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Not reading all that.Keeping peace with managers, unearthing talent and sealing transfer deals at Disneyland are all part of a day's work for sporting directorstheathletic.com
Damien Comolli can still remember the reaction when he was presented as Tottenham Hotspur’s sporting director back in 2005. “It was very negative,” he says. “My first press conference, the first question I was asked was, ‘Do you see a future for this role in English football?’.”
Comolli responded by saying that every club in the Premier League would have a sporting or technical director within 10 years. It turns out that he was not far off with that prediction. “Now, even down to League Two, they have sporting directors,” adds Comolli, who later went on to work for Liverpool and Fenerbahce in similar roles.
In fact, the debate these days is less about the prevalence of the role in English football and more about how effectively it is working. Are clubs and owners really committed to the sporting director model in this country, or are they just paying lip service to it by giving somebody a title that comes with little responsibility?
A senior source at one Premier League club lists Dan Ashworth (Brighton), Stuart Webber (Norwich), Michael Edwards (Liverpool), Jon Rudkin (Leicester), Txiki Begiristain (Manchester City) and Marina Granovskaia (Chelsea) as the best examples of sporting directors who have “good autonomy”. Elsewhere, one Premier League sporting director is described as a “glorified player liaison officer” and another as a “glorified head scout”.
“We seem to have jumped over the hurdle of, ‘Is the sporting director important?’,” adds the same source. “Ten years ago, you had Harry Redknapp hanging out of his car saying, ‘It’s a disgrace someone telling me what to do’. It is now widely accepted in the British game that it’s an important role. That is a tick, which is nice.
“The next bit is to get over is the role’s accountability. What are the main areas of the job? Everyone seems to accept it is to lead on scouting and recruitment. Everyone seems to think it is to have a bit to do with academies, then sports science and medical. What we haven’t got over yet, in our country, is the idea this guy is your football expert.
“The owner should employ a sporting director as a football expert in an executive role, and listen to advice on those decisions: who we sign, who we sell, how much we buy for, our academy strategy, do we sack the head coach? Do we give the head coach a new contract? Who is our new head coach?
“It seems you still have chairmen wanting to make the decision on the head coaches, and are they the experts on that decision? No.”
Comolli looks a little surprised as he listens to those quotes being read out to him. “I don’t think the sporting director is the expert and the owner is the guy who writes the cheque. I don’t think it’s as simple as that,” he says.
“More and more clubs are making the biggest decisions in a collegial way and that’s probably the right approach. If I was still a sporting director, or if I become a sporting director again one day, I wouldn’t feel comfortable saying to an owner, ‘I make all the decisions, I pick the coach, I buy, I sell, I tell you what to do, you have to listen to me’.
“For instance, the choice of a head coach should be made by a kind of committee in the club, and not by a single person. I don’t think the owner on his own should choose. But I also don’t think the sporting director on his own should choose.
“And I think the sporting directors in England think that it is happening like this on the continent, that sporting directors have got the full power of picking whoever they want, whenever they want, and buying and selling out of a transfer kitty — it just doesn’t happen like this.”
Ashworth, who took over as technical director at Brighton in 2018 after previously working in similar roles at the Football Association and for West Bromwich Albion, is well qualified to talk about the model in England.
Not long after arriving at the FA, he invited about 25 people to St George’s Park to help put together a formal qualification linked to talent identification and recruitment — an area closely aligned with the sporting director position. Those in attendance all worked in that field.
“When they came into the first meeting, we said, ‘What are your titles and what do you do?’,” Ashworth tells The Athletic. “Of the 25, 26 people we had in the room, we had probably about eight different titles and about 20 different job descriptions. It was so diverse.”
Ashworth worked with Gareth Southgate at the FA (Photo: Mike Egerton/PA Images via Getty Images)
So what actually is a sporting director’s remit? “If you are asking me — and I would say this because I’m a true believer and an envoy and ambassador for the role — it is somebody who is responsible to the board for the football strategy who then employs experts at their particular role and lets them get on with it. That, to me, is the key bit because I am not a first-team manager and coach; I’ve never been one and I don’t want to be one,” Ashworth says.
“I like to think I’ve got sufficient football experience — I’m a Pro Licence coach, I understand coaching and development, but I don’t truly understand what Graham Potter (the Brighton head coach) has to go through every Saturday. So I am not trying to tell Graham who he should pick, how he should play, how he should coach.
“Now, I would hope I could ask him some questions that would help him think he gets the right decisions at times. But I certainly don’t profess to be somebody who knows more than Graham about getting a result on Saturday.
