Ian Ritchie – the worst type of sports chief executive


Ian Ritchie, the chief executive of the England’s Rugby Football Union, has done what I thought was impossible; he has made me feel sympathy for the England rugby coach Stuart Lancaster who he had just removed from his position.

As Ritchie was eagerly talking about scouring the world for a new coach that he would take full responsibility for the appointment and that the new coach would report directly to him, it was left to Lancaster to say honourably that the main responsibility for England’s failure to get out of the group stage was his as head coach.

Ritchie said: “I’m the chief executive, I run the organisation, of course I feel personally about what’s gone on.”

This was a rather different line to that which he adopted in early September when the Daily Telegraph ran a story headlined: ‘Ian Ritchie to shoulder blame if England fail to win World Cup.’ A photograph of him was captioned: ‘Ian Ritchie says the buck stops with him.’

The article was reporting on a speech made by Ritchie at the Soccerex Global Convention, in which he promised to take responsibility for appointing Lancaster if the team fell short. He said : ‘I think you’re the one that takes responsibility for it, because, if you’re the chief executive, you have to look at that. I appointed Stuart. I was the one who believed he was the right person for the job.”

As one listens to what he said yesterday, one can only think: some buck – some stop.

But we should not be surprised because Ritchie’s behaviour was totally in line with that of most chief executives working in sport.

Particularly in the football Premiership, they are there taking credit for a managerial appointment; when there is success, they are all too happy to bask in reflected glory; but when things go wrong, they are ready to wash their hands of all responsibility for anything that has gone wrong.

I am not sure what the ratio of sacked premiership managers to sacked chief executives is in the Premiership.

But I doubt that there have been many occasions when chief executives have taken responsibility and fallen on their swords when managers they have appointed have not delivered.

It seems that one of the key jobs of a chief coach is to carry the can for any problems even if they are the ultimate responsibility of the chief executives.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that they are the ultimate modern-day whore – holding power without responsibility.

In fairness, some do have real knowledge of the sport they are involved in and some ceos have the instinct and confidence to trust those colleagues with real expertise – but this is an allegation that could never be laid at Ritchie’s door, who came to rugby after running the Lawn Tennis Association.

As Sir Clive Woodward put it succinctly in the Daily Mail: “I simply do not believe Ritchie, who does not know a ruck from a maul, is the right man to lead this appointment (of the new coach), let alone have the new man report into him in the years which follow.”

So logically, unless it is possible to find someone with a unique skill-set encompassing a knowledge of global rugby coaching and financial/business skills, the top jobs must be split into chief executive (commerce) and chief executive (rugby) who would appoint and be responsible for the coach.

It is surely possible for the board to sort out those rare occasions on which there are disputes – banks and businesses have often operated on this basis where the skills complement each other.

It may be that the review into England’s world cup performance, due out next week, reminds Ritchie of the promise he made in September.

I wouldn’t be on it or the next England coach following the advice of the review. Whoever gets the job will have a pretty good idea of what needs to be done and follow their own judgement with their own staff.

And he will also know how Ritchie has behaved since England was knocked out. In what is a clear warning to the England coach’s successor of what he is likely to expect, Sir Clive condemned those who were happy to let Lancaster twist in the wind.

He wrote that “those responsible for his (Lancaster’s) appointment, and who have backed him and been happy to reap praise in the good times, should be looking in the mirror today and feeling very uncomfortable over what has happened.”

So they should – but it is unlikely that they will; when it comes to performance assessment Ritchie is likely to behave like a typical sports ceo; taking the maximum credit when things go right and minimum responsibility when they go wrong.


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