We caught up with rising star and Birmingham City COO Lungi Macebo to discuss everything from safeguarding and financial fair play, to gender and race diversity and the women’s game, and how she’s attempting to make positive change in these areas and more

The key to any successful football team is the right blend of talent, unity and strong leadership, and it’s no different off the field.

While on the pitch, clubs need talented players and coaching staff who can motivate and get the best out of them, and who combine tactical prowess with an ability to manage all those around them in all kinds of situations, off it they need similar talent, structure and direction in order to thrive.

However, while finding talent that fits a club ethos can be a challenge in itself, succession planning can be tricky in a sport which, on the one hand is steeped in tradition, and on the other is transient in nature.

Things can – and often do – change so quickly.

When Lungi Macebo became COO at Birmingham City in early 2019, she arrived at St Andrews from Charlton Athletic facing a number of immediate and sizeable challenges.

As an example, the Blues had started the 2018/19 season under transfer restrictions imposed by the EFL for breaches of their Profitability and Sustainability regulations. They subsequently had nine points deducted, effectively ending any hopes they might have had of finishing in the top seven. After avoiding relegation with two games to spare, manager Garry Monk was then relieved of his duties. That was just the men’s team. In the women’s setup, the Blues were finding it hard to achieve self-sustainability.

“The biggest task was implementing a structure fit for purpose,” explains Lungi. “Senior managers had left, there were assimilating debts and the club had been restructured. Reinstating values and communicating them to the staff was important, but challenging.

My role as COO means I look after eight departments across the men’s and women’s teams which all need different processes to help work efficiently. The club hadn’t had a COO [they’d had somebody in a similar role] in a while, so my skillsets are well matched to making these necessary changes. There was – and still is – a lot to do, and while we have implemented a plan we intend to follow year on year, it is challenging because football is such a results-driven business. Things can change quickly, so while you’re trying to build sustainability, there’s always an element whereby you’re having to live from one week to the next.

That’s what makes working in football so unique.

“You discover something new every day, but it doesn’t phase me,” explains Lungi. “What’s great is that you have your Monday to Friday, the 9-5, and then the back end of the week is spent preparing for a game. Then matchday… there is nothing like it, but ultimately the result on a Saturday affects everything and has a knock-on effect on the business as a whole. There is so much emotion and passion. In football, there are so many people who want to make a difference to their communities, but it can be hard to implement change.”

The theme of ‘change’ is a huge driver for Lungi as she continues to grow into her career which, at just seven years old, is still in its relevant infancy. However, she has already achieved so much in that time.

“I have a hugely important role and I’m really proud of that,” she explains. “Going from supporting the leadership team at Charlton, my first club, to then becoming head of HR and more at The Valley, thanks largely to people who showed faith in me and my abilities, and who gave me access to opportunities to learn and thrive, to then get my first board role [with Women in Football, more on that later] and then to end up here, it’s all been huge for me.”

Lungi’s career in the football industry started by accident. After completing an undergraduate degree in psychology at Oxford Brookes University, she started a graduate scheme in Canary Wharf, which didn’t meet her expectations, before she applied for a temporary position at The Valley. She got the role, but instead of moving on, the club quickly identified her diligence, and she was taken under the wing of club CEO Katrien Meire.

The seven years since have been a whirlwind, and while the game has changed in many ways since Lungi first walked through the doors at The Valley, there are many more things she feels are lagging behind the times. And it is in areas such as equality and diversity that Lungi is working hard to make an impact, not just in her role as COO, but also by using other platforms.

As an example, Lungi is on the board of Women in Football, a network of professionals working in and around the football industry who support and champion their peers. Moreover, in 2018, Lungi was selected to join 30 Sport Industry NextGen Leaders, a group of diverse – 43% of those nominated were female – and innovative leading professionals considered the best emerging talent within the sports industry. More recently, she was named on the Football Black List in 2019, which celebrates role models from the black community working in football.

All three platforms help Lungi to network, develop and thrive, but they also enable her to work alongside peers to try and make substantial changes in the areas in which they feel football is failing.

The NextGen Leaders initiative has been particularly helpful in not only helping me develop as a leader,” she explains, “but also network with people I can relate to. I have been able to spend time with peers and inspirational coaches, and it has been – and continues to be – a great way to develop. There are so many inspirational stories. I find that in football I am often surrounded by people I can’t relate to. At away games, for example, I often find myself surrounded by a lot of middle-aged, white men who have been in the game for years. Next Gen has given me a network of diverse people who excel in their respective sports and with whom I can be myself, and who want to make similar changes that I do.

