Current reports are suggesting that recently sacked West Ham manager, Avram Grant, may be offered a quick return to the Premiership by Chelsea, who would be willing to appoint the Israeli as director of football for the second time in four years. Having experienced varying success as a manager, Grant is interestingly the one name that always seems to be put forward when the director of football role is considered by English clubs, having also worked in the position at Portsmouth on two separate occasions.
However, Grant has never lasted more than 12 months in the position during each of his four tenures, and although he is thought of as a personable character within football’s inner circle, his lingering presence between manager and board-room undoubtedly caused conflict and controversy at both clubs. Although the merits of this system appear to benefit several teams on the continent, its application in England has continually provoked supporter unrest and inevitable managerial disputes, as the duties and responsibilities of a director of football/sporting director/technical director – or any other variation – remain ambiguous and often concealed.
Broadly speaking, a director of football is expected to conduct widespread scouting of young talent and identify specific targets based on the manager’s detailed requirements. In principle, this allows the manager to focus on technical training of his current squad whilst his superior’s sole purpose is to generate a shortlist of particular players from which the manager will likely select a transfer target. In practice, the manager’s traditional functions are diluted which usually provokes a straining in the relationship between the head coach and the club’s board, evidenced by Grant succeeding Jose Mourinho as Chelsea manager in 2007 and Paul Hart as Portsmouth manager in 2009 – just six weeks following his re-appointment as director of football at Fratton Park.
The obvious problem in both the above scenarios is that neither Mourinho nor Hart advocated Grant’s introduction, and the 56 year-olds allegiances lied with those within each club that were either responsible for administering funds or not connected with footballing development in any capacity. What’s more, Mourinho was forced to work in conjunction with Frank Arnesen – head of talent scouting – from 2005, negating the Portuguese manager’s ability to control the academy scholars, secure instant transfers, and thus leave an all-encompassing legacy but for that of trophies. In fact, the Real Madrid manager publicly denounced Arnesen’s efforts in importing foreign talent that were not of a decent enough standard, and failing to develop the existing academy to the level where graduates could be promoted to the senior squad.
The proof implies that Mourinho may have been justified in his frustrations, seeing as Arnesen oversaw the arrivals of Slobodan Rajkovic, Michael Woods, Tom Taiwo, Aliu Djalo, Jacopa Sala, Jacob Melis, Fabio Borini and Franco di Santo, who have unquestionably failed to make any impact at Stamford Bridge and were signed for significantly inflated prices. At present, Chelsea only have Josh McEachran, Jeffrey Bruma and Patrick van Aanholt pushing for first-team recognition, and a squad that contains just one graduate of the academy – John Terry – who made his professional debut nearly thirteen years ago.
If the manager accepts that player recruitment is handled above his head, the least he should expect is for the process to be organised and more effective than had he done so himself. The Chelsea case does seem to highlight the considerable flaws within the system, as in almost every recent example of a director of football being appointed in England, the decision has been based on the chairman’s personal preference rather than the formation of a management team as selected by the individual supposedly entrusted with conditioning the club’s players to win: the manager.
This is not to say that such an arrangement couldn’t work in the Premiership, just that there are yet no illustrations of its effective usage. However, there is perhaps one spec of encouragement emanating from Merseyside which intimates that at least one Premier League side are beginning to profit from having a director of football. Last season, Liverpool chose to entice Damien Comolli, formerly considered to have failed in the post at Tottenham, to the club, to work alongside Roy Hodgson initially and now Kenny Dalglish. The foundations are in place to elevate as many academy students as possible to the first-team, as Martin Kelly and John Flanagan accomplished last term, and to identify young exciting talent from elsewhere, which the recent £20million signing of Jordan Henderson proves is much more than empty rhetoric.
We will have to wait to see how Liverpool’s new strategy materialises, but it would appear that the Anfield outfit have implemented a player development procedure which seeks to correct the mistakes made by Portsmouth and Chelsea before them. The idea behind appointing a director of football is sensible, so long as the manager has final approval.