We’re not Brazil, but the Northern Ireland economy might want to be Leicester…


In government, as in football, budget isn’t everything. The English Premier League is the biggest money soccer championship in the world, but yet one of the minnows in financial terms has just claimed the title.For years, the focus of media and public attention has been on how much teams like Chelsea and Manchester City have been spending on players. But Leicester has been quietly working away in the background inexpensively building solid foundations. Indeed, when we take a closer look at Leicester’s success, it becomes clear that it absolutely isn’t a fluke. Beneath the shock result is a major project. Management schools the world over will be studying the success of Leicester for many years to come, and the Northern Ireland economy would do well to follow suit.

For starters, Leicester City Football Club is getting the basics right. Having players who have the highest levels of fitness, are well conditioned, and are well coached in the fundamental skills, is a baseline. Keeping players as injury free as possible and avoiding disciplinary problems are other elements of the club’s success. For instance, Leicester is the only team in the league that has two non-training days in the week to enable players to recover sufficiently and reduce the stress on their bodies. As a result, they have amongst the fewest injuries in the top tier, as well as the best disciplinary record. Where Northern Ireland has a habit of neglecting to address basic economic problems such as fixing its inadequate infrastructure or addressing our high levels of economic inactivity, Leicester realise that focusing on those basic things that are within their control is essential to success. Emulating them by tackling our long-term sickness and injury list would be a fantastic start.

When it comes to basic skills, Northern Ireland consistently tops the UK league table for the number of people over 16 with no qualifications, across all age-groups. 1 in 8 of our 16-24 year olds have no formal qualifications. This compares with 1 in 15 for the UK. We also have the highest youth unemployment rate in the UK. Clearly our ‘youth academy’, unlike Leicester City’s state-of-the-art football version, is not fit for purpose. Fixing this issue should be top priority.

In addition to getting the basics right, Leicester don’t over-complicate their strategy. They play a simple counter-attacking game that is based on pace and accuracy. The statistics show that they are not a great passing team – they know they aren’t Barcelona – but they are the best when it comes to tackling, interceptions and scoring when in front of goal. This approach is based on achieving outcomes, not on fancy footwork. And they are incredibly efficient at it. Their record shows that they score a goal for every 2.6 shots on target. On the other hand, Northern Ireland seems intent on over-complicating its economic strategy, with too much focus on fancy ‘bicycle kicks’ like lower corporation tax, rather than having a more simple formula for success. We would do well to adopt a more straightforward approach of focusing on fundamentals like skills, productivity, and infrastructure, and to copy Leicester’s quick decision making and pacey response to attacking opportunities. For too long, a slow, bureaucratic and defensive approach has hindered Northern Ireland from moving its economy forward.

Leicester are also ruthless in their attention to detail, particularly when it comes to sports science. They closely monitor everything that they do through the latest technology, including wearables, and they relentlessly focus on improvement. This can be seen in their focus on defensive improvement after leaking a lot of goals at the start of the season. This kind of close monitoring of progress towards meeting targets doesn’t seem to happen in the same way in terms of Northern Ireland’s economic strategy. And there needs to be a zero-tolerance policy towards under-performance. Taking a Leicester-style approach in this respect would go some way towards significantly boosting our economic fortunes.

Stability has also been a bedrock of Leicester’s Premier League winning season. Remarkably, they have only used 18 players during the whole campaign, an approach that has bred confidence, consistency, and team spirit. In an era of huge squads and frequent player rotations, there is a lesson here for Northern Ireland. Perhaps we need to be more focused on a smaller number of priorities rather than spreading ourselves too thin by focusing on chopping and changing what economic policies we are pursuing. Northern Ireland perhaps also needs more of the kind of team spirit evident at Leicester. We have lots of lobby organisations fighting for their own narrow interests. Who is lobbying in the overall interests of the economy?

Off the pitch, it seems that Leicester’s business model is viable, with sustainable finances at the club’s core. Efficient and effective spending are the essence of its approach, and the club has proven itself adept at appropriate revenue raising. It has achieved world-class standards of football on the pitch whilst balancing the books. Until 2016, the most successful clubs in the Premier League were the ones that spent the most. Over the last 20 years, no club outside the top five biggest spenders on wages has ever won the league. In fact, one of the top three spenders has secured the title in each of the last 17 years.  Leicester was at the bottom of the spending league this season, yet it was able to secure the title. Manchester United has spent more on transfers over the past two years than Leicester has spent in its history.

Northern Ireland on the other hand is top of the league when it comes to public expenditure (124 per cent of UK public spending per head) but is bottom of the league when it comes to revenue raising. As some quite frequently note, we have the lowest household taxes in the UK. In footballing terms, we are like a club who keeps the fans onside by ensuring ticket prices remain low, whilst spending big on players in a way that is completely out of line with incomings. The fact that Northern Ireland charges households just 55 percent of the taxation levied to our counterparts in Wales, represents a significant opportunity cost. For decades, Northern Ireland’s strategy has been based on maximising the block grant, rather than being more self-sufficient and shrewd in our approach, like Leicester.

If Leicester can put all of these building blocks in place to ensure major success, so can the Northern Ireland economy. Indeed, Northern Ireland’s own current football team can provide further inspiration. During the 1960s and 70s George Best was one of world’s best players but never made a Euros because we didn’t have a good enough team. But this year Northern Ireland made their first ever Euros despite having no world-class players. Like Leicester, they are getting the basics right and proving to be an efficient and effective team as a result. Similarly, if the Northern Ireland economy is to be a top performer, we need to become top performers across different aspects of the economic game, including tackling skills and infrastructure deficits. As the song goes, we’re not Brazil. But maybe the Northern Ireland economy should aim to be like Leicester City.

Article appears in the Irish News published 10th May 2016


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