With Nottingham Forest heading to Wembley, Murphy discusses success
May 19, 2022
ON TUESDAY, Nottingham Forest booked a place in Wembley for the Championship’s promotional playoff final. The dramatic and emotional shootout victory over Sheffield United will now have the club face off against Huddersfield Town for the opportunity to return to England’s top flight for the first time since 1999.
Nottingham Forest’s CEO is Connecticut native Dane Murphy, a former player who retired in 2015 at the age of 28 to start a front office career. At first, he was a scout for the New York Cosmos of the now defunct NASL. Then he moved to become the technical director of Real Salt Lake in MLS. In 2019 he moved within the league to take the job as the technical director for DC United.
Less than a year into that role with DC United, Murphy was hired by Barnsley in the English Championship. There was an opening at Barnsley to replace Gauthier Ganaye and what helped Murphy get the job was his ability to use data analytics (sometimes referred to as a “Moneyball” approach) to find undervalued players and cost-effective approaches.
"There are lots of clubs that use data and have brought in analysts to push in this direction,” Murphy said at the time. “But at Barnsley it’s the principle, it’s the root of what we are doing. There are clubs that say, ‘We need to bring it in as an ingredient’ but here it is the bedrock. Like Brentford in a way and Red Bull on a global scale, data is the first thing that wipes out the noise for us.”
Murphy has found a ton of success. His first season at Barnssley was a struggle and the team, coached by Gerhard Struber, narrowly avoided relegation. But the second season saw tremendous success and Murphy’s move to bring in American forward Daryl Dike was pivotal in a second half push to qualify for the playoffs – something no one predicted ahead of the season.
Last July, Murphy was hired by Nottingham Forest as its CEO. After a slow start to the season, Steve Cooper was hired as manager and the club made a huge climb to qualify for the playoffs. On Wednesday, it reached the final.
For the second straight season, Murphy has been part of a Championship team that is in the playoffs having finished in the bottom third the season before.
For his accomplishments, Murphy was named the Championship’s CEO of the Year for the 2021/22 season. ASN spoke with him about his rise in England, Americans in England, Nottingham Forest, and Ted Lasso jokes.
BRIAN SCIARETTA FOR ASN: Congratulations on your success. Nottingham Forest is looking strong with the playoffs. What's your thoughts? What's your mood like? How intense is this pressure for you?
DANE MURPHY: It's playoffs and you always have a bit of pressure that comes with it. It is the second year in a row I've been involved. Last year was a bit different with the restrictions of fans being allowed to attend. But just the mountaintop being that close of getting back to the Premier League for Nottingham Forest - you can call it pressure, but it's great because the momentum of the season has been so positive. You want the reward for the people that have put in so much work, not just this year but the years - and to reap the reward together as a community.
If there's any pressure or anything that I feel in my role, it's you want the entirety of the club, the community and the global supporter group of Nottingham Forest to feel like they're somewhat reborn.
ASN: And you know as your responsibilities with the club like what is that?
MURPHY: In my role, yes, the main focus is the sporting side, the technical side, and building out the first team, the academy and basically putting together a club ethos and philosophy that is adhered to for long-term sustainability. And but at the same time, my role encompasses everything else in the club - the commercial standpoint and ticketing, marketing, obviously these sponsorships, oversight of all arms of the club with the main focus being towards the technical side of the sporting side and having a really good group around me, to be perfectly frank, who have expertise in the different fields and different arms of the club that help me sort of push our ethos forward and our philosophy as a club. We're really trying to instill something that's special and because of the long-standing history that the club has, and we want to make sure that you find it in a certain state you and want to leave it always better for the next one, no matter how long you're here for.
ASN: You know, and you know, is this is this different? Is this, you know, in terms of Barnsley and Nottingham Forest?
MURPHY: I think the immediate expectation when you get here, it's just to make it better than the season before and improve on what was already there. And then yes, the end goal is to be in the Premier League because this is a sizable club with a sizable history, a big supporter group, both domestically and globally.
There is excitement and the feeling that we haven't been in this position in a long time, and we do feel as a club that we should be in the Premier League. We are a Premier League level club with a Premier League level owner… They use the phrase over here all the time - "sleeping giant." And this is outside of Leeds, who recently just got back in the Premier League was probably the biggest sleeping giant. If we get back to the Premier League, who knows where we can take the club and its path for the future.
ASN: The Championship is very competitive. You have some teams that have Premier League experience inside of the past five years and then they go down again to League One or even League Two. There are also clubs who have been very yo-yo-like. It seems like Nottingham Forest has the ambition to go up and stay up. What sets it apart?
MURPHY: We're very lucky to have the owner [Evangelos Marinakis] that we have. I think in every challenge that he's embarked on in life, he's been successful. Shipping, media, environmental companies, and football. He also owns Olympiacos and they're perennial winners of their league. They're in Champions League or the Europa League every year. And he is invested in a way that smart and diligent and he knows and he believes that once this club is able to get back to the Premier League, where it does belong, that he can take it to another level and build upon the work that's already been laid.
But he has a much more systematic idea of how to do that than just throwing money at it every year to see if it works - because sometimes the bottom falls out and you end up losing the basis of what the club is. And you have to go down the leagues like you mentioned. His expectation is to win every year, which is which is completely fair. But he also does it in a way that's a little bit more scientific than others.
That's part of the reason I came in is that my background at Barnsley in a financial restrictive environment, building out the club in a way that made it more sustainable long term, but also push the narrative on the sporting side and use data analytics as our as our first cut in recruitment and to really adhere to a style of play from the club - meaning the club sort of has an ethos and philosophy or an approach in the way it wants to play. And you recruit your coaches and your players in a manner that will always adhere to that. So that year to year, you're not having to change the entire basis of the club.
