Interview: Right To Dream Founder Tom Vernon on making change

24 Feb 2021

By: Sport Industry Group

The Right to Dream Academy - set up by British entrepreneur Tom Vernon in 1999 -  has received a £100 million investment from Man Capital, the UK-based investment arm of the Egyptian Mansour Group. 

Sport Industry Group spoke to Vernon about the move, and asked what’s next for the academy as it plans further global expansion.

A new partnership between Man Sports and Tom Vernon will see a Right To Dream Academy set up in Egypt, as well as exploring new opportunities with UK football clubs.

It will also expand the organisation’s work with FC Nordsjaelland (FCN) - the Danish football club of which Vernon is the Chairman - as well as its women’s and girl’s programmes across each of those locations.

Vernon, who will remain the CEO of Right To Dream, is enthused by the possibilities of the move, but says the core principles of the project won’t change.

“If you wanted to come in and implement your own ideas for football, FCN - Right To Dream would not be the club to buy. But if you want to empower a model and a vision that you believe in, and you want to give it oxygen, then this is where you would come in.

“But first and foremost it's about a gut feeling of trust and friendship with your new investors.”

Those investors will allow Vernon and the Academy to continue their work and enhance what they are doing already, but will also allow it to expand into other areas, including building a new Academy in Egypt.

“This is about putting fuel on the flame of what we currently do and there certainly won't be any big name star striker signings coming into FCN and they will be continuing to attract and develop top young players. 

“There'll also be more of an acceleration around the women's game within our existing assets, while we’ve also built out a senior leadership team - having appointed (former FA Head of People and Team Development) Pippa Grange and (Chief Operating Officer) Dave Laurie, who was the president of Tullow Oil, and is also former professional footballer 

“We will now also actively explore the UK market, both from an academy perspective - to bring our academy philosophy into the UK - and from a club perspective as well."

Vernon believes that - in the coming years - Right To Dream will be able to make an impact in the UK, offering an alternative to the structures already in place in the academy system.

“We feel we've got quite a clear idea about how our philosophy and thinking can make a contribution to the needs of the UK.

“We want to run an academy which is built on the foundations of the Right To Dream philosophy, which guarantees long-term scholarships on entry, with no deselection. It places equal priority on the graduation of every kid so it doesn’t matter if you end up leaving to become a U12 community coach or going to Stanford. Just like a more normal school, where it's about creating the best outcome for every student, it’s not about centring it around this pyramid where we weed out the ones that don't work for us. 

“I think a lot of the mental health issues and challenges that we see in the game of this sudden, and often fairly random, deselection of players is unethical. We want to bring in a model that is a stable commitment to the child, and views him or her as a valuable member of society. Introducing that Academy concept for us in the UK is going to be super exciting.”

Sport has often found itself at the centre of social issues facing society, especially in recent times. Athletes have become leaders in the global call for racial justice, while others have used their platforms to affect real change in society.

Vernon believes Right To Dream has a role to play, too, but has a practical approach to dealing with social issues.

“The key thing that we really need to drive,” he says, “is that Instagram isn't action.”

"If we look at Marcus Rashford, everything I've seen him do is about physical change - campaigning for real change and taking real actions. Juan Mata is the same with Common Goal -  giving 1% of your salary. Obviously George Weah, who's my role model, did too with running for President.

“That's what we're trying to inspire. How do we get back out into the real world and how do we leverage technology but disconnect from that a little bit and get back into the world of human relations, and the purpose and the meaning that comes from using your skills and experiences to lift somebody who doesn't have them. 

“The things we see changing in the world are when people step up with physical action and that's what we try to try to encourage in our environment.”