Directors of Football: The Case for the Defence
Drectors of football have a pretty bad rep in English football — as illustrated by our article last week on their role at lower league clubs.
There have also been plenty of inglorious appointments further up the tree, including Damien Comolli at Liverpool and Dennis Wise at Newcastle United.
But there have been success stories. Nicky Hammond at Reading has been courted by Arsenal. West Bromwich Albion’s Dan Ashworth was poached by the FA.
The latter’s replacement was appointed earlier this month; Richard Garlick has big boots to fill at The Hawthorns.
But what factors have made the roles performed by Hammond and Ashworth a success?
Scope of the job
Firstly, the director’s role has to be clearly defined.
At West Brom, as the Birmingham Mail’s Chris Lepkowski explains, it is something of a myth that Dan Ashworth was a “super scout”.
Ashworth set up and managed the scouting structure which found rough diamonds like Youssouf Mulumbu and Claudio Yacob. But scouting — or ‘player recruitment’ as it now seems to be called — was one of four departments he was responsible for, the other three being: sports science; first-team; and the academy.
The latter includes the controversial Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP). Both West Brom and Reading are planning for EPPP status, despite its £2.5m annual operating cost — a hefty sum for two mid-ranking clubs.
So the director has a wide brief. The role is more about being an organiser and administrator, than it is about being able to spot a promising left-back.
And there aren’t many high-profile names in football who could confidently claim detailed knowledge of the latest thinking in sports science, or what is involved in running an academy.
That may be why Albion have plumped for someone whose background is largely from the business world — Garlick was formerly a lawyer, specialising in sport — rather than from football. On the other hand, Ashworth was at player at Norwich City, while Hammond kept goal for Reading.
‘Wheeler dealers’ need not apply
Another important point is that the man who takes charge of first team affairs — called head coach at The Hawthorns — has to agree with and work with the structure.
That generally means somebody used to the structures operated by continental clubs — such as Roberto di Matteo or Roy Hodgson — and probably someone who is not high profile, think Steve Clarke or Brian McDermott.
A Harry Redknapp character is less likely to fit in.
One common criticism of the football director system concerns transfer policy. How can the man picking the first team do his job properly if he can’t decide which players to sign, goes the popular cry.
The answer is simple. The manager or head coach always has the final say — but the football director provides him with better intelligence. If Brian McDermott needs a new centre half, rather than spend a day phoning around his contacts, he simply calls up Nicky Hammond, who presents him with a shortlist of players who Reading’s scouts have been monitoring over the past couple of seasons.
Playing the long game
The football director role is intended to be one cog — a very important cog — in a well-oiled organisation where knowledge is shared around so that everyone can become better in their own jobs, and ultimately benefit the football club. At Reading, this system has produced Brendan Rodgers as well as McDermott.
It is also designed so that if one member of the organisation leaves, it’s not a disaster. How commonly have successful clubs experienced a nose-dive in fortunes when the manager has left?
The director of football system does not guarantee success. West Brom, after a yoyo period, will feel the last three years in the EPL are vindication of their structure.
At Reading, the first team’s performance this season has been largely forgettable. But Nicky Hammond would point to the achievements at the Madejski since his appointment in 2003; he recruited Steve Coppell, who took the Royals into the top flight for the first time, and Eamonn Dolan, who heads Reading’s exceptional academy. Even if relegation is the outcome this season, Hammond can reasonably say that the club is well-positioned to bounce straight back.
A football manager is only as good as his last game, it has often been said. That reflects how much the national game is plagued by short-termism. The football director role is an attempt to change that culture.