The English coach behind Africa’s leading football academy, Right to Dream, has secured a €100m investment to expand the pioneering model and explore the purchase of a British club.
The deal sees Egyptian conglomerate the Mansour Group become majority shareholder in Right to Dream, which also owns Danish football club FC Nordsjaelland.
Founder Tom Vernon, 42, retains a minority stake and is remaining in place as chief executive to oversee the opening of a new academy in Egypt and plans for a UK project.
“We’re delighted,” Vernon told City A.M. “The vision is to scale Right to Dream academies around the world and show how football can be utilised.
“We believe everyone has the right to dream. To go into a new market and do that as well is really exciting for us.”
Vernon, a former Manchester United scout, set up Right to Dream in 1999 with the aim of improving the life chances of children in Ghana through football and education.
It has retained its emphasis on social purpose while growing into a renowned talent pipeline for boys and girls and integrated that culture at Nordsjaelland, which it acquired in 2016.
Right to Dream’s plans for the UK
UK expansion remains in the planning stage but will include a Right to Dream academy as a minimum.
That academy will feed into a British club, if a suitable one can be acquired, or the first team squad of Nordsjaelland.
“We feel like the academy system in the UK has a lot of questions still to ask itself, and that we have some of the answers in terms of the long-term commitments and the varied and high-class pathway that we build for all of our players,” Vernon said.
“We’re really excited to find out how I can eventually come home and bring some of some of my football ideas and experience to the UK and what that could look like within our network.”
Right to Dream plans to open its academy for boys and girls in Cairo next year, followed by a new professional women’s team in Egypt.
The Mansour Group’s investment, via its UK-based arm Man Capital, will also fund a new Right to Dream digital media agency in London.
Vernon added: “From there we will explore what’s the best way to take Right to Dream into the UK. How our other Right to Dreams and our other clubs plug into a UK club is stuff that’s in the exploratory phase, but we have the funds to explore in detail now.”
Right to Dream’s expansion includes hiring Dr Pippa Grange, psychologist to England’s football teams until 2019, as group chief culture officer.
How Right to Dream has grown
More than 140 boys and girls have graduated from Right to Dream, many into professional football, such as Ajax star Mohammed Kudus, and others into higher education.
Right to Dream’s success helped Vernon raise funds to buy Nordsjaelland in 2016 – perhaps the only case of a football academy acquiring a club, rather than vice versa.
Nordsjaelland’s first team is now the youngest in Europe and 80 per cent comprised of graduates from its native and Ghanaian academies.
Former Chelsea and Ghana midfielder Michael Essien joined the club’s coaching staff last year.
Right to Dream’s youth teams attracted attention by winning some of age-group football’s biggest prizes but Vernon is yet to replicate that success in Denmark.
He insists winning will never be the primary motivation, rather the by-product of creating the right environment.
“We really believe that if you work on viewing the strengths in other people’s cultures as hard as we have that you can create a really successful cohesive unit,” Vernon said.
“Purpose and identity is the focus of what we do. We know that’s the environment people want to work in and that it will attract better and better people.
“As that happens, our culture and environment will strengthen. And, as a result, we’re sure that we will win more trophies. But we won’t ever reverse it and set that as the priority.”
Staying in African ownership
The Mansour Group’s €100m investment is mostly funds for expansion and the result of two years’ worth of talks between Vernon and the family-owned conglomerate – which has no connection to Manchester City’s Abu Dhabi-based owner Sheikh Mansour.
“I’m extremely proud to see Right to Dream in majority African ownership,” he said.
“They’ve got an incredibly strong track record in long-term, patient investment. We really felt, with the family’s love for football, love for developing opportunity in Africa, that this sat in a special place in their heart.”
While the deal does mean Vernon transferring majority ownership of a project he has worked on his whole adult life, both sides have committed to his staying in place.
“They are seasoned, successful investors and if you wanted to invest in something like this, you’d only do it knowing that I was fully aligned with the vision and committed,” he said.
“So I’ve recently signed my first employment contract in about 20 years, which has significant long term tie-in, and I wouldn’t want any other way.
“But I don’t think that the essence of Right to Dream can be owned by anybody. It’s a broader concept, and it’s something that I’m committed to in my life’s purpose.”