If you’re looking for work at the moment, and you have an interview upcoming, how would you prepare for the question "tell us what you’ve been doing during the past five years" when you’ve been on gardening leave for nearly twelve months in that time, as a result of three different employers putting you out to pasture?
That is the situation Lee Congerton will find himself in, when he finally severs any remaining contractual obligation with Sunderland later this year. I am assuming he remains on gardening leave of course, because frankly no one has said anything to the contrary.
I wonder how he is spending his days. Three summers ago he was touring the mountains around Hamburg, politely removed from his €xxx,000 a year desk and sent packing to see out the remainder of his contract in isolation. That was following the collapse of the Frank Arnesen-inspired dream of restoring Hamburg SV to its former glory in German football.
Two years further back, it had all seemed so full of promise. Arneson had quit his role as Chelsea Sporting Director and headed for Hamburg. He promised to return for some of his favoured former staff and some youth team players. That included Chief Scout Lee Congerton and IT-data wizard Steve Houston, who remains in the employ of Sunderland AFC today. Congerton was promptly put on gardening leave by Chelsea, until such time as Arnesen smoothed the way for his export to Germany.
Within two years though, the Hamburg project lay in ruins. The Bundesliga club’s owners had tired of the experiment. Regardless, with the benefit of hindsight, it’s surprisingly easy to dismiss whatever myth surrounded Arnesen back then. His team, which included Congerton, were moderately lauded at Chelsea, but history is not so kind and his legacy-bank is hardly overflowing. Apart from having a hand in a few early Abramovich transfers, there was little else of note.
Lee Congerton arrived at Sunderland in Spring 2014. It was, and still is, a club trying to find an identity. Congerton must have brought his data–driven ideas and bamboozled owner Ellis Short with tales of a quest for modernity in football and how Sunderland would lead the revolution. Presumably he didn’t bother mentioning that in two of the three seasons he was at HSV Hamburg they had flirted with relegation.
The transfer dealings during the Congerton-era have been well documented elsewhere. Suffice to say that the presumed ‘stats’ which accompanied the likes of Billy Jones, Jordi Gomez and Ignacio Scocco did not translate to the rigours of the English Premier League.
Of course though, Lee Congerton ‘turned’ Jozy Altidore into Jermain Defoe didn’t he? I’m not convinced. Defoe had been tempted to the MLS back in 2014 with an offer of £90,000 a week to lead a Beckham-style Toronto revolution. It simply did not work out. Both sides upset each other and the relationship all but broke down between player and club.
Toronto had signed Defoe to enormous fanfare. The $10m signing was accompanied by a huge promotional campaign with the slogan "it’s a bloody big deal". The bloody big deal soon turned into a bloody big nightmare for both parties and Defoe let it be known he was keen for a return to England. Toronto refused the approaches of the player’s agent during the summer of 2014, clinging on to hope that the bloody big deal could still somehow pay off.
By the January 2015 window, the return of Jermain Defoe to the Premier League was inevitable, but Toronto’s top brass needed something big to save face. The homecoming of former MLS and US international ‘star’ Jozy Altidore was just what they needed. And so it happened. If Congerton was involved in brokering the mechanics of the deal, then he sure hadn’t conjured the whole darn thing up in a master stroke of brilliance. Although to be fair to him, Congerton never really did try to claim the credit.
Congerton never seemed to launch himself at the paying public of Sunderland. There was no ballyhoo, no presentation of his big idea. But he did do a couple of interviews with the BBC. In one shot he can be seen deep in concentration, scrutinising some ‘stats’ on a computer. They look like the sort of ‘stats’ you and I just couldn’t understand. It looks like some vast database of immense complexity, beyond the grasp of us uneducated luddites.
In fact it was something like Scout 7, that's what the shot looks like - or it was something similar anyway – an off the shelf database resembling Championship Manager but with real, scouted data.
At Hamburg, Congerton boasted that he and Steve Houston (still in Sunderland’s employ remember) had built their own version but it was never quite apparent what this bespoke thing achieved. Every club has a database like this these days. It costs quite a bit to subscribe to such a system – tens of thousands of pounds per season, but you can check out masses of players from around the world, and even watch Youtube style videos of them from the comfort of your office.
It all sounds very complex and Information Technology, without doubt, represents the present and the future when it comes to player scouting, recruitment and coaching. But, what Congerton seemed to do, was what most IT-type bods end up doing. The mysterious land of data becomes shrouded in techno-babble and the key is in convincing outsiders of its elegant brilliance. But, more than that, perhaps Congerton turned himself into a ‘Sporting Director’ on the back of it.
As anyone who works with data knows, it is how you use it that counts; the decision-making is where the skill lies. Sunderland lurched from crisis to crisis and may as well have stuck a pin in the computer screen, such was the apparent inability to recruit a half decent player.
Then there’s the tales of Congerton addressing forums of supporters and when asked if he thought Sunderland would be able to push on into mid-table in the upcoming season, he scoffed and said we were nowhere near. Not really Director-style liaison with the public was it?
See, it's likely Congerton had pulled the card before. It wasn’t his fault it went wrong at Hamburg, they pulled the transfer budget on him. And, guaranteed – when he is freed from the gagging effects of his current Sunderland contract and moves on, he will may come out with the same again; blissfully ignorant of the fact that a super-scout in a super-scouting system would be able to cut his cloth and achieve results beyond expectations regardless of the budget available.
Lee Congerton, Sporting Director - fraud or flawed? I’ll have to go with the latter, for now, until there is sufficient concrete evidence to pass a judgement of the former.