And many of the conversations across the various sports tend to be about the need for change when it comes to diversity and inclusion.

“We’re seeing an increasing number of racist incidents involving players right now, and so while the face of football has changed even in the seven years I’ve been involved, a lot of it is not changing fast enough. Some in football can be reluctant to change, they say ‘this is the way we’ve always done it’. For them, football and the way they work is all they know, and they don’t know about the outside world or about other [and more efficient] ways of working.

Football is such a powerful tool and it should be a leader when it comes to race, gender, inclusion and opportunity, but it isn’t. Racism and gender equality are huge issues facing the game and for racism in particular there needs to be legislative change to empower and/or instruct clubs to take action. There’s definitely increasing diversity at board level across the country, but there’s still no tangible legislation filtering through the game.

“I’m not what I’d call an active campaigner, but I am lucky to be a in a position where I can try and make a difference. Not only that, but while I’ve never experienced racism or sexism first-hand, the more people I chat to who say they’ve been inspired by my journey and the things I’ve achieved, the more I realise I need to make a bit more noise about it and use these platforms to do my bit and initiate change.”

Women in Football is the perfect example. Their primary focus is to improve equality and diversity, and support women who are either starting their careers in football or who already work in the game but who want to develop their careers, right through to senior women who might be experiencing difficulties in the industry.

“We organise things such as our flagship Leadership Course, which combines theory and practical content, and explains how women can reach the top levels of the game by networking, negotiating, managing and leading,” explains Lungi. “We also provide a network of legal support for women who come across discrimination and who might not know what to do. We want to be proactive in this area, rather than firefight.”

We have a few things with Barclays in the pipeline, too. They’re keen to improve gender diversity and have already done a lot of work in this area, and we’re helping them to do more. Ultimately, we’re trying to create a buzz for women who want to work their way up in the sport.

With Lungi’s role as Birmingham COO also embracing the Birmingham women’s team, there’s plenty of crossover when it comes to both improving the game on and off the field.

“Times are changing after a brilliant World Cup last summer, but it has been a long slog for many people to get the game to where it is now, and in many ways it is still light years behind the men’s game,” she admits. “There is an increasing pressure for the men’s clubs to support their women’s teams, which is fine for big clubs such as Manchester City and Manchester United, but for clubs like ours it means we have to grow a bit more organically, and that means we’re being left behind.

Historically, Birmingham’s women’s team has achieved success in the past. They won the FA Women’s Cup in 2012 and twice finished runners up in the WSL, in 2011 and 2012. They’ve produced quality players too, some of which have gone on to represent their countries, yet they’re still having to contend with poor pitches, poor officiating and a growing need for an increase in revenue from the competitions they participate in.

“You only need to look at clubs like Yeovil [who went into administration in March 2019] to see how hard it is to survive,” says Lungi. “We want to be self-sustaining, but it’s hard. The FA Cup is the perfect example. Clubs who go on a run in the men’s competition are well remunerated, but the same can’t be said in the women’s.”

The list of issues that need tackling on Lungi’s ‘to do’ list also include safeguarding and supporting the club in operating within its financial means.

“Recent safeguarding changes have been effective, but this evolution has been decades in the making, and there’s still more to be done,” she says. “The disclosures in November 2016 [sex abuse claims involving various players and clubs] shook up the industry, but things were already being improved. Academies are now being run differently as a result and there are codes and structures in place to ensure boys and girls can continue to develop safely. That in turn is a big help for clubs because it means they can produce more players and manage those players towards their respective first team squads. Yet we can and should still be doing more.

“And as for financial legislation… it’s very hard to get your head around. What you see, particularly in the Championship, is an inequality that makes it very hard for clubs to compete. We’ve had our own problems with profitability and sustainability regulations at Birmingham, but teams at the top are often there because they’re benefitting from parachute payments or because they’re using the ‘boom or bust’ approach, which really doesn’t help the industry. Birmingham are paying for overspending in the past, but we’re also seeing unequal broadcasting rights that are hard to swallow. The Premier League continues to enjoy record deals whereas the Championship, arguably the most competitive league in the world, continues to get a poor deal in comparison.”

Lungi’s action plan certainly appears to be getting longer, not shorter. However, as a driven and hungry COO with a vision, and with several platforms from which to make change, and an increasingly diverse number of people alongside and around her, you wouldn’t bet against her from achieving her goals, and making the football world a better and more inclusive place.