In English football, the Director of Football role remains a mystery to the average Premier League follower. Whilst some fulfill ambassadorial duties, the majority are there to cite transfer targets, facilitate deals and provide a go-between for the manager and board.
In the Premier League, it is a role that comes with something of a negative stigma. Many within the English game view these figures as unnecessary interferers, mainly due to commonly held view that the manager’s importance at the club far outweighs that of any other. Surrendering control to anybody else, well, that would just be undermining, wouldn’t it?
Perhaps not. Bear in mind, the four sides that reached the Champions League semi-finals last season all utilize the service of a director of football. So maybe these figures aren’t quite the villainous meddlers that many paint them to be. And with Premier League teams increasingly keen to adopt the very best continental methods, directors of football have started to crop up at some of the countries most illustrious outfits. So it begs the question, is it a model all English clubs should look to implement?
Granted, there are some examples where this set-up just hasn’t worked. Damien Comoli was dismissed by Liverpool last season after he sanctioned the signings of Andy Carroll, Stewart Downing and Charlie Adam; players who failed to make an impact and have subsequently been shipped out at a loss. Harry Redknapp point blank refused to work under Velimir Zajec at Portsmouth, whilst David Pleat was apparently responsible for the sackings of both Glenn Hoddle and George Graham when he took up the role at Spurs.
But there have been successes too, with perhaps the biggest potential success stories happening in the here and now. Those directors of football currently employed by Premier League clubs – Joe Kinnear aside – are progressive, forward-thinking men with a thorough grasp on the rigors of modern football. And to some degree, they’ve all come up trumps this summer. Sunderland, Chelsea, Manchester City and Tottenham all have directors of football, and in the main, they have all had very prosperous transfer windows to date.
Take Manchester City. They appointed Txiki Begiristain as their director last summer, a key factor in Roberto Mancini’s departure, with the former City boss reluctant to work under the former Barcelona man. But the benefits of having Begiristain within their hierarchy are already obvious. City cited their targets early and conducted business with the summer months in their infancy, giving the players time to settle and the manager time to run the rule over them. If City’s performance in their first game is anything to go by, it has worked a treat.
It’s been a good summer for Tottenham too. Having appointed Franco Baldini – a man who was director of football at Roma for six years before joining Fabio Capello’s England set up – the blow of losing Gareth Bale has been almost completely eradicated, with many feeling that the club’s recent investments will have them firmly on track to challenge for the title. This is in no small part to the work done by Baldini, who has been working closely with Spurs chairman Daniel Levy throughout the summer.
Andre Villas-Boas actually asked for Spurs to appoint a director of football, and that was in no small part to the fruitful relationship he struck up with Antero Henrique at FC Porto. The Porto director of football assisted the club in recruiting players like James Rodriguez, Falcao and Joao Moutinho. The young Portuguese manager recently cited the importance of the likes of Baldini and Henrique:
“The most important thing is the relationship with the person who bridges the gap between manager and board, and that he is able to be focused on the technical side of things. Someone who has experience of dressing rooms, represents the club, is able to link up with players, agents”
On the flipside, whilst the likes of City, Spurs and the aforementioned sides have been going about their business with brutal efficiency, clubs like Manchester United and Arsenal are like last minute shoppers on Christmas Eve: under pressure to pay over the odds for something they don’t really want, because all the best presents have been snapped up already. Put bluntly, in the transfer market, they are have really struggled.
Whilst it would be misguided put these struggles solely down to the absence of a director of football, the pressure on managers in the modern game is enormous, and perhaps sharing the workload out isn’t such a bad thing. Especially when it comes to transfers, which are becoming increasingly complicated and particular. Is this summer the biggest indicator top clubs should embrace change or be left behind?
At Arsenal, Arsene Wenger is notorious for wanting control over the day to running of the club. “He has too much control and even helped hire his own boss, which simply cannot be healthy” said former Arsenal midfielder Stewart Robson recently. And there are Gunners supporters who believe Wenger needs to surrender some of that control and even have somebody above him that he needs to adhere to. It is hard to believe that for a club like Arsenal, one of the biggest in world football, that one man has so much influence on such a massive portion of the daily goings on.
Manchester United are another club that have steered well clear of the continental model. Alex Ferguson famously said that “the most important man is the manager, without question; the minute that ever changed it would mean massive free-fall in the club.”
New manager David Moyes has seemingly heeded Ferguson’s advice and taken a very hands-on approach in his opening months at United. But with some questioning Moyes’s ability to attract the stellar names, and new vice-chairman Ed Woodward struggling to fill the shoes left by former chief executive David Gill, United have made just one signing this summer.
Moyes is in unchartered territory when it comes to dealing with the very top players and big money deals whereas Woodward is not what you would call a ‘football man’, having come into the game from an investment banking background – he too is learning on the job.
With this in mind, would a director of football really be such a bad thing for United? Someone who can isolate targets and plunder deals whilst both Moyes and Woodward become acclimatized to their respective new roles? Perhaps they would have fared considerably better in this window they had that insurance.
Arsenal and Manchester United could yet make major signings before the end of the window, they probably will. But by leaving their business until the last minute, they are already playing catch up on their immediate rivals. Any move will be inflated and rushed, whilst any new acquisitions will be thrust straight into competitive action in an unfamiliar environment. For club’s of this standing, it’s far from ideal.
If the likes of Chelsea, Spurs and City race away from Arsenal and United this season, this summer’s comparative transfer dealings will be cited as a key factor. Maybe then, a director of football will become a much more desirable accessory.
What do you think? Let me know in the comments section or on Twitter: @MattJFootball