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Britain’s long fabled fear of the Director of Football

Calum Clark brings to the fore a much debated issue of the footballing fora- Should Directors of Football exist?

Hailing from an island, we Brits can be traditionalists. Sport and in football especially, we are no different. Right back from the days of Herbert Chapman with Arsenal and Huddersfield, British football has evolved a psyche that revolves around a figurehead, the manager, the gaffer, the Boss. And it’s this that has given rise to some of the most feared and respected managers in the whole history of football with the names of Paisley, Shankley, Revie, Clough, Stein, Smith, Ferguson, Mclean, Busby, Nicholson and Cullis all going down in folklore as some of the greatest man-mangers and tacticians to ever grace the game.

But in one of many aspects of the British game which is different to that on the European continent and in some respects the wider world is that Britain has almost always shielded itself away from the dreaded Director of Football layout, which sees the business and football sides of senior football being split in too two manageable jobs rather than one mammoth task for one man.

The premise is a fairly simple one, hire a person to do the day to day behind the scenes football business so that your manager or head coach can fully focus on the nuts and bolts of the first team, being totally engrossed in day to day training and first team duties.

In certain clubs, this structure has worked wonders, with sides like Bayern Munich, Sevilla and Borussia Dortmund all being able to sustain long term success due to the management above the head coach keeping a continuity in place. This, despite the replacement of head coaches and also removing the constant wholesale changing of playing staff which inevitably happens whenever there is a change in management. Just ask any Sunderland, Crystal Palace or Rangers fan if you’re unsure about the upheaval that a change in management causes.  

You can see the merits of the structure in the long term, when seeing the struggle which Manchester United has gone/going through in replacing the firm hand of Sir Alex Ferguson, who was such a commanding figure at the club for over 25 years. The void left by a manager who had that much power and command could not be filled short term and as a result the team crumbled under pressure. With the head teacher gone, many of the pupils were lost and ran riot with player power, costing both Louis Van Gaal and David Moyes in the long run.

Because of the aforementioned problems, several British clubs have recently tried to install this model to try keep continuity and also remove some of the huge power that a manager holds over a club. As a result, the likes of Southampton have been able to punch well above the weight keeping continuity on and off the pitch in the ever increasingly volatile environment of the English Premier League.

But Southampton have been one of the few clubs for whom the system has worked with Liverpool, Hearts of Midlothian and until recently Tottenham Hotspur all struggling to make the system work with Brendan Rodgers, Kenny Dalglish, Ian Cathro, Tim Sherwood, and Andre Villas Boas paying with their jobs. Now, of course the structure was not the only reason for the failure of these managers, but it was a huge contributing factor to all their failures and it can be argued that it was certainly the deciding factor.

The main issue many have with the structure is the complete unaccountability of the director of football for the transfer decisions which at times see massive amounts of money squandered on players who ended up getting good wages for very little work. Mario Balotelli, Lazar Markovic, Roberto Soldado, Benjamin Stambouli, Juwon Oshaniwa, and Malaury Martin jump to mind for the clubs above and its this that is seen as the real failing when the director of football gets it horribly wrong.

But that is not just an issue in Britain. You only need look to Germany and see the former powerhouse club of the north-east- Hamburg, to see what years of incompetents in a director of football structure can do to a club. The same can also be said for Milan sides, who until recently seem to go from one poor deal to another.

It’s probably due to this unaccountability that many British football fans struggle to have faith in the system. When it does go wrong, the blame seems to get passed on and with most of the decision makers being left in place at the club until the year of incompetency bear no fruits, it is then that those in the board room realise their error.

But with the English game, in particular, being more a global game than ever before, the structure of British football is now heading down the same road of the rest of Europe. That is leading to some difficult, if not strange questions, being raised in pubs, clubs and shops all across the land with a culture clash of generations and mentalities leading to some interesting debates in the whole wider structure of clubs.

I was involved with one recently while discussing the recent events surrounding Hearts of Midlothian and the sacking of young Manager/coach Ian Cathro, who had made his name as an assistant and coach in Spain and Portugal with Nuno Espirto Santo and more recently Rafa Benitez at Newcastle. The 28-year-old was seen as the ideal man by some to lead a new-look Hearts side, who were keeping with a model that had given them much success following their recent financial meltdown.

Under Director of football Craig Levein and first team coach Robbie Neilson, Hearts had seen themselves easily win promotion from the Scottish Championship, beating rivals Rangers and Hibernian to take the championship at a canter. They then followed up this success by finishing 3rd in the SPFL in their first season back in the top flight, matching both Aberdeen and Celtic at times during the season. But despite the success there were constant murmurs of discontent and coming into his third season in charge, Neilson was a wanted man with a number of richer English sides showing an interest.

But no one really thought there was much chance of the young Scottish coach dropping down to the 3rd tier of English football when MK Dons came knocking. But after beating Rangers convincingly at home, Neilson was off to Milton Keynes and the rumours began in earnest on why a manager would swap the possibility of European football with a battle to win promotion to the English Championship,

With all this hanging around at the club, many pointed to the relationship between Neilson and Levein, who had by all rights fallen out over transfer policy in the summer transfer window. And many felt that the only way for Hearts to go forward would be for Levein himself to take full control, but in what was a risky move, the inexperienced Ian Cathro was hired.

Things never took off for Cathro and Hearts finished the season in 5th, missing out on the European football, which many had seen as necessary for the club to grow. Added to this was a strange January transfer window, which saw a whole host of players get roped in, with only the Northern Ireland stalwart Arron Hughes and Portuguese nomadic forward Esmael Goncalves having positive impacts.

Thing got worse for Hearts as after a busy summer transfer window that saw the likes of Kyle Lafferty and Christophe Berra get acquired, they were knocked out of the League cup in the opening group stage and after a poor start in the league Cathro was gone. And in that short time, the club had signed a whopping 23 players and had sold or released 18.

Again, the rumours persisted about who had signed the players and who was picking the team with the first team coach Jon Daly being a message boy between Cathro and Levein in most games. You could see that the confusion on the pitch was being amplified from those in the stands. We went through the whole last 8 months above and came to different conclusions, but that’s football. Not everybody sees the game the same way. Was it just a poor coach or was it poor management from Levein and the Hearts board?  

At the time of writing, Levein has now been put in full charge of the club, changing his title from Director of Football to manager and in this small but important example one can witness where British football gets its fear of the Director of Football. 

Is it unfair? Yes.

Will that ever change? We will just have to wait and see!

Calum Clark

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