Why a Director of Football can work in England

Gerard Houllier’s impending arrival at Aston Villa is set to reopen one of English football’s greatest dilemmas:

 Can a Director of Football work?

For years now, English clubs have tried, and invariably failed, to work with a management system that the rest of the continent finds simple. Barcelona, Real Madrid, AC Milan and Portuguese giants Benfica and Sporting Lisbon all have a Director of Football (DoF) – or Sporting Director as they are known across Europe.

Often, the DoF is a notable name in football; usually someone with great experience on the pitch. Barcelona’s Andoni Zubizaretta has 126 Spanish caps to his name, whilst Benfica’s Rui Costa is widely considered one of the best midfielders of his generation and one of the best players his country has ever produced.

Bayern Munich’s Uli Hoeness, Real Madrid’s former Sporting Director Predrag Mijatovic and LA Galaxy’s Alexei Lalas were also vastly experienced in world football.

However, apprehension still greets the role in the UK. To beat this, some clarity needs to be raised over what a Director of Football actually does with the club. But, as with all elements of football, there will be one or two exceptions. But generally a Director of Football will:

  •  Have no influence whatsoever on what happens on a matchday. He will have no input on tactics, coaching methods or which eleven are chosen to take the field.
  • Look into how the club can develop. For example, they will look into the scouting system of the club and recommend, but crucially, not have the final say on transfers. They will also the club’s ensure academy is working to their optimum levels.
  • Work within the vision of the club and its directors.
  • Help the club to expand comercially.

With regards to bullet-point four on that list, Rui Costa and Uli Hoeness are the two masters of commercial income for their clubs. Under the reign of Hoeness, Bayern Munich have over 100,000 paying members; making them the second largest membership based football club in the world, behind Costa’s Benfica. Hoeness has also overseen the building of the Allianz Arena, providing the German giants with fantastic revenue potential.
As earlier stated, Costa has overseen Benfica’s rise to the highest membership based club in the world with a staggering 210,000 members reported in June 2010.

In order for a Director of Football to succeed, they must also have the full backing of the board and have a clear vision of how the club should progress. It is also imperative that the Head Coach or Manager of the team are also on board with the vision.

Personally, I think that a Director of Football should be someone with a wealth of footballing knowledge, but with no agenda to oust the manager. Any DoF that wants to interfere in tactics should instantly be dismissed. Due to this, I feel that an ex-manager is a bad choice as DoF. For example, Harry Redknapp took up the role at Portsmouth in the summer of 2001, only to get the managers job at Fratton Park months later. Admittedly, he done a world-class job once he took over, but one cannot help but think that he may have had a say in Graham Rix’s departure.

Having an ex-manager in the role is also risky as it is in the blood of a football manager to want to talk tactics and advise others, often in public – undermining the authority of the Head Coach.

The most notable failure in England of the Director of Football role was Tottenham Hotspur’s appointment of the wise Frenchman Damien Comolli.
Spurs poached the Frenchman from St. Etienne after Frank Arnesen jumped ship across London to take up the role of Head of Youth Development at Chelsea. During his time in France, St.Etienne finished sixth and reached the semi-final of their domestic trophy, the Coupe de France.

Comolli was also the man who helped Arsenal to discover Gael Clichy and Kolo Toure in his spell at the Gunners as a scout.

His record at Spurs may beg to differ, but Comolli is a great choice as Director of Football. His record of unearthing talent at Arsenal shows that he can find a rough diamond. He also has a law degree which help with the administration work that is required with the role. He also masterminded Monaco’s youth team to a title – showing that he has a good football brain to go with the other crucial elements of the role.

So why did he fail at Spurs?

Comolli joined the club after the Dane Arnesen had left, and whilst Martin Jol was in charge of the team. Jol has never hidden his detest at working under a Director of Football and with Jol and Comolli not singing off the same hymn sheet, the project was doomed from the start.

Jol claimed that he had been given players in his squad that he did not want – but interestingly at Spurs, Comolli, chairman Daniel Levy and other senior boardroom figures are all given the chance to agree or disagree on a signing, meaning the blame for signings such as Ricardo Rocha and Gilberto can not all be placed at the feet of the Frenchman.

Spurs fans also complained about the signings of Younes Kaboul, Darren Bent and Kevin-Prince Boateng, all of whom have proved themselves to be very good players, albeit away from White Hart Lane. But their blossoming away from North London should surely raise questions about the coaches and managers they played under.

Incidentally, Comolli also signed current goldenboy Gareth Bale for Spurs.

So, if English clubs were to learn from Spurs’ mistake, they would have both a Head Coach and Director of Football role open at the same time. They should then appoint their DoF and set out their visions for the club. Once this has been finalised, a Head Coach should be sought out and told about what will be expected of them. For instance, if the vision of the club is to rebuild with younger players, the new Head Coach should be told that, if they tried to sign an over-30 player, the chairman and DoF can vetoe the move as it would not work within the guidelines set out.

