to Olympian, collegiate and professional athletes, and work with more than 300 qualified coaches across our programmes.”
However, even as Mordey rose within E-Sports, he still knew his skill-set required something extra to benefit both himself and the organisation.
“My career developed very naturally, but I’d always realised that sport is a business, and increasingly, you could see the worlds of business and sport developing closer ties and deeper relationships,” he says.
“I was looking for something to enhance my personal credibility, deepen my understanding of how businesses operated at the international level, and become comfortable with the language and the tools which investors in sport used.
“Essentially, I wanted to start my journey away from the grass and into the boardroom, and realised I’d need new forms of guidance and training to make that possible.”
In 2014, Mordey heard about an innovative Masters in Sporting Directorship course that was brought to the market by VSI, who partnered with Manchester Metropolitan University to deliver the programme through the business school.
“I saw a link and the programme sounded ideal for me,” Mordey explains. “Yes, it was quite daunting thinking about going back to education, and making a two-year commitment to study, but I discussed it with my family and the management team at E-Sports, and they all told me to go for it.
“I read the syllabus, saw the names of the lecturers, realised it was a credible gold-standard qualification, got a flavour for the kind of people who would also be on the course, went to Manchester and signed up.”
Now, two years on, Mordey is about to file his thesis – on leadership in elite sport, as it relates to the UAE – and already enjoying the benefits of his studies.
“I chose that topic because I wanted my research to give something back to a country which has given me so much, and to E-Sports. They’d promoted me from academy manager (football) to managing director of the whole business, and the knowledge and insights I’ve acquired have helped me settle into this new role.
“Already, even before I am awarded my Masters next summer, I am being invited to speak at more events, to join new business forums and have more certainty when talking to potential investors in sport.
“In terms of pro-sport, I see now that in the US, there is a general manager (GM) role where someone is charged with delivering a strategic vision on behalf of the owners, over perhaps five to seven years.
“However, in the UK, there is often a disconnect between the new generation of owners and their head coach or manager. I think we’ll see the GM really coming into elite football. They might be called sporting directors, technical directors, or chief operating officers, but the title isn’t the important thing, it’s about seeing the benefits of this role.
“Owners who have built fortunes in business, especially those who come from overseas, need someone to translate what we might call the ‘top table language’ into language understood by people in sport, and it’s a point which football is finally beginning to accept.”
Mordey also believes the new mindset, with regard to this next generation of sporting leaders, will be seen throughout the Middle East.
“We’ve already seen, here in the UAE, how such sectors as aviation, banking, construction and education have risen to prominence due to the recruitment of credible, strong and effective leaders to compliment and help implement the extraordinary vision of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum.
“In my view, sport will be – and should be – no different. I am convinced that a gold-standard education, such as that available through the Sporting Directorship programme, will soon become an industry essential.”