The Director of Football is back…but it never went away

Posted by in Elite Performance, Europe, Management, Stewart King

Tarnished in the past, but making a modern resurgence, the director of football is a position that left the headlines, but continues to play an important role in modern football organisations, says Stewart King, elite performance specialist at SRi.

There’s a quiet revolution happening in English football where – whisper it – the role of Director of Football (DoF) is becoming ever more important to leading clubs.

To the public consciousness, the DoF represents everything that’s wrong about continental techniques which have invaded the Premier League; it may be how clubs work in the Italian, French or Spanish leagues, but the English game is its own beast with its own rules.

Previously, the existence of high profile DoFs finally appeared to have been banished when Frank Arnesen, notoriously at Tottenham in 2004/05 then later with Chelsea, left British shores for Germany and Hamburger SV.

On closer inspection, the assumption that DoFs fail in British football couldn’t be further from the truth. While the role may now be known under a number of different guises (at SRi, we work with clubs to secure DoF placements under the modern headings of Sporting Director, Technical Director or Head of Football Operations), it’s a position which continues to gain prevalence across England’s professional leagues.

Thinking long term
Done well, the DoF role provides a level of continuity which, as many followers of football clubs will know, is rarely fulfilled at manager level. Without the acute pressure of securing immediate match wins or trophies, they can take a longer term and holistic view, creating an overall picture of a football club from top to bottom and plotting out a strategic route for the organisation.

They also act as a football-minded conduit between manager and boardroom. Rather than stepping on a manager’s toes, they can actually be a voice for football matters.

Learning from past mistakes
A decade ago, the insurgence of continental sporting directors into English football caused consternation among those sitting in top level dugouts. Often parachuted in above managers’ heads, there was little communication from board level as to what the role represented and how it would be executed.

Unsurprisingly, many incumbent managers were uncomfortable in a new environment which they hadn’t signed up for. The impression was that they would be losing powers, from transfers to their say in boardroom matters. Changes were then poorly timed and badly executed.

There were also a series of poor appointments. Football, and sport in general, has suffered from a lack of clear recruitment process, with chairmen and CEOs electing to go for big names in the game, rather than those most qualified or with relevant experience.

Sophisticated football
In the modern day, clubs have remedied many of those past mistakes. SRi has taken a proactive role in promoting a more sophisticated resourcing process, encouraging clubs to go through proper, rigorous investigations to find the right person for a DoF role. Perhaps contrary to what you may think, the right candidate is rarely the outspoken, media-facing figure of yesteryear.

The likes of Les Reed at Southampton and John Rudkin at English champions Leicester City have overseen incredible periods of relative and astronomic success at their clubs respectively, without hogging column inches or TV screens.

Managers have come and gone under their tenure, but new entrants enter into their job knowing exactly what the role of the sporting director is, and how it affects their own day-to-day existence.

MatchGoal_Medsmall
The right fit for your club

One of the key learning points from previous challenges has been that lifting a successful DoF organisational model from, say, AC Milan, won’t necessarily work at Stoke or Southampton. Different clubs have their own structures and cultures, and must create a role to fit. On the continent, DoFs often have full oversight of the football department, including hiring and firing of coaches.

While this role does exist in Britain, most clubs have created their own versions, which often have less powers. Some DoFs simply act as a high level scout, identifying the players to be signed in discussion with the manager, while others take a more operational role.

Getting it right takes time, care and expertise. But, whatever role the Director of Football takes, we can be sure of one thing – the quiet revolution will continue and we’ll continue to see more and more of these positions in top level British football.

Stewart King is a Senior Consultant for the Elite Performance team at SRi. To learn more about how we can support clubs and candidates in this space or to discuss any of the points mentioned in the blog, please contact sking@sriexecutive.com.