ASN: When you made that move from D.C. United to England, what was that transition like and how tough was it? What were some of the learning challenges that you had to go through that made this so much different than how it is back here in the States?
MURPHY: It was extremely difficult. It's almost like two different sports. In MLS, everything was sort of laid out in front of you as to how you manage the roster and the cap, how you build out a squad year over year, what the rules and restrictions are. It's very clear cut and dry, whereas here it's a bit more like the Wild West. The relationships you have, basically the perception of what your club is and who you are as an individual and whether that be the head coach, a sporting director, a CEO is very important because here it's about building out different connections in a way that can enhance the club.
You're all going after the same players in the same space when it comes down to it. And there's no restrictions on what you can spend in the championship or how a roster can be built. When that is the case, you think: 'Oh, great, I'm going to be able to put my stamp on this right away.' But that isn't the case because there are so many different layers how to create a team and a club that's actually viable. When I first got to Barnsley, it was like learning a new language. In the first season, we struggled. We had to stay up on the last day against Brentford, who, if they had won, was going to the Premier League. Gerhard Struber was the coach at the time and he's now at the New York Red Bulls.
I'm learning every day now. Every day there's something new because of the way the sport is made up over here, especially in the Championship. If you think you know it all, you're going to fail because each day there are new obstacles that you have to get around. That first year probably taught me more in a 11 to 12 months span and I've ever learned in my life. It really helped me. In approaching the second year, which was a wildly successful year with Barnsley with the lowest budget in the league, basically making it to the playoffs comfortably in fifth place. It was a special year. A lot of things fell into place for us to make it to that point. But the trial and error and the pains of that first year.
ASN: As an American over there in a high raking position in soccer, did you ever have to deal with any of a stigma to being American? We've seen Jesse Marsch directly deal with Ted Lasso jokes and Bob Bradley had to do the same. It was tough for both of those guys. American owners got the brunt of the blame for the failed Super League idea. I know you might not be as visible as a coach or owner, but have you dealt with negativity because of your American heritage?
MURPHY: I think behind closed doors I did - especially being as young as I was. I was 32 when I came over and I was the only American and with no prior experience in Europe on this side of sport. But to be honest, I really appreciate the fact that here the spotlight it's always on the coaching staff and the players. It allows me and my group just to get our work done and not have to deal with the outside. I guess the outside elements can distract at times. I don't really partake in a lot of interviews. I don't do a lot of things for the club in the media. That's not because there's some veiled secret to what I'm doing. I just I think that the focus needs to be on how the club is improving.
ASN: I know you're heavily involved with scouting, particularly when you worked back here. And you probably still are still in your current role. What is your general perception of the typical American player? Because it seems like the last 5-6 years, it's improved. It seems like more players are starting over here in the USA, doing well, getting sold. MLS teams are embracing selling. Do you get a sense that the American player has improved from how you've seen it from being over there?
MURPHY: I think the perception is definitely improved and I think the American talent pool has improved to a point. But I also truly believe in the art of trends, meaning that as American players start to do well over here at younger ages and Christian, Weston, and others, then okay, that market becomes more attractive.
All these are additives to the fact that maybe the American market is being overlooked and put into a box or a corner just because they haven't had the global success in the past. But those narratives slowly die as players do better in England and across the continent. If I, or the people who follow in the footsteps of the guys who have come over here can improve that and help the perception of Americans - that's maybe the greatest thing I could add to the U.S. soccer and it's perception or it's profile in Europe.
ASN: In terms of players coming out of MLS, I know you, were you in charge of bringing Daryl Dike over to Barnsley. That must have been a big moment for you because he blew up over there in the Championship. It must have raised a lot of curiosity over there and left people wondering if there are more Dike-type players over here?
MURPHY: Daryl did a fantastic job when he came in and it was a position of need. I took a little bit of flak from those above me for making the move, but thankfully it worked out in the end because Daryl showed how talented he is and that there is plenty of talent in North America, Central America, South America that can make an impact over here. His goals helped lead us to a playoff spot when we were in 12th place when he showed up. Bringing in a young American kid from the MLS, it helps the profile. But him coming across, being such a good representation of the sport and a good kid and a smart individual who was going to university - sometimes clubs overlook these things and say: okay, he went to university. Though he doesn't have a ton of experience at the pro level. He should have X amount of games by his age.
With Daryl all coming in, it opens the door clubs in the Championship saying, okay, maybe there are younger kids who have come through the university system or the MLS academy system that can make an immediate impact. Again, if Daryl was able to change the narrative, which I think he did in a short period of time, then that's great because I know and personally just having a feel for both divisions now the Championship in MLS, there are plenty of players in the MLS that could come in and make an impact in in the Championship.
ASN: Final question and we'll end on a lighthearted note. What is it like as an American in England dealing with the Ted Lasso image that has been created? It seems to get talked about with every kind of American involvement in the English game now.
MURPHY: First of all, it's a fantastic show. I don't get the jokes made at me as much because I think I say out most the high-profile aspects. What I am doing now, I don't really partake in it. Sometimes you do get it in the workplace and people give you the Ted Lasso ribbing - especially when you use the wrong terminology or phraseology. But the thing is, and I thought about this when, Jesse made those comments, if you continue to win and you continue to push forward and strive towards success, people can make fun of you and say you're the Ted Lasso of Nottingham Forest or Leeds or Chelsea.
But that joke starts to fade as you are more and more successful, and you continually strive to make yourself better. The Americans that are in England right now are a big boost to me and a real big motivation because they are a set of individuals that are really pushing themselves to be the best that they can. And if I don't do that, am I falling behind? Am I Ted Lasso? [Laughs] It's a great show, but I am glad I don't get the jokes a lot.