The Sporting Director and English Football

I think Damien Comolli is enjoying the recent form of Tottenham. Not because they find themselves finishing in the top four but mostly because it has led to several articles, notably Duncan White’s in The Telegraph, offering a retrospective reappraisal of his tenure at the club. The position of Sporting Director in this country has a much publicised history of difficulty: Comolli at Tottenham, Avram Grant at Chelsea, Velimir Zajec at Portsmouth and the YouTube fanatic Dennis Wise at Newcastle. The simplest question to ask is why are sporting directors so susceptible to misgivings in this country?

Before answering the first question it is important to look across the river at the rest of Europe and see examples of club managers and sporting directors coexisting relatively peacefully: Barcelona respects the position of Txiki Beguiristain and the same can be said for Bayern Munich (Uli Hoeness), AC Milan (Umberto Gandini), and Benfica (Rui Costa). Excluding Gandini these clubs have a long and, here’s the crucial part, successful history with their sporting directors. Beguiristain made over 200 appearances for Barcelona and played in Johan Cruyff’s ‘dream team’, Hoeness had eight years at Bayern (winning an unbelievable three German titles and three European Cups), and Rui Costa came through the youth academy at Benfica winning them their first Portuguese title in over a decade. It is easier to be respected at a club when you have a deep rooted affection and understanding of the recipe that brought it success. Gandini at Milan is an interesting afterthought; he is currently vice president of the European Club Association and, technically, his title at Milan is Organising Director. He is politically active within European football and has a voice on several key issues affecting its future (potential for a European League, transfer regulations, Sep Blatter’s ‘6 + 5’ rule).

If you look at the sporting directors in the Premier League’s recent history, none can match up. It’s difficult for managers (and fans) to respect individuals who have an influence on team matters if they don’t, at the very least, exhibit an understanding of success. Gandini provides the stark, ominous perhaps, difference in the running of the English league compared to the European leagues – Spain and Italy in particular. La Liga and Serie A have a predisposition, an inescapable historical necessity, which intertwines football and politics. Real Madrid was the dictator’s (Franco) team, Barcelona representative of the trade diversity in Catalonia, both hold elections for presidential candidates (there are campaigns, speeches, and voting – a microcosmic political ecosystem replete with smear and spin). Not forgetting Italy; Ultras still affect the actual running of teams, endemic corruption is accepted as a standard by the people and, of course, AC Milan is owned by Silvio Berlusconi…the Italian Prime Minister. There is a lot of baggage that comes with the hierarchy. The Premier League is by comparison, and for this I am grateful, a politically naive league. Our managers want control and don’t take kindly to interference from a sporting director – the supposed bridge between board and manager – leaving ours a less receptive league to manoeuvre, politically speaking.

There is definitely a societal and cultural difference in action when making comparisons between England and Spain/Italy with regards to what is expected of players, managers, and club hierarchies. I considered this when watching Pep Guardiola emotionally break down following Barcelona’s victory over Estudiantes in the Club World Cup. It marked their sixth trophy and completed an unprecedented year of winning every club competition available. The players were jubilant but Guardiola stood in the centre circle and simply cried. It remains a poignant image because not only does it elucidate the absolute understanding he has of their achievement but, more than that, it reveals an 18-month-long visceral reaction to the most severe and invading scrutiny a manager can be under. This isn’t to say that pressure in the Premier League is not as high; it is however a very different kind of pressure exerted by, in this example, Barcelona and Spain. As if the club’s history, its people, its players (past and present), and the media do not equal enough pressure we add the politics. The figure of Laporta, who recently began travelling with bodyguards in a bullet-proofed vehicle, the murmurings of his presidential successor, and the public campaigning and parading of future targets all augment and shift the spectrum of pressure, which remains a cultural norm in Spain, to a level not experienced in England.

Whilst our press is as unforgiving and intrusive as they come the culture of football in this country remains positively unreceptive to the figure of a sporting director. Even though Comolli may have a hint of ‘I told you so’ in his demeanour this morning, the truth remains that it is Harry Redknapp who has maximised the output of signings previously questioned. Due to Comolli, Zajec, Grant and Wise a stigma has developed with regards to the merit of a sporting director however we are yet to see a truly respected person (as with Barcelona, Bayern and Benfica), who has intimate knowledge, experience and affinity to a club, return and be offered a similar role.

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