WITH the benefit of hindsight, Keith Russell’s first meeting with his new boss Mark Dodson, after being appointed SRU Director of Domestic Rugby, should have set alarm bells ringing. It was November 2014, three months before Russell was due to join the Murrayfield payroll, and the intolerant attitude expressed by the Union’s Chief Executive was a worrying sign of things to come.
“It was at Scotstoun and I wanted to hear about what he saw as the key issues, the big challenges, we faced,” recalls Russell. “And the main thing he [Dodson] talked about for an hour was wanting to keep the [SRU] Council quiet. He had a problem with the Council getting involved in things. This wasn’t all that long after the AGM where they’d knocked back the Super 8 proposals and he said the Council was just getting in the way.
“My experience of working with councils, councillors and other groups is that if you want to keep them ‘quiet’, the best way is to actually get them involved with what you’re doing. It’s not being manipulative, it’s recognising that people tend to get upset when they think things are happening they’re not aware of or not part of, or if they think they’re not getting the full story.
“I just assumed that they [Dodson and his closest associates] operated in a certain way because their focus is on professional rugby, where the timescales of decisions sometimes have to be a little bit quicker. My experience was in putting together a plan and having a period of time where you’ve got to make the change. I thought perhaps it was just a different culture and way of operating – albeit my experience of performance sport and the people who work in it is that the vast majority are unbelievably detailed and have specific measures to gauge performance.
“So, the fact we weren’t entirely on the same wavelength became apparent quite quickly, although the realisation of how that impacted on me being able to do what we needed to do in domestic rugby was a lot later.”
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A key responsibility for Russell was to work with public bodies to secure financial and practical help in order to grow the sport and make a positive impact in local communities, and the difficulties he had persuading Dodson and other leading executives to support his collaborative approach was a key factor in the deterioration of his relationship with those individuals.
“One of my very first meetings after I started was talking about our application for sportscotland funding. We got maybe about £600-700k for domestic rugby, and Mark was just saying: Nah, if they’re telling us what to do, tell them to go and stuff it. We don’t need their money.
“But they weren’t telling us what to do. None of their priorities were things we wouldn’t want to do in terms of increasing participation, developing strong clubs, improving coaches, therefore all we needed to do was put a coherent plan in where they can identify that we’ll achieve our agreed targets and we’d get £600,000. It’s a very simple process but it’s that control, that power of: You’re not going to tell me what I’m going to do. It’s an ego thing.”
In 2016, the Scottish Government updated the funding criteria of their Cashback for Communities scheme and reduced the overall pot of money available for organisations to bid into. The SRU had been recipients of Cashback money for several years and Russell was keen for his department to adapt so that the relationship could continue.
“At that time, there was a mix of funding for the SRU’s Development Officer network and Schools of Rugby. A potential reduction in public support through Cashback and the financial position of local authorities meant that we needed to review the overall funding and delivery model for school and youth rugby. The team responsible for that did a lot of good work to review the models and came back with a cleaner and more focused programme to support the clubs and schools that were achieving more of our identified outcomes within the new schools and youth conference structure.
“As a result, it was possible to achieve the Cashback funding objectives and work in areas of Scotland that we wanted to work in to genuinely make a difference, and where typically there were very few opportunities to play rugby. This was particularly effective in Glasgow and East Ayrshire where there were strong partnerships with the local authorities.
My way or the highway
“Unfortunately, the senior executives simply wanted us to go back to the Scottish Government and tell them that we wanted their funding for our previous delivery model and that the Scottish Government should not be telling the SRU how to develop rugby. They did not seem to understand that the Cashback funding was very clearly focused on reducing inequality in areas of multiple deprivation and not actually for the development of rugby, albeit these two objectives were not mutually exclusive.
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“Their lack of understanding of how public funding works was both surprising and disappointing. Later claims that instead of just delivering rugby in some Glasgow schools, we should take over the delivery of PE in Glasgow because in the senior execs’ view, essentially, the schools were not capable of delivering PE properly, showed again a complete lack of understanding of how things work in the development of sport and the different roles organisations have. It was also a disappointing and prejudiced view about schools in the peripheral estates of Glasgow.
“One of the nails in my coffin was probably me saying that I objected to how they were talking about schools in the East End of Glasgow, where I knew there was some unbelievably good work going on in incredibly complex situations. I think it was a defining moment – I wasn’t in their gang.
“SRU staff on the ground have a good relationship with Glasgow Sport and Education, but it’s the senior executives who have no idea.
“The attitude is, it’s our way or the highway. The message was: They’re not going to tell us what to do. Go back and tell them that we don’t want the money then.”