However, the DoF does not sign the players without the consent of the Head Coach. When targetting players, there should be a compromise between the two to target players within their brief – unless a truly world-class  player becomes available.

In addition to this, neither sign the cheques that pay for the player, so the chairman will inevitbaly want his say on the player. A person with the track record of Comolli commands a certain amount of trust immediately with regards to signing a player and providing all parties agree, this is when a player should be targetted.

The prime example of why a DoF shouldn’t be solely reponsible for signings is Dennis Wise’s ill-fated spell at Newcastle United. The ex-Chelsea man left his role as manager of Leeds United to take up the DoF role at the Geordie giants.

Wise forced the signing of Uruguyan midfielder Ignacio Gonzalez on Kevin Keegan, along with the signing of Xisco, a striker supposedly signed after Wise had watched his YouTube video, leading to the crowd favourite to resign at St. James’ Park and later win £2million in compensation for the saga. Gonzalez’s loan period ended and he left club, but the Magpies are still lumbered with Spanish ‘striker’ Xisco and his reported £50,000 a week wages.

After his success at Millwall and Swindon, I have no doubt that Wise felt the role was a stepping stone to the hot-seat at Newcastle and treated it as such by signing players he liked, with no regard for Keegan’s opinion.

However, as I said at the start of the post, with every footballing opinion, there is a success story that contradicts this.

The aforementioned Rui Costa is almost solely responsible for the signings at Benfica. During his tenure at the Estadio da Luz, his standing in the game has helped attract players such as Javier Saviola, Jose Antonio Reyes (on loan), Pablo Aimar and new Chelsea signing Ramires to the club. During his second season in the role, and under the guidance of Jorge Jesus, Benfica won the Portuguese title and knocked Liverpool out of the Europa League, proving that Costa’s signings are working.

But to summarise, if Houllier is given the job as Director of Football at Villa Park, he must ensure that chairman Randy Lerner, Cheif Executive Paul Faulkner and his, likely, Head Coach Kevin MacDonald are all pulling in the same direction. A plan will need to be set-out in a way to take the club forward and into the top four, something which Martin O’Neill failed to do. If everyone is focused on moving the football club on, then, like in Europe, a Director of Football CAN be successful.



  1. ben

    Great article, I especially enjoyed the fact that you pointed out who actually signed Bale from Spurs.

    A minor quibble about Sporting, though. For all that they remain one of the best-supported clubs in Portugal, they haven’t exactly been successful in recent times, and a lot of that is due to the appointment of Costinha as Sporting Director, in my opinion. It’s not just bad signings (although Florent Sinama-Pongolle for €6.5m is fairly questionable!), Costinha has proved himself to be a corrosive influence in the boardroom and the dressing room- so I wouldn’t categorise Sporting with Benfica, Bayern, and the like.

    Also on Rui Costa- although it’s true that his work has helped maintain the prestige and worldwide recognition of Benfica, he shouldn’t be given sole credit for signings, nor the growth in membership. Benfica operate an extensive scouting network in South America (which is closely monitored by President Viera), and have a long-established reputation as a launching pad for careers in Europe. That history played a major part in the arrival of Ramires, and I would argue that it predates the arrival of Rui Costa; although I’m not disputing the fact that he is a brilliant example of how effective a Sporting Director can be.

    Another one to watch out for in Portugal is Fernando Couto- the former international centre-back became Sporting Director of SC Braga in June of this year. He’s slightly different from Costa in that he has no prior association with the club- but it seems as if he’s been selected for a very similar ambassadorial role, alongside the more orthodox transfer-related work.

    Sorry for rambling, take it is a compliment that your piece provoked such concentration from me at 1.10AM! Keep up the good work.

  2. Jonathan da Silva

    Nice to see someone arguing this sensible conclusion. Certainly if we were to discuss how to build a club from first principals we’d never say give one guy: authority over choosing and buying players: allow him to decide on which young players get promoted: authority over selling players: his own back-room staff: etc.

    It’s ridiculous that when a club gets rid of a manager he takes all his backroom staff and leaves lots of his players disgruntled. Also when clubs appoint managers they have to spend unholy amounts on his players and staff appointments and compensation.

    It’s interesting to note that the buying of players at Chelsea and Man City may not be the sole responsibility of the manager – Ancelotti as he showed at Milan knows how to just get on with whatever the owner allows. Indeed one reason I think UK managers are being run out of top clubs is their unwillingness to work for the team. Their child like hatred of budgets. Their idiot opinion that 20 million received for a player equates to 20 million to spend/spent whereas even before wages in some deals half is a better marker – sell on fees, buying out contracts, taxes, agents fees which are in money in and on top of money out – did I mention wages?

    Really the problem has been teams taking on coaches who all want Cloughian power to run the club from top to bottom. Too many managers seem to buy players based on scouting that amounts to they always play well against us! Or he’s a Brazilian international what can go wrong?

