Birkbeck Inspires: Conversations with Alumni – Simon Meehan (MSc Sport Management and the Business of Football 2018)

The following blog is a transcript of a Birkbeck Inspires: Conversations with Alumni Podcast. Listen to the full podcast here

Hello, and welcome to the Birkbeck Inspires conversations with alumni podcast series, where we hear from former students and find out more about their time at Birkbeck. Birkbeck Inspires is the college’s free online events, activities and resources program, which has been designed to inspire learning, provoke thought and entertain and excite curious minds.

In today’s episode Kara McMahon from the Development and Alumni office interviews Simon Meehan who is Head of Publishing of Chelsea Football Club and who graduated from Birkbeck with an MSc in Sports Management and the Business of Football back in 2018.

Kara: We are so delighted that Simon Meehan, Birkbeck alumnus and current head of publishing at Chelsea Football Club has joined us to tell us his story. Simon graduated from Birkbeck in 2018 with his MSC in sport management and The Business of football and today Simon will share with us his Birkbeck story and give us some really interesting insights into his role at Chelsea. We will also touch on the impact of the pandemic on his work and the clubs of work in the community during this difficult time and we will end by asking Simon for his advice for our students who are looking to get into the football and sporting Industries. Simon thank you so much for joining me today.

Simon: Thank you for having me.

Kara: So I thought we would start with your time at Birkbeck, what was your journey like to get to Birkbeck and why did you decide to study with us and do your MSc in Sport Management of the Business of football.

Simon: I think there were a few reasons. The major one was that I was looking for a career change. I had essentially followed into a career in public affairs and in politics, entirely by chance rather than design and having studied History undergraduate I didn’t really have a professional path set out for me if you like and I had notions of being a Sports writer or Sports journalist, I’ve been writing for the student newspaper at Edinburgh University where I done my undergraduate degree; I’ve written for some websites but it never really turned into something that you know which was a professional career or looked like being one and so I guess with the skills set I had from history degree it also lends itself to some other potential career paths and actually by chance I ended up working in Edinburgh for the pharmaceutical company Pfizer doing external affairs and I just sort of landed in that role, and then from there (because it was an external affairs role obviously linked to the politics and the policy scene) it just continued, I went from there to the European parliament and from the European parliament I went to working at google and then I ended up working for a company called Tata which is big Indian conglomerate and could have done all this in the space of about thirteen or fourteen years without ever really questioning it. You know I hadn’t thought my initial thoughts thought process was Sports journalist but beyond that the career just let me in a completely different direction so after 13 to 14 years I kind of thought to myself well actually I’ve been doing this for a while and I don’t really think that I’m enjoying it now and so I’m so where do I go from here what do I do and so I started to think of my thought process was really quite simple it was what do I enjoy, what am I passionate about, you know, its football it’s always been a passion of mine from a very young age from playing at a young age and supporting obviously and so my thought process was well I like football why don’t I try and work on it, but I had absolutely no idea how I would do that because, first of all having studied history undergraduate then had a career in public affairs and politics, there is no real natural link in that world into the world of sport or into the world of football you don’t know where you know where to even start and so I started looking at various different courses I did a short course online in Football Management and Marketing and then that kind of prompted the idea that actually I do like the academic world in sport. And I like the academic application to sports and understanding more about it so I started to research Masters courses and then obviously Birkbeck was one of the 1st that I found and obviously it offered the range of different Masters courses that were all interesting to me and I kind of liked upon Sport Management of the Business of Football because I was very curious as to how football works as a business and as an industry and I thought well this seems perfect to me and that’s essentially how I chose Birkbeck and that course. It was really it’s kind of understanding more about it and to get that academic grounding at least even if I didn’t know exactly where I was going with it. So that’s how I got to Birkbeck it was a fantastic experience because it did give me the academic grounding, you know the different modules and sports economics, sports governance you know they all sports law it really gave me an overarching view how the industry worked at academic standpoint I actually really enjoyed going back and learning at the age of 36 or 37. And it was also, I should add as well, my interest in football went beyond playing it and beyond sporting I’ve always been fascinated by you know the history of it, having being a history student I’ve always been interested and fascinated by the history of football, the history of clubs, where they came from, the communities they come from, and how do they operate in those communities that evolved over the past hundred twenty-five hundred fifty years in some cases so I was a particular interested mine was understanding how clubs and the world football operates in the modern world with all of the history and I guess the extent to which clubs are actually institutions very old institutions still operating still functioning that way or whether they are now businesses and how they have adapted to the business needs but then on top of that how do they communicate with these fan bases that have been built over the years and years of decades and decades and how they do that through the all the different meanings in which we can now communicate with people so it was kind of there was a lot of different points let me thinking well if I go to Birkbeck and I studied this maybe I will understand this better at least that once I understand this better, I might be able to find my path within that industry within that world and that’s exactly what Birkbeck provided for me.

