Nearly every club has one of these, or has sections of fans wanting one. Yet every time their presence is mentioned, usually due to poor performances or transfers, the first topic on the agenda is ‘what exactly do they do?’ Considering the title suggests they should be the director of all football operations, the extent of dysfunction in their use has been understated.
In The Real Deal: My Story from Brick Lane to Dragons’ Den, multi-millionaire entrepreneur James Caan described how Jan Parker, a PA he hired, wanted out after just a week. “You come in with a phone clamped to your ear and have seventeen meetings in a row- most of which aren’t in your diary- and by the end of the day you can’t remember what happened in the first one in any detail” she exclaimed. The solution was to move her desk inside his office, including in confidential meetings. There was no way Parker would be able to change anything about Caan’s working style unless he trusted her enough to let her observe what might be going wrong and then listen.
This kind of harmonious relationship typically exists between managers and their assistants. Ever wondered why managers usually bring the same right-hand man to every club? Yet directors of football, who are also expected to work closely with managers to work on implementing a club’s long-term vision or ‘bigger picture’, are usually incumbents when a new manager arrives. As part of that process, the new manager is often asked about playing style and transfers, and rarely makes reference to what anyone else might want besides themselves. The director of football, who is expected to instill continuity in the club’s strategy, only faces the media when managers come and go.
So, what does this mean for their role? “A buffer” is their perception in the eyes of a manager, according to Dave Bassett, who added that “the director of football is answerable to the board but there to assist the manager. He’s experienced in football and there to help the board members who don’t have that experience.” It’s no surprise that “help” sounds a lot more personal than “assist”, because managers already have the people they trust on the right-hand side to help them. Even if the director of football is only expected to assist in scouting and transfer-related matters, why would a manager trust someone who isn’t privy to how they work help them make such crucial decisions when they could just do it themselves?
Giving a manager and their staff, who are only focused on short-term results and players fitting their current tactics, full autonomy over the club’s long-term assets is often disastrous. You only need to read David Sullivan’s recent interview with The Guardian to understand why. Despite Sullivan being “referred to as the club’s director of football in the most recent set of accounts”, he’s “not involved in the strategy”. Players such as Jose Fonte from Southampton and Robert Snodgrass from Hull were signed as manager Bilic wanted “older, proven Premier League players”; this left West Ham heading for relegation from the Premier League with the 14th highest wage bill in Europe. There are parallels with cases like Sunderland finishing bottom of the Premier League last season despite having the joint 12th highest wage bill after six of their 11 signings were acquired from manager David Moyes’ former clubs, and West Bromwich Albion targeting 36-year old Gareth Barry for weeks until they finally landed him from Everton. The latter club were also lauded for getting Grzegorz Krychowiak on loan from Paris-Saint Germain, but it turns out they were probably one of the only clubs willing to pay a reported £105,000 per week to have him for a season. One suspects that if Michael Emenalo did not have such firm control over Chelsea’s transfers before he left, Conte would’ve beat AC Milan to the £37.8m (per Transfermarkt) signing of 30-year old centre-back Leonardo Bonucci or signed another former acquaintance in the often-linked Giorgio Chiellini. Just setting a strict budget limit does not work if the coaching staff are the only trusted eyes for talent, as an irresponsible use of it can lead to inflated wages and enforce a high squad turnover year after year, burdening a club and their strategy indefinitely.
Right now, with the director of football only having a supervisory role while the manager is heavily involved in all aspects of the club’s on-pitch performance, they are only truly accountable for getting the best deals for players at most English clubs. This is in stark contrast to the Italian model, where “the coach has to do with whatever the chairman and general manager bring in. They may be able to say ‘I want a striker or a defender’ but it is up to the chairman to decide who they get”, according to journalist Giancarlo Galavotti of Gazzetto della Sport newspaper. It’s interesting then that wider opinion has suggested that clubs like Arsenal will only be able to move on from their long-serving manager when they appoint a director of football to accompany their next manager; the structural division in objectives and priorities between the roles mean the former will lack influence unless they are given the authority to make big decisions themselves. Steve Walsh’s input in Everton’s unsuccessful recent signings is likely to be as minimal as it was with Leicester’s successful signings. Crediting them with signings seems like holding the medical staff accountable for injuries; flawed because all decisions are made in the manager’s blueprint.
There is an uncomfortable truth when it comes to defining a director of football’s role, as it is understood that they help clubs, yet managers running said clubs has been a sacrosanct part of the game. Giving a club ‘stability’ between seasons and windows is essentially doing what anyone in charge of transfers should do, but better than managers. A scarcity of clubs seem to allow them to do their job in this way, though.