With the passage of time, football clubs have grown from being local sporting entities, to giant business organizations. Sums of money that weren’t previously imagined are changing hands on a regular basis at football clubs now. Clubs have an image and profile to maintain, and along with dealing with a constantly prying media, clubs also have to keep their employees and fans happy.
With such a vast and ever expanding range of responsibilities, the role of the traditional ‘manager’ has in many cases (especially in continental Europe) been split into two-the head coach, who looks after the first team, and the director of football, who deals with all the other aspects of the clubs day-to-day affairs.
In organizational terms, the head coach will be held responsible for the affairs of the first team. Such affairs include training, squad selection, tactics, sometimes transfers and the actual football matches.
The director, on the other hand, handles a lot of other responsibilities. He isn’t strictly a director in the sense that he may or may not own shares of the club. However, he is ideally supposed to distance himself from operational activities, and have his focus fixed firmly on the strategic goals of the club. These strategic goals include dealing with the youth team, transfer negotiations, financial handling, appointment of backroom staff, training facilities and marketing and branding the club. The above may be described as a brief description of the role, but practically, the exact nature of the role is often unclear and extremely variable. The director often acts as an intermediary between the head coach and the manager. Sometimes he serves to reduce the tension between these two parties, but on other occasions he may just cause confusion. It is this very point that is the base of the rift of opinion about sporting directors.
Such directors may also be of several types.
Often, clubs place a respected figure, or club legend in such a position to represent the club at the international level. Legendary figures can win respect and fans for the club. Such directors are primarily employed in a marketing capacity. Sir Bobby Charlton performs this sort of a function at Manchester United, and Johann Cryuff (as Honorary President) does the same at Barcelona. These pseudo-directors do not take any active part in the running of the club, and are basically only figureheads.
A club may seek technical directors for their expertise on certain matters. This kind of expertise is often developed through many years of experience. Such directors deal only with their niche within the club, and may even vacate their post once their job is complete. The department dealt with by this director may or may not be related directly to the on-field performances of the team. Sven-Goran Erikson’s recent tenure at Notts County was of such a nature.
In most cases though, sporting directors are hired to serve as an organizational layer, between the board and the coaching staff. These directors have the authority required to influence all levels of the club, including transfers, transfer fees, wages, stadium, travel etc. It is this type of director that divides opinion most often.
While such directors and systems have been a big hit in continental Europe, they are often looked upon with some amount of suspicion in the United Kingdom. They seem to have worked so well in Europe because of a clear definition of roles and responsibilities between the coach and the director. Josep Guardiola and Txiki Begiristain serve as a good example of the success of this system. Not only did the two enjoy good chemistry and clarity, but they also shared a similar vision, which was key to their success as a team.
On the other hand, in the UK, we see a lot of instances where the model hasn’t provided satisfactory results. Dennis Wise and Kevin Keegan, along with Damien Commoli and Kenny Dalglish are the two main examples of poor results brought forward by this system. The first step to gaining positive results with such a model is to have a clear definition of the responsibilities of the incumbents. Clarity and role definition are a great aid to reducing interference and conflict (one of the major criticisms of the model). Once clarity is achieved, the incumbents can build a healthy working relationship, and work to complement each other’s style. The Wise-Keegan partnership was a massive failure due to a lack of such cohesion. Keegan believed that Wise’s influence in the club was far-reaching and unhealthy, and got in his way. Allegations of interference in squad selection and tactics led to bitter squabbles in the public domain. This brought bad press to the club, and also damaged the morale and spirit of fans, players and those connected with the club.
The second pillar on which such a model stands is that of a shared vision. At Barcelona, both Guardiola and Begiristain has a clear idea of what they wanted to achieve, how they wished to go about it, and the elements their plans required. This led to a number of successful moves in the transfer market for players like Pique, Dani Alves, and David Villa, followed by their swift integration into the style of play at the club, and their effective involvement and positive influence on results. With the exception of the odd flop, the relationship was very fruitful, as evidenced by the clubs trophy haul. The Commoli-Dalglish relationship failed on this count. The shared vision simply wasn’t there, and as a result Liverpool appeared like a rudderless ship during their time at the club. This sort of understanding can be built only with constant communication, which reports suggest wasn’t the case.
Another important criticism leveled at the role of Sporting Director by the British media is that the director deals mostly with the identification of transfer targets, and is essentially, no more than a glorified scout. This is something that is up for argument, as various reports have us believe several different things about the actual performance and effectiveness of the Sporting Director.
The debate about Sporting Directors and their positive influence or lack of such positives rages on. In as recently as May, we saw the reluctance of Brendan Rodgers to work with a Sporting Director at Liverpool, but with the success that it seems to have brought to other teams, and under the influence of foreign owners, a lot of British clubs are trying out this model. These clubs may be well advised to appoint a person who is well versed in the principles and traditions of the club, has a good understanding with the manager, a keen eye for talent, and vast knowledge about the game. The mistake many clubs tend to make is that they believe, that such a position also requires a big name, or a marquee signing. The truth is quite to the contrary. The best example of a successful Director of Football in UK is that of John Rudge, who has performed the role at Stoke City since 1999, and has overseen a period of great success at the club.
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