Directing Football: Help or Hindrance?

Matthew MaloneyCorrespondent IMarch 29, 2009

“If I go into a job and someone says to me that you have a director of football who buys and sells the players, I accept or don’t accept it. If I accept it, I cannot complain.

"I would personally not accept that - but I can understand as well that some people don’t want to deal with that and they feel comfortable getting the most out of the players they have because they have come from a different country.”

- Arsene Wenger

The Director of Football is a relatively new concept to British football, not least because along with bringing in successful foreign coaches, managers and of course players, British clubs have increasingly now felt the need to implement a 'successful continental club structure' involving a Director of Football/Sporting Director.

It is also a controversial concept. Not least because the continent isn't successful anymore.

Questions are raised as to what role they should have at a club, on what criteria should they be brought into a club or judged by, even whether they help bring success to a club at all . 

In fact, too often there has been much more solid evidence that clubs have been successful despite DOF, whoever the personnel involved.

What is it that Sporting Directors do exactly? It is precisely this question that has caused so many problems and chagrin within clubs this season, leading to resignations and sackings and major political fallout at clubs all around Europe.

On paper, they are the middleman between board and manager/coach. From this basis any number of roles can be given to them depending on the agenda of the owner/chairman or board/members.

They aren't always expected to have direct relevant experience; especially in relation to the core aspect aspect of a football club—football. But usually they are often found negotiating budgets, proposing transfers, directing the scouting network, organising the youth system and in extreme cases acting as caretaker managers if need be.

Looking at the premiership examples of West Ham, Tottenham Hotspur and Newcastle United, its fair to say the Director Of Football has been a relative failure in English football.

We should also not forget the previous case of Jose Mourinho's antagonistic relationship with Avram Grant at Chelsea, a key reason why Mourinho left and reason Chelsea has been forced to rebuild ever since.

The recent news of Rick Parry's departure at the end of the season adds further caution as to the frequently combustible nature of the relationship between manager and DOF (although Parry's roles are similar to that of the traditional DOF, he was called a 'chief executive').

You don't necessarily have to be a stereotypical clueless foreigner (we're looking at you Christian Gross) to mess up either. Dennis Wise, a man with vast experience in English football both as player and manager has often been public enemy No. 1 at Newcastle United over the past two seasons he's been there.

Dennis Wise is unmistakeably a follower of 'traditional', 'honest', English footballing values (I won't ever reference Wimbledon like that again if you don't, promise?!). Yet he he is loathed by supporters and had a fractured relationship with Kevin Keegan.

Being foreign, hasn't exactly helped either however. The cases of Gianluca Nanni at West Ham and Damien Comolli at Spurs, Valdas Ivanauskas at Hearts have a comedic value, especially in terms of their obvious ineptness.

In fact, West Ham were forced to bring in a manager who shared the same language as their sporting director. Likewise at Tottenham, the oft forgotten Jacques Santini partnership with then director Frank Arnesen didn't last long. Ivanauskas was simply a puppet.

Any supposed anti-foreigner mentality of the  English hasn't really been the reason for its failure in English football however (or an implied reticence by those in the English game to accept the DOF role).

I believe the problem has lied within the contradictory nature of the structure a DOF implies at a club.

They are often seen as a way to reign in on the manager's apparently undesirable autocratic power by club chairmen/owners. This is especially so in the case of absentee chairmen and owners who prefer not to involve themselves in the day to day running of the club. 

This is understandable since the majority of club owners have traditionally been involved with other lines of business and areas of interest and so they need another man on the ground.

With the growing tide of billionaire owners, I expect this will be even more so the case.

The problem is that the problems aren't just confined to  English football.

Predrag Mijatović of Real Madrid infamy is notorious for the lopsided team he has assembled for Juande Ramos to work with and many expect his departure this summer.

Juande Ramos had earlier left Spain altogether when differences with his previous sporting director at Sevilla, Monchi became untenable. Sevilla are yet to challenge for anything since.

Likewise, Rafael Benitiez famously declared, "I asked for a table and they brought me a lampshade," when discussing his past relationship with Valencia's hierarchy.

Amedeo Carboni, who would later follow Benitez's departure in the role of DOF, similarly couldn't work with Quique Flores leading to both their departures from the club. Unsurprisingly thanks to wayward transfers by various sporting directors, the club is on the brink financially.

Benitez meanwhile has learned his lesson and has successfully requested more transfer control with Liverpool, after all a manager should be able to dictate the players he works with right?

Which all leads back to the start. Help or hindrance? The DOF has been a mixed bag at club's where it has been hailed as a success and an outright failure where it has been a cast as a failure.

The contradiction that a manager/coach job is based on the players (and system) someone else (often a non football man) has in mind is clearly not bridgeable unless the DOF and manager share a close relationship or unless the ideas of how football affairs are to be run at the club are to be run are identical among them.

Bear in mind even in the most successful of clubs there are always differences of view and opinion.

With rosy relationships between coach and DOF success isn't assured either.

Adriano Gaillaini and Ancelotti have succeeded in turning AC Milan into a retirement home (Emerson, Shevchenko, We salute you) while good relations between coach and sporting director Alessio Secco at Juventus have allowed numerous turkeys to join unabated and most importantly, unpunished. 

That said, hiring a sporting director can be a boon as being the extra man to handle administrative affairs allowing a manager to get on with his job. Keeping a manager to his budget or acting as the clubs main negotiator are other argued benefits (especially when a managers own business skills aren't up to scratch).

It is when the lines blur between the roles at a club however when people's responsibilities (and thus ambitions) become unharmoniously intertwined.

Arsene Wenger has not formally replaced David Dein since he has left while Sir Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho have traditionally held a powerful sway over their clubs for better or worse.

For too long now sporting directors have been used as a vehicle for club owners and rich benefactors to become involved in the team and to pick the players they want their money spent on.

Now as sporting directors are beginning to get sacked as regularly as managers (as Andreas Mueller at Schalke or Comolli at Spurs testify) there is a growing recognition that sporting directors do directly effect affairs on the pitch, or to put simply the buck is beginning to stop at their feet too. 

My own opinion club structural setup is that clubs literally hire teams of people when hiring managers anyway. 

Often a manager brings his own assistants, scouts, physios, coaches and contacts (even players) with him so should he chose to delegate team affairs or functions he feel he can't handle alone, like transfers for example, it should really be his decision alone for the duration of the contract.

If clubs don't think a manager is a 'good package', they can simply choose not to hire him or at the lesser extreme negotiate the personnel involved.

Modern football teams cannot be directed, only managed to the best possible outcome given the resources at the club. That is why the traditional English gaffer or manager should always receive primacy over the sporting director/director of football in a club.

Hopefully chairmen across Europe will be brave enough to swallow their pride and do as Daniel Levy at Tottenham has after years of experimentation, namely make the English gaffer model the next big thing again.


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