Why doesn’t this much maligned role work in England?

Liverpool's director of football Damien Comolli

The director of football concept is one used extensively in Europe and there is little doubt that it works. As more football people in England study what goes on in Europe the concept is becoming more common within English football. However, with very few exceptions it doesn’t really seem to work in England, but why is that the case?

One possible explanation is the fact that the water is so murky around what the role of the director of football should be, where it stops and where the role of the manager begins. The term director of football is a term used to describe a senior management figure at a football club, most commonly used in Europe. However, the exact nature of the rule is extremely unclear and variable leading to much debate in the sports media. The term director of football is used almost exclusively in the UK with terms such as sporting director or general manager used elsewhere. The presence of the director of football can act as a middle man between the board and the manager and may relieve pressure of the manager by handing certain aspects of the job away from day to day coaching; Allowing the manager to focus on the on-pitch issues.

However, despite these perceived benefits problems can often occur between the director of football and the manager; over the powers of each role and in particular questions about transfer policy. This has led to many disputes that have seen managers resign because they feel they no longer have control over who is being signed and who is being sold or the director of football set-up being removed from the club.

English football is littered with many examples of the director of football concept failing to work; one of the more high profiled examples was at Newcastle United when Dennis Wise was appointed in such a role. The set-up was heavily criticised by many people involved with Newcastle including Kevin Keegan and the late Sir Bobby Robson. In fact Dennis Wise appeared to play a major role that saw the departure of Kevin Keegan as manager. The situation all revolved around the loan signing of Ignacio Gonzalez and Wise contacted the manger Kevin Keegan to recommend the signing of the player. Keegan was not impressed with this proposed signing but Wise urged him to check out some videos of him on YouTube. Keegan was not impressed with what he saw and told Wise the player was not good enough and no one at the club had seen him play. But despite the objections from Keegan the loan signing was completed behind his back. The deal was said to have been completed in order to open up opportunities in South America where Newcastle would have first option on players. However, Newcastle paid out £1m in wages to the player, who was never expected to play for the first-team. Wise left his role at Newcastle in April, 2009 following the appointment of Alan Shearer as manager.

One of the more successful director’s of football in England has been Frank Arnesen who proved his reputation as a well renowned director of football in Holland with PSV Eindhoven where he served the role for ten years. In that time he was credited with uncovering talents such as Brazilian striker Ronaldo and Dutch stars Jaap Stam, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Arjen Robben. Arnesen arrived at Tottenham in 2004 and his transfer record was hit and miss – but unearthed talents in Aaron Lennon, Tom Huddlestone and Michael Dawson. However, the important job that he did was changing the culture at Spurs it was no longer hand to mouth but there was now a long-term strategy in place.

Arnesen was pursued by Chelsea and after only a year with Tottenham ended up moving across London to Stamford Bridge. But Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy ensured the club received £5m in compensation from Chelsea for poaching Arnesen. Arnesen has had some level of success at Chelsea and has been credited with the signings of Salomon Kalou and John Obi Mikel. However, the concept hasn’t worked as well as Chelsea hoped under the guidance of Arnesen, with the club still pursuing expensive purchases of established internationals , rather than unearthing and developing young talent as hoped. It has been recently reported that former Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho blamed Arnesen for the lack of talented youth in the Chelsea ranks. Arnesen has since resigned from his role at Chelsea and will be leaving the club at the end of the current season to join up with Hamburg as the sporting director.

Damien Comolli earned a reputation for himself as a football scout working alongside Arsene Wenger at Arsenal. Comolli joined Arsenal in 1996 and was credited with the discovery of several of Arsenal’s players notably Kolo Toure, Emmanuel Eboue and Gael Clichy. Between 2004 and 2005 he began to establish himself as a technical director AS Saint-Etienne – during his time there the club was successful by finishing sixth in the league and Comolli oversaw a number of important signings and developed partnerships with local and amateur clubs both domestically and internationally.

In 2005 Comolli became director of football at Tottenham and signed some players of notable quality such as Dimitar Berbatov and Luka Modric. Even some of the players he was criticised for at the time have now proved that they were good signings examples include; Roman Pavlyuchenko, Benoit Assou-Ekotto and Gareth Bale. However, during his time at Spurs the then manager Martin Jol frequently has disagreements with Comolli and later revealed that players had been signed without Jol’s consent. Tottenham decided to go in a different direction and Comolli left Tottenham along with then manager Juande Ramos, assistant Gus Poyet and first team coach Marcos Alvarez.

Comolli then returned to Saint-Etienne for a further 2 year spell before joining up with Liverpool in 2010. Comolli has been instrumental in bringing in Liverpool’s January double signing Luis Suarez and Andy Carroll. However, with the transfer fees involved is this really the role of a director of football? I was under the impression that the role was about bringing in players cheaply and developing them – not signing more established players for big transfer fees. Also does Kenny Dalglish really need a director of football working alongside him, when he is likely to have considerable resources to play with in the summer?

There may be an opportunity for a director of football to work alongside the manager if he has less resources to play with. However, even then is it necessary or is it better to have a well established scouting network to indentify the players but allow the manager to make the full decision on whetever or not to sign them.

The role seems to be more suited to clubs that look to develop players rather than those that will buy in expensive new signings all the time, so it may suit teams with lower budgets. But I suppose the question remains, is it really necessary? Is English football in such a broken state that we need to change the set-up? And is having a director of football really any better than a good management set-up, scouting network and youth system?

It will certainly in interesting to see if the new financial fair play rules have any impact of the director of football set-up – as clubs look to develop the team within their own personal resources. I certainly see the benefits of someone charged with the job of uncovering hidden gems – but how does this role differ from that of a scout? The only real difference seems to be that he has powers to sign players without the manager’s consent. I can’t see this set-up ever really working in English football and will just cause more tension and problems before it is completely scrapped.

Join the conversation on Twitter and tell me if we need a director of football set-up in England?