Kara: I think that really makes a lot of sense and I am really happy that you shared all of that with us. I think just from listening to your journey it’s so similar to a lot of our Birkbeck alumni who might have done one to create when they were 18 to 21, started working, fell into something, and then realized down the line after having been quite successful that they actually like to do something a bit different and so having Birkbeck give that option to study at outside of the 18 to 21 more traditional framework it really resonates with your story and I think a lot of our alumni will really connect with that and current students as well and I think the point about the role of football clubs in their communities is one that will get back to you later so it’s really great that you brought that up in and it’s clear from listening to you that you have such a coherent narrative from you know your interest in football at a young age and then being able to come back to that and now work in a role working a role where you are engaging with Chelsea fans and you’re able to kind of bring all of this to the light in your professional role I think is so exciting. Can I just ask as well, did you study full time at Birkbeck or were you studying part time and continuing to work?

Simon: I studied full time and continued to work and I was going to say, based on your previous point that actually a big part of the choice was that flexibility that you know first of all that you can study in the evenings I mean it’s pretty intense you know you’re going into a three-hour lecture having sometimes or in many cases had a full working day before that so it was no getting around that. But nonetheless the flexibility it was a hugely important factor for me because I wanted to continue working in the career that I was in while I discovered this other career and it just have transpired this is halfway through the Birkbeck degree I actually left my job, my full time job. Then I had a period where I was thinking about what to do and then ended up joining a football content start-up but it was absolutely clear that there was that flexibility so you could kind of shape the degree around the rest of your life if you like and the other thing that I felt was really good about the Birkbeck experience was that despite being a bit older than the students like, I didn’t feel like out of place like I didn’t feel that I was massively older than anyone else I didn’t feel that I was some sort of anomaly amongst the students because there were people in all different stages of their careers, there were people who were younger than me starting out, there were people who were older than me who coming towards the end of their careers, there were people who retired who simply wanted to study the subject for this for the sake of studying it and so I felt that once I got there and was in that environment I was fairly certain that I made absolutely the right choice and so was always it’s always a really good experience and I think the other thing is it was the first time that I had studied something that I was, well I studied history as an undergraduate because I loved history at school so that was a really good experience but I guess when you’re an undergraduate you’re always kind of thinking well what comes next and I think a little bit of angst about why I’m studying history so what does this mean you know what does this mean does this means I’m going to be a teacher you know that’s what people would ask me and you know, I would say I’m trying to get into sports journalism , but this time I felt much more relaxed about it because I was first of all studying to find out, you know, to actually learn to learn about football sport management, the business football and I was studying something that you know if you eat a passion and interests for years and years and years and still apply kind of academic rigor to that was great and so you know the whole thing was just a very good experience for me.

Kara: I completely emphasise with your being an undergraduate history student, I studied history at undergraduate and postgraduate levels, so I did also get a lot of those questions. But just going back to what you did while you were at Birkbeck, full time whilst working full time sounds absolutely exhausting and its really brave of you to take on and then you said that you then started working in football content and then how did you end up at Chelsea? What was your journey like between you know the middle of your studies at Birkbeck were you decided to leave your job to now being head of publishing at Chelsea Football Club?

