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.