With English football continuing it’s soul-searching post-World Cup failure, Gregg Carter takes a look at the Director of Football managerial model and wonders if it can work in England after all.
It’s a question that often stirs up fierce debate. “A Director of Football doesn’t work in the British game” & “we do things differently here” are often heard whenever the subject is broached. I must admit, I do not understand the hostility. It always comes across as either xenophobic nonsense or ridiculously insular narrow-mindedness. An approach to the game that suggests “it’s worked for us how it is for x years, why change?”
The director’s role is one that works both at home and abroad in various sports, yet is treated with suspicion by the football fraternity in this country. The system does work. It just needs to be implemented correctly. There have been occasions where it could have worked and indeed delivered limited results before being unfairly aborted. Damian Comolli (and before him Frank Arnesen) at Tottenham Hotspur are good examples. It was deemed “not working” too soon.
We have a media that operates under the opinion that the manager’s word is final (except of course when they’ve decided to get the knives out for said manager). So if a manager complains about the Director of Football, the media is far more likely to attack that person than look to get his side of the story. Much easier to defend the manager when there is somebody more senior they can stick the knife into.
The media and former pros talk about how unacceptable it is that a DoF template is implemented and how “our system works fine, what’s wrong with it” but then, they change their tune when it comes to youth development. They talk about how utterly broken the system is, that things need to change. Many of them seem to lack the intelligence to put two and two together and figure out that maybe their beloved management structure contributes to the problem.
Youth development requires long term planning and stable structures. Instability can only hinder development. Unfortunately a manager’s role in the modern game, by its very nature (barring exceptions like Ferguson & Wenger) is always going to be short-sighted. The manager has to live in the here and now if they wish to keep their job. They cannot commit to long term stability. This is why a Director of Football role can and should be of vital importance for clubs now working in a climate of short term goals.
For this to succeed though, the structure needs to be right from the start. You cannot parachute a Director of Football in above the manager, you cannot have a Director of Football working underneath a manager – indeed it would only be in the topsy-turvy world of British football where people would honestly suggest somebody with the role of director should be expected to work underneath a person with the role of manager. Neither of these options are viable & only work towards “proving” how unworkable the system is.
A director in most businesses is expected to oversee all aspects of the department they are responsible for. They should be the person driving it forward. So a DoF should be responsible for all footballing aspects of the club. Players, coaching team, scouting team, medical & other support staff should all be sourced & appointed by the DoF. The playing philosophy, the coaching of the senior side & the development of the young players should all be overseen by the DoF. That’s not to say that the manager/Head Coach should not have input, of course they should, but the final decision on all of these things should always lie with the DoF.
That being said, there needs to be a clear process when appointing a DoF. Outlined below is how I personally see it working in an ideal scenario:
Stage 1: Forming the “Vision”.
Before anything else can happen, when the board are looking at this structure, they first need to identify what vision they have for the club. What kind of club do they want to be? What style of football do they want to see? What type of playing staff do they wish to have in the squad? These are the questions that need answering before starting any recruitment process. Their vision should not be fully formed, it should be a very rough outline with room for refinement.
Stage 2: The Appointment of the Director of Football.
Once the vision has been outlined, the recruitment process can start. The board need to identify through a proper interview process a person who is qualified to formulate that vision into a reality, and who they have faith will be able to deliver on it. It is absolutely imperative that the person they appoint shares their vision, whatever that may be. He may have ideas beyond their own, but they should all work to one goal.
Stage 3: Application of the “Vision”
The Director of Football needs to be the person who provides a cohesive “road-map” by which the club needs to work to for the plan to have any chance of success. Once appointed, he should outline what he is looking for in the various areas so that when short-listing applicants they ensure they’re looking primarily at staff who meet those requirements. He should be the main person responsible for all recruitment within his department. The vision provided by the board should become a fully fleshed out system with clear tasks and goals for each of the departments that the DoF is to be responsible for. This will include the senior playing squads, youth squads, the Academy, player recruitment & the medical & health staff.
Stage 4: Recruitment of the Manager/Head Coach.
The issue that will always cause the most consternation in this country is the role of the manager/head coach. In some setups, the title given may be just that, a title. In others, it may allow for the manager to have a little more autonomy than if they were head coach. Either way, if the system is to work correctly, they should always be answerable to the DoF. That is not to say they should not have a role to play – indeed their position is the second most important one to get right after that of the DoF. It is absolutely imperative that the two are able to work together. Any good DoF would want the manager to have input into where they feel the vision may need tweaks or modifications. That is not to say they should be allowed to change things without discussion, but they should be making suggestions to the DoF for consideration.
Stage 5: Recruitment of Support Staff
As the DoF should be involved in recruiting a manager, so should the manager have a say in the coaching staff. It is important that he can trust them, so the two should be working alongside each other to identify the right people for the roles. The first team staff need to work alongside the manager, but must also be able to buy into the overall project.
The remaining areas, the medical teams, the player recruitment & the youth setups, should be the responsibility of the Director of Football. He is the one who will be responsible in the long term for any issues with their performance. A manager should be able to provide constructive input, but each of these roles should really be considered as different departments within the same directorate.
Stage 6: Working within the system.
This is the area that many struggle with and the media love to play on “how can it work?” “why is there so much interference?”. A correctly implemented structure should not have problems. A manager should work within the scope of the vision. He should be setting up tactically to meet the requirements and remit of the playing style that is desired by the DoF. His coaching staff should be coaching the players to get the most out of that. The youth & reserve sides and coaching teams should all be receiving coaching that will allow for their eventual inclusion in the first team and the scouts should be looking for players within financial reach who fit the system.
The long term planning provided by the DoF should ensure that those youngsters progress through the side. There should be no need to buy a right back the manager covets so much if there is a player that has graduated from the youth team of similar ability. Of course, players will still need to be bought, but again, the DoF, the scouting team & the manager should be able to identify together when that is indeed necessary and what players they should be looking to bring in to ensure that money is not wastefully spent.
Implementation / Problems
However, it would take a brave board to implement such a system and be determined to stick with it. It is likely to be derided and criticised, particularly in a sport that lives in the short term more than ever before, but in my opinion, provides a solid base from which a club can build and ensure continued success.
Managers come and go, either because they’ve done well enough that they get a move elsewhere, or because they’ve failed and are relieved of their duties. These changes will often result in the club being thrown into turmoil. A DoF offers continuity & stability during those periods. That does not mean that they are immune from the sack themselves. On the contrary, they are just as susceptible as a manager, it is just that they should be judged over a longer period.
No one system is ever any more right or wrong than the others. But in a time when lovers of the game are calling for stability & the development of youth, it baffles me that they would be so opposed to a system that provides the best opportunity for doing so.
Currently, a player retiring has several options open to him when he hangs up his boots. Instead of being sceptical of the Director’s role, it is time that they embraced it like many of their colleagues in different parts of the world already do. It is another option for them. If looked at as an opportunity and a challenge, maybe then we would see some have a desire to go into that work in the same way as others choose now to be managers, coaches & scouts.
For me, the answer to my opening question, is an unreserved “yes”. I just wish more people would see it.
Can a director of football system work in the English game? Leave your thoughts below.
(photo by exakta on Flickr)