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“Everton are in the type of malaise Thelwell would relish fixing”

We speak to RBNY blog Once upon a Metro about the Toffees’ new Director of Football

New Everton Director of Football Kevin Thelwell... Photo by Tony McArdle/Everton FC via Getty Images

Everton recently announced that former Wolves and New York Red Bulls executive Kevin Thelwell would be taking over as the club’s third Director of Football, charged with running the entire footballing operation from scouting and youth squads all the way to the first team.

The 48-year-old is highly regarded in world football having risen from the ranks as Academy coach at Wolverhampton to become their sporting director, and has been credited with working with super agent Jorge Mendes to bring a number of Portuguese superstars to Wolves.

He’s been in New York for the last two years in a similar role where he has managed to infuse the squad with youth while overachieving well ahead of the expected curve. We spoke with the our fellow SB Nation Soccer blog — the excellent Once Upon A Metro — about Thelwell and Ben Cork told us about what he did with RBNY, and what Evertonians can expect from the new man.

RBM - For the Everton fans who don’t follow the MLS, tell us a bit about RBNY, and the link with the Red Bull parent company.

BC - After playing for their first ten years of existence as MetroStars, New York’s Major League Soccer club was purchased by the Red Bull beverage and sports conglomerate in 2006 and re-branded as the second of their now four-team global network of football clubs. After a middling first few years in MLS, Red Bull built a stadium in 2010 and established New York as one of America’s elite clubs, winning three Supporters Shields (given to the first place MLS team over the regular season) over the next decade but still not yet the league’s ultimate prize, the MLS Cup playoff tournament.

The club slid down the table after its last league-winning manager Jesse Marsch (now close to the Leeds United job) abruptly exited for Europe in 2018, leading Red Bull on a search for a new sporting executive that concluded with the hiring of Kevin Thelwell from Wolverhampton Wanderers in early 2020.

RBM - What was Thelwell able to achieve in his two years with RBNY?

BC - As I wrote for Once A Metro this week, what Thelwell’s concrete achievements with the club might not be clear for some time.

Entering the club on the eve of the covid pandemic and unable to reshape the first team immediately, Thelwell spent much of his time at the club overhauling its substructure. He re-organized age groups in the club’s already-renowned academy and greatly expanded a network of affiliate youth clubs, while shifting the reserve team’s emphasis from career rehabilitation for established pros to being a finishing school for academy talent. The ultimate achievement of Thelwell’s tenure will likely be a state-of-the-art training facility in the New Jersey suburb of Morristown that is expected to open in 2024 once plans are approved by local government.

But once the transfer market re-opened last winter, Thelwell also began leaving his mark on the first team. After removing now-Manchester United assistant coach Chris Armas from the managerial role in his first year, Thelwell hired in-demand Austrian coach Gerhard Struber and rebuilt the New York squad with over a dozen first team signings in 2021 from various different markets and levels.

SOCCER: FEB 26 MLS - New York Red Bulls at San Jose Earthquakes
New York Red Bull players celebrate
Photo by Bob Kupbens/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

RBM - Thelwell was highly-thought of when he left Wolves, would you say he met expectations at RBNY?

BC - In regards to fan reception, Thelwell was not a polarizing figure but not a particularly popular one either. Thelwell leaves New York largely with respect from fans for stabilizing the club after some seasons of decline, but also some bitterness over both the timing of his exit and the team’s lack of immediate improvement. On the field, New York largely stayed in place at the middle of the league’s Eastern Conference table during his two seasons.

But Thelwell’s task was a deeper and more long-term one in New York — moving the club closer to the model of Red Bull’s flagship team in Salzburg, one that surrounds a core of domestic veterans with a constantly-churning pipeline of elite young international talent. In terms of raising the club’s backroom standards and providing direction and purpose to its recruitment, Thelwell made a significant impact as described above. But whether that impact and the “five year plan” he discussed upon exiting the club will eventually pay off will not be known for some time.

RBM - You had the opportunity to talk to him in person - what would you describe his personality as?

BC - With a business degree in addition to his coaching licenses, Thelwell is a consummate professional who speaks deliberately and in detail about his work. Thelwell keeps an even keel that reflects his methodical professional approach, and his recruitment principles include a blunt “no dickheads” policy as outlined in a past interview while at Wolverhampton.

RBM - How much of the recruitment at RBNY was his scouting versus players in the Red Bull system worldwide?

BC - Thelwell styles himself on the cutting edge of global recruitment, both from his work at Wolves and New York, as well as being involved with new innovations such as the TransferRoom digital service. As mentioned above, Thelwell’s signings in New York came from a diverse set of backgrounds, including some players already in the Red Bull orbit.

Arguably his most successful signing was Salzburg reserve goalkeeper Carlos Coronel, who established himself not only as the club’s starter but as one of the league’s elite. Forward Fabio Gomes, who used his New York loan stint to earn a move to Brazilian giants Atletico Mineiro last month, was discovered in the lower leagues using scouting info shared by sibling club RB Bragantino.

But another notable pattern of Thelwell’s work in MLS as time went on was his interest in domestic players, something not expected from the most European-oriented setup ever installed by Red Bull in New York. Starters such as Andres Reyes, Frankie Amaya, and Lewis Morgan were brought in from other domestic clubs using the league’s complex trade mechanisms, while standout lower division manager Troy Lesesne was hired this winter to join Struber’s otherwise Euro-heavy staff. Thelwell preaches the importance of having a core of domestic players who understand the identity and traditions of their club, an approach that will be even easier to pursue with Everton in England’s current development renaissance.

RBM - Does Thelwell have a ‘type’ of player that he likes to sign?

BC - Thelwell’s aforementioned focus on club identity was likely a key reason for his hiring by Red Bull in 2020. Thelwell’s signings and hiring of former Salzburg academy coach Gerhard Struber as manager were largely in line with Red Bull’s preference for young and athletic players with high work rates capable of playing a demanding pressing-based system.

But that same respect for club identity and customs means Thelwell will likely adapt to the culture he finds at Everton and to the preferences of his head coach Frank Lampard. If there’s any “type” to a Thelwell signing, it’s that it has been meticulously researched and weighed, perhaps sometimes to the detriment of winning a bidding war.

RBM - What are some areas he did not meet his potential as Director of Football?

BC - Those looking for a quick rebuild of the first team with big names and blockbuster fees will likely be left wanting. Whether unfair or not especially given the onset of the pandemic, the expectations in New York were to bring the club back to the top of league. This not only didn’t happen during his tenure but didn’t seem to be something he was especially anxious about.

But Thelwell is a builder, and likely fell out of the running for the Newcastle sporting director role last year due to an aversion to the reckless spending culture expected to ensue at the Saudi-purchased club. Thelwell will take his time to ensure the foundation of the club is sound before he begins adding the difference-making pieces at first team level.

RBM - He’s walking into the biggest role of his career at Everton, would you tip him to succeed on Merseyside?

BC - Without speaking out of turn regarding your club, Everton seems to be in the type of malaise that an executive like Thelwell would relish fixing. After years of careening between different high-priced managerial regimes, allowing Thelwell to plot out a strategy is likely the safest long-term bet if Everton hopes to finally establish themselves at Champions League level. It will be the job of his life at the biggest club with the biggest budgets he’s ever worked at, so you have to imagine it will get his best effort.

Our thanks to Ben for his time. Make sure you check out Once Upon A Metro, the most comprehensive RBNY site you’ll find on the internet.