    Clubs with more money spent inevitably do well but this should not be seen as proof they get value for money. I think as more clubs attend to their debts we will see clubs not recruiting managers who want to merely player trade. Certainly clubs seem to be running scared of going near Curbishley who gave West Ham a wage bill that meant the savings from avoiding relegation were Pyhrric. That he walked out however much it breached his contract cos they desperately needed revenue is not forgotten. Few fans care what a tribunal said and nor do I.

    In US sports coaches and managers have little no say over what is called the General Manager function. When they do it invariably does not work. Certainly in cricket it’s ridiculous that people spending 270 days a year in duty for the country ever had as much say as Flintoff and Vaughan.

    • chrisquinn3

      Jonathan – Don’t even get me started on the ineptness of British teams in the scouting department. They’re terrible!!

      I agree with the not giving one person sole control over the whole club. People forget that managers are human and can sometimes be wrong. That is where they need a DoF and why it is crucial that the DoF has experience in football. When a manager is so obviously blinded by their own views that they risk the club’s future, that is where a DoF is needed to step in and show him the light.

      And I like your point about English coaches being over-looked due to their hands-on demands. Thankfully, there are quite a few lower league clubs, Bristol Rovers and Exeter to name but two that employ DoF’s, so once a Premier League club eventually takes a punt on a lower-league name, they may be more flexible towards this approach.

      But why would an English manager like Steve Bruce or a British manager like Roy Keane be given a top job and 100% control when they amass such high wage bills and squads and squander £13million on players like Asamoah Gyan. (I know Bruce has trimmed SAFC’s squad, but he is not adverse to a spending spree.)

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  3. chrisquinn3

    Almajir – I cannot see it happening at Blues until Big Eck leaves. Not sure whether it’s a Scottish trait, but he, Ferguson and Moyes all seem to like being in complete control of the club.

    The problem though, is that Fergie has done everything in the game and done it solely with no DoF. British clubs seem can’t look past this and believe that because Fergie has done it, their manager might be able to do the same. No-one ever thinks that SAF could be one-off…

    Joel – Thanks for bringing up such a good Italian example. Granted, not my strongest field so may have overlooked them as I wouldn’t have been confident commenting on their structure. However, this is what I’m trying to get across to people. Fiorentina have evidently made it simple to use such a format – so why can’t English clubs widely implement it?

    Yes, the way German clubs are run, especially financially, is interesting and is another topic for another day!

    Bishopville Red – Yeah, you do need a balance. These days, managers are sacked so quickly that it would be career suicide on their behalf to try and plan too far into the future. Short term must be their aim. However, if the club was stable and had a vision to work to, then the manager or head coach would feel a lot more comfortable and a lot less under pressure.

    Thanks to all of you for contributing and feel free to re-tweet and promote the piece anywhere you like!



  4. almajir

    I heard a discussion about this on Talksport on Sunday morning. They came to a similar conclusion that with the right combination, it can work well.

    I think it’s something that is going to be seen more and more of. Even at Blues, we had a “general manager” in John Benson at one time, working with Steve Bruce. Benson was to deal with the admin side of things, so Bruce could get on with things on the training ground; both knew each other well, respected each other and so they didn’t tread on the other’s toes. It’s becoming apparent that clubs need a “tracksuit” manager as well as a “shirt and tie” manager, and not many can combine both sides of the game with aplomb.

    However, it’s all about ego too; I couldn’t see AM standing for it, for instance – he’s the boss man, and I think the way he sees it the buck must stop with him; if the decision is wrong, then he has to take the fall for it. A lot of managers of the old school are like that, and I think it will take a paradigm shift for the older types to move to a stage whereby they split the job down in a such a method.

  5. Joel Sheldon

    Great article, informative and accurate. I find the point made about Uli Hoeness interesting, as given the way German clubs are structured and regulated, the role of Hoeness is imperative to the way the club continue to attract, afford, and keep hold of players with the quality of Ribery, Robben and Bastian Schweinsteiger. Which has been helped no end by the building of a new stadium (which they also share with their city rivals, but that’s a debate for another time) their ticket pricing and membership policy. German football is a different animal to largely the rest of the continent, but other success stories can be found with Fiorentina’s Sporting Director Pantelo Corvino, a self confessed transfer guru, who with the help of an outstanding coach in Cesare Prandelli, helped to bring the best out of Adrian Mutu and Alberto Gilardino after barren spells for both at other clubs, and to nurture through young talent such as Riccardo Montolivo, now the clubs captain and Stevan Jovetic, who but for an ill-timed knee ligament injury was expected to take Serie A by storm this year following on from his exciting break through season last term.

    So there is no question that the model works, given the right combination of the management team, chairman, DoF and patience from the clubs fans.

  6. Bishopville Red

    I don’t dispute for a second that the right combination can be successful, but the key is to find that combination. Right now, particularly in England, everyone is so interested in looking out for themselves, it becomes pretty mucky and Machiavellian when there is fame to be accepted and blame to be shared.

    No questiopn you need a balance between long term and short term success, but that also comes back to the Board. They have to stop dropping people after 10 or so matches and let a manager impose himself on the club. Otherwise you have a bastard hybrid of goals, styles and players in your club. That will perpetuate the misery.

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