‘Directors of Football’ or ‘Lower League Spectres of Death’?

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Image available under Creative Commons © classic_cape

During a recent Fan’s Forum at Carlisle United an attendant wag asked our esteemed Director of Football Steven Pattison to explain what exactly it was that his title conveyed; where was his 10% value added, the rationale behind his, surely, close involvement in footballing affairs? His answer, which came after a few moments rumination, gave way to general attitudes about his position which will ring true to fans of most clubs.

‘Well, I talk to Eric nearly every day’.

So, let us get this straight, after four years in post, the coherent summary of this position – at least within the bounds of the great Cumbrian club – is that it is bestowed on a man who occasionally talks to the Head of Youth Development. Some might argue that the club was failing to take the role seriously.

In fairness to Pattison, who is a good and true man and a long serving supporter of the club in both financial and emotional terms, his is a grace and favour title bestowed on him as one of the joint owning ‘custodians’ of Carlisle. Not blessed with great skills in oratory this was, perhaps, the best he could offer when put on the spot in what was the low point of an ill-tempered exchange thanks to the embattled position of manager Greg Abbott – but it also seems endemic of English attitudes towards a position which has such heft on the Continent.

The ‘Director of Football’, at least in the English lower leagues just appears to be an entirely pointless post. With honourable exceptions very few sides have either the financial infrastructure, nor the foresight, to look beyond the next month end. In this world of forever chased bottom lines there’s little room for the pioneering oversight of West Brom’s erstwhile tillerman Dan Ashworth, however sensible this may seem in terms of business strategy.

Where clubs do have a ‘DoF’ they are either in the mould of Pattison or Carlisle’s de facto post holder, ‘Head of Football Affairs’ Dennis Booth, a man who has held a plethora of coaching and assistant management positions since his playing days. At Carlisle his functions appear to fall into two parts – a) be an old school chief scout, right down to the technophobia, flat cap and snout curling from bottom lip; and b) be a general avuncular presence about the place – offering profane bons mots to the star striker and keeping the manager’s pecker up with intravenous Carling Extra Cold and a stockpile of Planters Dry Roast which would make Carlos Roa blanch.

On a relatively recent visit to Germany I caught a highlights programme for their FA Cup equivalent, the DFB Pokal. Notwithstanding the importance of the role in German football culture (just ask Steve McLaren about this one) I was nevertheless taken aback to see England’s former peacocking nemesis Andreas Möller being interviewed as the ‘Athletic Director’ (read ‘DoF’) for 3. Liga Kickers Offenbach – a club with similar standing and fanbase to Carlisle.

The notion of a former England captain, even an intelligent and erudite one in the Möller mould (Frank Lampard springs to mind, as does short lived FA suit Gareth Southgate) taking what is essentially a ‘back room’ post at a club like Carlisle or Bradford seems like complete anathema.

The reason for this is, of course, relatively self-explanatory – in England as in no other footballing culture, the cult of management is central to the game itself. Or at least it appears to have been since the 1970s when Brian Clough and Malcolm Allison colonised the airwaves and took complete control of their clubs, recasting them in their own image. Perhaps the fan-owned, communutaire structure of German football is merely better suited to such division of labour, such forward thinking ideals.

We in the UK, and especially in England, would rather hang onto every word of a man with a singular (and hopefully mildly eccentric) personality. Surprisingly and counter intuitively this seems even more the case amidst the ever growing downward pressure on managerial tenure. Where a club should be aiming for at least some underlying stability to tie down its future as the revolving door to the manager’s office spins off its hinges, instead each new occupant is greeted as a messiah or a prophet, rather than the circus clown or snake oil salesman they invariably become.

Of course, Directors of Football can and do play a role in this pantomime too – gliding in from stage left in a puff of ghoulish smoke to a chorus of staged hissing only for the fug to descend to leave the familiar trope of flat cap, liveried puffer jacket and snugly tucked copy of the Racing Post. A devil in disguise, an assassin with a whippet – the last refuge of the desperate and clueless board, a hatchet man in all but name – this is what the Director of Football means to English football, particularly in its lower reaches.

The corpses of managers silently put down by these hired guns litter the dark corners of football literally and metaphorically ‘Nationwide’. Just as beleaguered pet owners knew that the appearance of Rolf Harris at their local vets was never a positive turn of events, so the shadow of death casts from every stooped old timer swooping in on time’s wing’d chariot to ‘lend the gaffer a hand’.

Recent events at Plymouth are a perfect case in point where the linking of old stagers John Ward and John Deehan to an upstairs role seemed enough to make the already timorous Carl Fletcher jelly legged and his team to seize up entirely. It wasn’t long before Fletcher’s collar was felt by a chap with a comedy scythe and an iffy taste in cloaks – the deadly DoF hadn’t even yet passed into the room, but his job was done. ‘We no longer have plans to appoint one’ said director Colin Sexstone as he unveiled the club’s latest, greatest white hope John Sheridan.