Simon:  Well, it was quite tough so when I started I was still in my previous career I was still working full-time in a fairly Senior role in public affairs for Tata Group and halfway through the degree I decided to leave that job to really take the plunge partly because I decided that well actually I really enjoyed what I’m studying I really enjoyed the world that I’m learning about and that’s definitely where I want to be going after the made that decision mentally that’s what I wanted to do and sort of took the plunge in leaving my previous career it was it was purely by chance that I met a couple actually who created this content start-up that was very successful on Facebook in particular, we created sort of funny football videos if like and it done extremely well and then asked me to join them. So that was really I guess the first step in the path to where I am now because it was the first step from my previous career past the academic point where I could I was beginning to understand how the industry worked into an area where I felt well actually all of the skills that I have plus the academic grounding I’m getting can have a practical application even though it was a start-up it was completely unpaid it was just a you know it was more of an experience than anything else but you know I suddenly realized to actually well I have you know I have an interest in how football clubs communicate with their fans communicate with their audiences communicate with their communities you know it’s happening on social media, it’s happening on digital platforms is happening on mobile phones and here was a start-up which did that which existed to do that and so it really was you know it was a bit of a again to move by chance, but it set me into this career path that I’m on now so I was there for a few months I also did some work for a video production company that actually a friend of mine started and so again it was a bit of a stroke of luck but again it was about using new media to communicate with fans, to communicate about football we worked on some long-form documentary ideas for example we had some we did some work with a with a Premier League Club so that set me on the path and then I in must be about six months after graduating maybe a bit longer I actually found my first proper job if you like in the in the world of football again it was with a Sports content agency and so I interviewed with them and they took me on as head of content services so I was responsible for a team of video production, a team of writers, graphic designers and it was to be honest a bit of a step up for me because I hadn’t you know hadn’t had a formal role at that, I’ve been doing the start-up, I’ve been working in with the video production company but this really formalised it and suddenly I was in this content agency working with some fairly big clients to deliver them football content so it was really my first step in to that world that said right now you’re here, now you’re in it. And then I did that for a year , we did some really good things with clients in the football world and that set me up for the Chelsea position I interviewed for the Chelsea position about a year later and you know, obviously did well enough in the interview to land the job so I was very pleased but it wasn’t just because of the, you know the two years or so experience that I’ve been building up in the world of football content. It was also I think very much because I had that broad understanding of the football industry from Birkbeck from Masters and clearly my experience before that in public affairs and in corporate affairs was important, you know it was a big part of me getting that job so I was able to align all of these things and it meant that Chelsea were looking for somebody with that profile who I think they were looking for somebody who wasn’t necessarily deeply embedded in the football industry or been at clubs for a very long time they actually wanted a bit of a fresh perspective so that’s how I ended up there. 

Kara: And so what is your day to day like as Head of Publishing at Chelsea football club I realise that this probably has new ramifications during the pandemic but if you could give us some insight into your average day in your role that would be fantastic.

Simon: Well I think there isn’t really an average day I think there’s always quite a perspectival day I think it’s, I mean the role is, you know I’m Head of Publishing which is a bit of a , can seem a bit of a strange title but essentially it’s you know I’m responsible for what we publish on our owned and operated channel, on our website, on our app and on our social media channels and that means that you know the team that I have we the responsibility for the communication that we have with our fanbase , and with the audience worldwide I mean you know Chelsea is known almost everywhere and impacts on lots of people’s lives and so we do have a big responsibility but it means that the role is extremely varied because one day you can be communicating about changes that we might be making to the stadium you know and it can be as simple as were changing the entrance point at somewhere in the stadium, to announcing the signing of a major player as we did obviously a few times over the summer so it is a really, it is a very varied job and I think that’s obviously for me that’s one of the major attractions of it and why I do actually love it, it’s because you don’t necessarily know what’s going to happen on a given day, you can get a call from somebody and they’ll tell you that somethings happening and you know it’s our responsibility to make sure people that know about it and that its done the right way and everyone’s informed. So there isn’t really an average day as such I think it has been challenging to do a role like this in the current circumstances you know first of all I interviewed pre-lockdown and the actually joined in lockdown so a lot of it has been remote working obviously as everyone has but you know when you’re doing a communications function where so much of it is about I think human and personal interaction it has been quite difficult to do that from behind a computer screen and so you know I guess the most average thing that I do is be on a lot of video calls in the day like everyone else I’ve been lucky enough to get out and go to some of the games behind closed doors so that’s been a really kind of interesting experience and being in a stadium where there are no fans but a major stadium where I’ve been before with lots and lots of fans 42000 fans in the place and seeing it empty and it’s a slightly eery experience and also a fascinating one because you can suddenly hear all sorts of things you wouldn’t normally hear from the players and from the manager and so on but yeah, the whole experience very varied, very different month to month but obviously I think it would be interesting to see how it is when we hopefully get to get out of the current situation.

