Director Of Football: A Very English Phobia

You can laugh at the man but laughing at the role is a tad silly when European football is dominated by clubs who know that management is too much for one man...

Last Updated: 26/06/13 at 08:39 Post Comment

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Joe Kinnear looks on during the Premier

Joe Kinnear looks on during the Premier

Last week's appointment by Newcastle United of Joe Kinnear as their new director of football sparked both genuine amazement and anger against such baffling recruitment. Owner Mike Ashley was, fans and media alike believed, once again demonstrating his 'two fingers up' approach to public opinion, seemingly oblivious to the relevant needs of the club and the wishes of supporters.

There is little to defend about the employment of a man just as crass and evidently unaware in character as his pronunciation of foreign names - Kebab and Gualtieri may have been initially amusing, but Kinnear's was willful ignorance to the nth degree. However, much of the angered reaction pouring out from both the north east and further afield concerned not just the identity of the incumbent, but the role itself.

Director of football - three words that cause shudders in many supporters. These are unnecessary meddlers, un-facilitators and the perfect demonstration of our obsession with middle-management. They cause rifts and angst, and must be blamed for degradation in both on-field performance and a perceived lack of action in the transfer market. Furthermore, and possibly correctly in Kinnear's case, they define the 'jobs for the boys' culture that fans suspect operates at the top of our social institutions.

There are hard-wired reasons for our cynicism. A position that acts as a line manager of the football manager (taking on elements of his responsibility in the process) challenges our traditional notion that the 'manager is God' within our clubs. Matt Busby, Bill Shankly, Bob Paisley, Brian Clough and Alex Ferguson provided an unbroken seam of omnipotence and omniscience with their domains for 60 years from the 1950s. They were the best and they were the most powerful. They picked the teams, negotiated contracts, decided upon transfer targets and were the club's ambassadors - nothing else was needed. For us, the introduction of a role above the manager's head waters down our idea of how our clubs should be structured, and we are automatically distrustful of the change.

In their purest form, a director of football will be responsible for many of the tasks involved in the day-to-day running of a club. They will have ambassadorial responsibilities too, but their most controversial function in our eyes is their duty to identify transfer targets using a scouting network. Finally, they can act as the go-between between manager and board. An owner or chairman (particularly those without previous football experience) may find it beneficial to have a 'football man' within the club to report on the performances of key staff.

There is practical evidence too for English scepticism. Dennis Wise, also at Newcastle, came under fire for the underperformance of both Xisco and Ignacio Gonzalez (two of his scouted signings), Damien Commoli received significant criticism for the purchases of Jordan Henderson, Stewart Downing and Charlie Adam at Anfield, and David Pleat clashed with managers George Graham and Glenn Hoddle at Spurs and was effectively blamed for the sacking of both.

However, the underperformance of some must not undermine the potential of all, surely? Each one of our clubs has had poor managers in the past, but this hasn't persuaded us to tear up the book, boldly declaring 'f*ck it, let's let the players have a go'. We must be wary of throwing out the baby with the bath water.

To emphasise such a point, directors of football have enjoyed notable success of late. Dan Ashworth's tenure at West Brom oversaw the club's progression from yo-yo club to semi-established Premier League side, and he was rightly rewarded for his success when appointed as the Football Association's director of elite development. At Reading, the role was created for Nick Hammond in 2003 at a time when the club had never been in the top flight. A decade later and the Royals have enjoyed three Premier League campaigns, with the club's ability to scout young talent then sold for profit (particularly in Ireland) particularly renowned.

It is easy to see why managers themselves may be fearful of the role, because it reduces their sphere of influence, so vital in creating job security. With the responsibility of sourcing transfer targets and administering contract negotiations handed over, the propensity to plant roots in different areas of the club is diminished. Essentially, managers will be judged increasingly on on-field performance - the availability of the 'we're creating a project here' excuse falling by the wayside.

In 2008 Harry Redknapp, whilst manager at Tottenham, remarked that "players are bought and sold without the manager's consent - and even knowledge in some cases. How can you do the job like that?" The answer, it would appear, is communication. In the same week as Kinnear arrived at St James' Park, Franco Baldini was appointed at White Hart Lane in the same role after enjoying successful spells at Real Madrid and Roma. Manager Andre Villas-Boas is not worried about the Italian's arrival: "The most important thing is the relationship with the person who bridges the gap between manager and board, and that he is able to be focused on the technical side of things. Someone who has experience of dressing rooms, represents the club, is able to link up with players, agents."

In fact, it could be argued that in today's game, the increased use of directors of football is a necessary ingredient for our progression. English clubs largely dominated European football during the time in which the 'manager as God' method was sufficient in order to guarantee success. Football was a simpler game and a football club a simpler place. Between 1974 and 1985, British managers reached the European Cup final nine times in 11 years, with seven victories.

However, the increase in scientific methods for training, electronic software for player scouting on a global scale and the availability of technical measurement of player performance all combine to make football a much-changed beast, and the club a far more intricate entity; controlling the club has simply become more than a one-man job. Since 1986, Alex Ferguson is the only British manager to reach a European Cup final, and he was a unique manager and man. We have allowed ourselves to become outdated through loyalty to a specific structure and approach.

John Rudge, Stoke's director of football for 14 years until last month, explains: "I'm involved in all aspects of the club, contracts, training, and attending matches. I hope that I can just help him [Tony Pulis] by taking the strain off him. It is a hard role, and can be often too much for one person. I'm here to lighten the load so he can focus on winning matches. My job involves sixty to seventy hours a week." If Rudge is doing 70 hours a week, how can managers without such assistance hope to achieve as much?

The performance of our national team at various age groups has once again provoked deserved criticism of our coaching standards, and we are falling further behind our European counterparts, of that there is no doubt. However, with the majority of our managers carrying out a multitude of alternative tasks, surely it is only logical that the time taken on coaching diminishes? Obviously clubs have a number of coaches but, for me, a manager's focus should surely be on winning matches. If they spend the whole of summer and January talking about transfer plans, it is only natural that something must suffer.

The four semi-finalists from last season's Champions League: Borussia Dortmund (Michael Zorc), Bayern Munich (Matthias Sammer), Barcelona (Andoni Zubizaretta) and Real Madrid (Zinedine Zidane), all operate with such a structure. All Serie A clubs and almost all of the Bundesliga does the same, and I recently examined Porto's astounding record under director of football Angelo Henrique.

This isn't a passing fad, but instead a development due to the vast expansion of our game and clubs, something now entrenched in European football culture. The sooner our clubs and managers realise that, the better. Individual appointments can be condemned (and in Kinnear's case should be) but the role should not.

Daniel Storey - follow him on Twitter

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