All this isn’t to say that the role is entirely defunct in English football, as the triumphs of Ashworth and Reading’s Nick Hammond suggest, this is far from true where a club has the foresight and wherewithal to take a positive step to protect its own future. Sadly, as is endemic of English football’s obsession with personality and backwards gazing, all too often the cult of the manager prevails and the role becomes little more than a title or, worse still, a managerial exit strategy in the airy shape of John Rudge.

thinks about Carlisle United all the time. His stock in trade is viewing the world of football in embittered fashion with a Cumbrian bias. Seldom does he fail to invalidate an opinion by slipping into lamp-jawed gobshitery. Like any sane man, he prefers his defensive midfielders to read the play and only ever pass sideways.

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6 Comments on "‘Directors of Football’ or ‘Lower League Spectres of Death’?"

  1. Many years ago Kenny Hibbitt was the Director of Football at Cardiff City.

    We used to have a chant for him that was sung to the tune of “She’ll be coming around the mountain.”

    He’s the Director of Football at Ninian Park.
    He’s the Director of Football at Ninian Park,
    He’s the Director of Football,
    Director of Football,
    Director of Football at Ninian Park.

    Then someone would shout:
    BUT WHAT DOES HE DO?

    Then repeat first verse.

  2. Lanterne Rouge says:

    Wonderfully written and amusing piece John.

    I can’t help thinking of the Director of Football issue in the light of my own day job where an extra layer of pure management is often an unnecessary encumbrance on the wage bill and one that most businesses in most industries can ill afford.

    For football therefore, I think the concept can work in the Premier League and the Championship where the difference between success and failure is financially stark and where clubs simply have the money to pay such people. Below those levels it becomes less justifiable.

  3. Gary Andrews says:

    Great piece, I really enjoyed reading that John.

    Largely I’d agree that a DoF role from L1 downwards is largely redundant, although it can work and at Exeter things seem to work rather well with Steve Perryman in the DoF role.

    He was first appointed in the Conference as a level of support for promoted youth team boss and first-time first team manager Eamonn Dolan and has stayed in the post through Dolan’s successor Alex Inglethorpe and with current manager Paul Tisdale.

    The two seem to have quite a good working relationship and Perryman seems to do a lot of the negotiating when it comes to transfers out of the club and is largely credited with securing six figure sums for Jamie Mackie, Dean Moxey and George Friend. I think he also handles a lot of the agent and player negotiation after Tisdale has identified the targets, as well as playing a large part in youth development, leaving our manager to, well, manage the team. He probably has a little input on the field, when asked as well – and it’s well-known that one of the reason he sits in the stands at games is so he can offer a different point of view on the game.

    Of course, a lot of this can only work with mutual respect between the two and their relationship always seems very strong with the roles clearly designed. Perryman doesn’t seem to have much interest in the manager’s position, but is incredibly useful to have between managers enabling a degree of continuity and ensuring youth prospects don’t get dumped by the incoming new man for a group of ex-pros.

    Of course, there’s successes and failures for anyone in a post, but having spoken to Steve Perryman many times, I think the balance of the setup works perfectly and they really complement each other.

  4. Ben says:

    There aren’t enough references to Rolf Harris and Planters Dry Roasted on this blog – glad you’ve set about rectifying matters, John. Cracking read.

    While Dennis WIse didn’t actually have the title ‘Director of Football’ at Newcastle, it was near enough: ‘Executive Director (Football)’. And we all know how that worked out: Keegan quit citing meddling with the manager’s role, the squad and wage bill was lumbered with useless players signed as a favour to agents, Wise dumped following Alan Shearer’s ill-fated appointment. Not an experiment we’d be keen to repeat, all told. If Ashley was to try that structure again, then whoever was to take the manager’s role would need to be made fully aware of the nature of the job and the circumstances in which they’d be working prior to signing on the dotted line.

  5. Steve Wright says:

    I think that the term Director of Football may be misleading and is somewhat tainted in this country. Swansea, the current go to club for those seeking a model for long term development and success, do not have a specific role of Director of Football but as David Conn’s recent piece explained they do have a long term management structure, separate from the first team head Coach, which provides stability.
    In Swansea’s case the turnover of managers is down to their success leading them to be poached by other clubs but their structure has meant that they have managed to continue to progress and maintain a stable vision despite a high number of managers in a relatively short space of time. I think English clubs would do well to have something more stable and forward looking in place than just the old style manager. who as the piece states has a tragically short shelf life these days.

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