Kara: Yeah I think one of the things I was really curious about myself was your role was so much about community building and your long standing interest are in football and the community how have you in your role and how has Chelsea maintained its sense of community throughout this difficult time perhaps we can start with your role of Head of Publishing then we can talk about what the club has been doing actually.

Simon: Well I think one of the things when I was joining Chelsea, because it is such a famous name in the world of football and with that comes a lot of preconceptions. The image of Chelsea for me is a club that is hugely successful, particularly over the past 20 or so years, where they have won so much, they have got a winning mentality. Your kind of, especially if you are coming from outside the world of football, you do not necessarily know what that translates too in terms of the other stuff that they do. How are they as a business? How are they as an institution within their community. But also, what is it going to be like to work there, what is the environment like? And actually, because I was joining during lockdown, I joined at a time where the club was actually responding to the Covid-19 pandemic on its community and it was taking a lot of initiatives. So that to me when I was joining something that obviously immediately took a great source of pride in because the club was also doing things like, offering hotel rooms to NHS workers it was providing free meals to NHS work because it was also providing free meals to elderly and vulnerable people in the community Zoom calls between players the manager and people in the community as well delivering books to school children who no longer able to go to school sports and food banks and so was doing all of these things as I came in the club that I actually started a partnership with the domestic abuse charity Refuge, and so, one of the first tasks I had coming into the club was to support on that partnership and make sure that we communicated around that in the way that we should because what our aims were to A raise awareness about the domestic abuse pandemic which was essentially following the Covid-19 pandemic and we wanted to raise awareness and we wanted to raise funds and so we were asking our fans to contribute we did that through a Facebook campaign we did it by offering first of all fans credit on season tickets which they could either take the credit or they could donate to different charity partners one of which being Refuge and in fact we ended up raising I think a quarter of a million pounds through both of those initiatives which the owner then matched the club and the owner matched and therefore we were able to raise half a million pounds for Refuge for that campaign so that for me was a great source of pride because I hadn’t you know when you join a football club you don’t necessarily know that you’re going to be working on a campaign like that that’s something completely different and so I was tasked with helping on that from day one essentially.

Kara: Just out of interest what is the role of Chelsea historically in the community do you think that what they are doing now aligns with the work that they have done previously in their hundred plus years of existence.

Simon: You know I think so I think that what strikes me is that with football clubs I think with bigger football clubs you know if you think about the top 6 in the Premiere League or major clubs globally everyone is always so focused on football performance and what’s happening on the pitch and the champions league and the glamour and the big name players and I think that community work and work their respective foundations is sometimes from a media perspective a bit of an afterthought where people are not necessarily aware of these efforts and the things that are happening I feel quite strongly that football clubs should be part of their local community they are institutions as we said in the beginning of the podcast there are institutions have been around for hundred and twenty five, a hundred and fifty years in some cases in the case of Chelsea it’s almost a hundred and twenty years a hundred and fifteen years and so they are firmly part of these communities and yet we don’t really hear about that all that much and I think what Chelsea is doing now is something that they’ve been doing they have been doing for years and years and years the foundation has been going and supporting the local community and its coming to kind of its coming to the picture a lot more obviously since lockdown and just been this focus on how everybody is supporting each other I guess but you know it’s just the continuation of what they’ve been doing I should say that in other areas Chelsea has been a leisure I think in its community and the things like the say to no to anti-Semitism campaign which was launched two years ago to raise awareness about anti-Semitism both in the game and beyond is an example of that and so I think its firmly in the tradition of the club that it does it but it maybe doesn’t like a number of different clubs doesn’t always get the recognition for that and I think that one of the tasks that I have as head of publishing in the club is to bring that to the fore is to work with the foundation to make sure that we communicate and we tell that story of the other things that we do that aren’t just on the pitch

