The game’s new boardroom masters – How directors of football are pulling the strings off the pitch
There is often a sense of mystique associated with the terms ‘Director of Football’, ‘Sporting Director’ or ‘Technical Director’. While it’s not easy to provide a definition for these roles, they tend to have a specific purpose – to bridge the gap between the footballing side and the business side of a football club’s activities. Clubs around the world are now seen as investments by their owners and are run by hierarchies, making it essential to have someone at the club who is capable of overseeing its presence both on and off the pitch.
Dan Ashworth, Technical Director at Brighton, described his role as ‘looking after the club’s interest over the medium- to long-term’. In modern-day football, it is no longer possible to have managers carry out this job as the average lifespan of a manager has come down to just 14 months, as per data from 21st CLUB. As a result, club owners and boards look to their Sporting Director to execute their vision for the long haul. The owner and board decide the style of play they want to see on the pitch and the identity they want to create for the club. The Sporting Director is then tasked with making their plans a reality. This includes deciding upon the personnel, both coaching and playing staff, that are best suited to represent the club, making decisions related to marketing, ensuring the proper functioning of the club’s youth system and monitoring other teams that are part of the club, such as a women’s team or an under-23 side. While the players and the gaffer receive all the credit, the Sporting Director is often the one pulling the strings behind the scenes to ensure long term development and success.
An example of a successful implementation of the modern Sporting Director model can be seen at Atalanta. When Atalanta brought in Giovanni Sartori, who was the Director of Sports at Chievo during their memorable promotion to the Serie A in 2001, as their Sporting Director in 2014, they set out to escape the shackles of mediocrity. Since Atalanta’s return to the top flight in 2011, they had managed to produce good performances by their standards and established themselves as a mid-table club. Sartori’s appointment meant that they could aspire to be so much more.
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Sartori’s strength lies in identifying and bringing in talented footballers who were overlooked by other clubs. During his tenure thus far, he’s managed to attract the likes of Alejandro Gómez, Josip Iličić, Remo Freuler, and Duván Zapata. In this time, he has also sanctioned the sales of Franck Kessié, Roberto Gagliardini and most recently, Dejan Kulusevski for hefty profits. Since his arrival in 2014, Atalanta have made a net profit of 100 million euros and only Palermo and Genoa can boast better numbers over the same time period.
Between 2014 and 2016, La Dea saw three managers take the reigns. However, there was never a sense of instability because the club’s philosophy remained the same, and the managerial appointments were made in line with it. By 2018, Atalanta had turned into European football regulars under their head coach, Gian Piero Gasperini, and not long after they managed to bring Champions League football to Bergamo. Within a span of 5 years since his arrival, Sartori has managed to turn a mid-table side into a team that heads into a Champions League knockout tie as the bookies’ favourite.
His efforts have not gone unnoticed in Italy and he is now reportedly wanted by Lazio and Milan. While Atalanta’s success story tells us how a Sporting Director can be utilised efficiently, Milan represents the other side of the coin. The Rossoneri have changed their Sporting Director thrice over the last three years, so it is no surprise that the club’s crippling instability hasn’t allowed them to forge an identity for themselves. The frequent changes have defeated the very purpose of appointing a Director of Football for the club.
Another successful Sporting Director, Michael Edwards, had to do his job in circumstances much different from those of Sartori. Edwards was promoted to the role of Sporting Director at Liverpool Football club during the 2016/2017 season and played an integral role in Liverpool’s re-emergence as European giants. Edwards wasn’t required to overhaul the Liverpool setup or bring about large scale changes in personnel or improve the club’s financial standing. He was merely required to ensure Liverpool were able to recruit the final few pieces to turn the side into a title contender.
He’s done so in remarkable fashion, bringing in the likes of Van Dijk, Salah and Fabinho in swift deals at reasonable prices. He’s also managed to negotiate the sales of Solanke, Coutinho, and Ings for price tags that are arguably well above what should be their market value. With the recent signing of Minamino and Van Den Berg, it’s clear that his focus has now shifted towards the sustainability of the team’s performances. His skill set is exactly what is required by Liverpool Football Club and hence his success highlights the importance of appointing a Director of Football that best satisfies the need of each individual club. But once the club identifies the best man for the job, they’ve most likely secured the club’s long term future, like how Dortmund have done with Michael Zorc and Manchester City seem to have done with former Barcelona Sporting director, Txiki Begiristain.
Because of the unique benefits Directors of Football bring to a club’s operations, most big clubs are now adopting the approach of appointing one. However, there still remain few clubs that are yet to invest themselves into this ideology, most notably Manchester United.
United’s commercial activities and transfers are overseen by their Chief Executive, Ed Woodward. In contrast to the role of a Director of Football, Ed Woodward’s job is to ensure that the club’s operations are carried out in a profitable manner, without having much concern towards the performance of the club as a football team. Naturally, the club is lacking direction and cohesion. With each managerial change since Sir Alex Ferguson’s departure, the players, the fans and the board have been forced to work with new philosophies and ideologies. This strategy of having a manager for footballing activities and an executive for transfers is an old-school approach. Only in the unlikely scenario that the club were able to identify a suitable long-term manager, who is capable of providing the club a footballing ‘identity’, could it prove to be more beneficial than the modern and proactive ‘Director of Football’ model.
Managerial appointments and marquee signings may be what makes the front pages, but football clubs these days are more than what meets the eye. What goes on behind closed doors could be as pivotal as what we see on matchday. It’s therefore important clubs sort out their hierarchies and make the right appointments to allow the club to be successful in the long run.
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