Kara: That is perfect. I think it will be really interesting for our current students and alumni to hear more about that especially given that Birkbeck is also so ingrained in our community and that the pandemic has also really impacted our students and staff and just coming back to current students I know that those studying sport Management in the Business of Football and just throughout Birkbeck would be so inspired to hear your story I mean within two years you’ve gone from Birkbeck student to head of publishing at Chelsea’s which is a real credit to your work and your background and what advice do you have for current students or prospective students who might be thinking about coming to study at Birkbeck.

Simon: I think the first piece of advice I would have is quite personal to me because I had already had no clue where I was going on this journey when I started studying at Birkbeck is because I knew I wanted to know more and I wanted to learn about the industry of football and I was looking for a bit of a path and I think the my first piece of advice would be say it’s okay you know if you are looking for a career in football and sports and you were going to study at Birkbeck to help yourself along that path then it’s perfectly fine and perfectly okay to not know where the angle is know where you’re going to end up because I think there’s always this picture around. Right. Set yourself the target. Make sure you get there but I’ve always felt like I don’t really know what the target is you know and so, I guess I’m very lucky in the sense that I’ve been doing events that I found what I wanted to be where I am is exactly where I want to be so that’s good but it wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t gone and had the experience it going to be going with an open mind going into these different classes in these different lectures and sort of thought I like you know I before starting I wouldn’t have thought that for example the module in Sports economics wouldn’t be my favourite because I’m not economically mind that I’m not really numbers minded you know I’m an art student you know originally and so but actually that was my favourite topic. You know, that was my favourite subject so I think the first piece of advice is it as it’s you know it’s okay not to know where you’re going to or where you you’re going to end up off and you will find it the second thing I say is also quite personal to me which is I would try and try different things you know I took a bit of a chance with the start-up I took a bit of a chance when I started working with a video production company and again this was, you know, having thought well work in you know that digital content, social media and I hadn’t thought that was where I was going to go but I took those experiences and actually helped me along the path as well so I think that you are able to take different experiences to try different things out then you absolutely should I think another important part is to build your network as much as possible because one of the things I did was I just started attending different events. And actually you know I was in a position where I was having still working full-time while being a Birkbeck at least initially you know I’m still earning a salary and therefore I was able to pay to go to various different events in the football world and start building a bit of the network in the world of football but I would definitely recommend that because I started to meet people and speak to the people and so I started to understand the industry a bit better some of the people I met them then I’m still in contact with now you know and so I think building a network, it’s hard work because you have to go out do it but I would definitely recommend it. Other bits of advice I think just keeping at it, persisting, plugging away I know that’s generic and its cliche but actually it’s quite true you have to kind of keep at it even if things don’t work out when I join the start-up it didn’t really work out so you know we were trying to make money out of it and we couldn’t so we didn’t and so you know we spent several months trying this and it didn’t work out and it’s okay.

Kara: Those are all great advice, and they are so practical and uplifting that I think that is what students would like to exactly hear just now. And it’s so great coming from you, who is in the industry already and, who knows that Birkbeck students work really hard in balancing all the different responsibilities that they have and the fact that we are able to offer for such excellent education in things you might not even except that you would like, like your Sports management module. I know that the sports management staff would be pleased to hear that from you. Thank you so much Simon for sharing your story with us, I know that our current Birkbeck students and alumni would be so thrilled to hear from you and so fascinating to hear about your career change to Birkbeck, your current role at Chelsea and your invaluable advice for students especially during this difficult time. Thank you so much for taking the time.

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