“I shouldn’t know more than John Morling about being an academy manager, and I don’t. I shouldn’t know more than Adam Brett about medical, sport science and injury prevention, and I don’t. So the whole thing for me is you employ people better than you in all of those segments, set the right values, culture, vision and objectives, and let them get on with it.”
The sporting director needs to be able to “get on with it” too but that depends largely on the approach of the owner. While somebody such as Webber at Norwich has carte blanche to make decisions with little interference from above, others are hamstrung by a combination of internal politics, hands-on owners and external voices.
Marcel Brands, Everton’s director of football (above, centre), had next to no say in the decision to appoint Rafa Benitez. Moshiri chose Benitez — Everton’s owner calls the shots when it comes to managers — and Kia Joorabchian stepped in to negotiate the Spaniard’s deal.
Wolves, where the Portuguese agent Jorge Mendes is pretty much an ever-present in first-team recruitment, would be another example of a club where anybody taking up the role of technical or sporting director — Scott Sellars replaced Kevin Thelwell this year — will know they are operating with a limited amount of autonomy.
That, in fairness, is not unusual. “You’ve got to remember, there are so many people in the ears of an owner having an influence,” says a sporting director who has worked across Europe. “Certain agents have control at certain clubs — this happens everywhere. This is the game that we all love. But it’s the game of opinions and power.”
“We were on a search for a head coach (recently), it took us 22 days and all the press and the fans were saying, ‘What are they doing?’,” says Comolli, who is chairman of the French Ligue 2 club Toulouse. “When we did the introduction of the coach in a press conference, the first thing I said was, ‘It was 22 days, it was not 22 months!’. So, OK, the Spurs (search) was a very long one, but it’s a key position and succession planning is very difficult. It’s not that simple.”
Tottenham took 72 days to find a replacement for Jose Mourinho. Towards the end of that saga, Spurs announced that Fabio Paratici (above, right) had been appointed as the club’s managing director of football. By that stage, Spurs had approached, and been rejected by, a long list of high-profile managers. Eventually, after a couple more knockbacks, a dart hit the board and Nuno Espirito Santo was confirmed as the club’s new head coach.
Nuno had been on Crystal Palace’s radar, along with plenty of other names as part of another protracted managerial search that ended with a second Premier League club appointing a coach who was not their preferred choice.
Palace had known for a long time that Roy Hodgson would be stepping down at the end of the season and Dougie Freedman, in his role as sporting director, drew up a list of potential successors to interview. From the outside, it is hard to see how that process can then unravel so badly.
Yet when you speak to people who have first-hand experience of trying to recruit a high-profile manager, there is empathy, not criticism, for Freedman and the others who were involved at Palace. Succession planning is one thing; getting those targets through the door and on the same page as you is quite another. On top of that, there is an owner and a board to convince.
Nuno was not the first manager to be linked to the Tottenham job (Photo: Tottenham Hotspur FC/Tottenham Hotspur FC via Getty Images)
“As a chairman now, and as a sporting director, I always had in my head a list of five people that could come and replace the manager or the head coach. I never had it in writing anywhere, but always in my head,” Comolli says.
“But then what do you do with it? Are the people free? Do they want to come? Can you afford them? It’s only when you meet them that you realise what type of personality they are, what level of power in the club they want. Do they want to control recruitment? Do they want the ability to veto any deal? So the whole thing takes… let’s put it this way, let’s say Spurs are Microsoft — if Microsoft were doing a search now for a new CEO, do you think it would take less than 72 days?”
Ashworth talks along similar lines. “Just because you’ve got a list, doesn’t mean you can get your targets — that’s players or a manager,” he says.
“Without speaking about any other clubs, they may well have had a list. But one (manager), all of a sudden, has another offer that is better than the offer that you can give, or doesn’t get the connection or the feel, or comes into explore the club and you didn’t like him and perhaps he wasn’t what you thought he was, or they’ve come in and said, ‘I’ve got to bring 10 staff with me’ and that’s going to cost you another £2 million a year.
“To be fair to all the clubs who were searching for managers this summer, they’ve all got their managers in for pre-season. If you change your manager at the end of the season, you’ve got eight weeks to sort it. There wasn’t a rush. There might be the clamour and the rush externally, but you’re better off taking your time and exploring lots of options and getting the right one, because you’ve got no pressure of games and the players aren’t training.”
But did Spurs and Palace get the right one? Or did they end up with what was left on the shelf? Comolli has his own theory on why clubs seemed to end up chasing their tail this summer or, in some cases, reappointing a name from the past. “The issue now for the top clubs in the world is they are looking to recruit Superman. And that guy doesn’t exist,” he says.
“Because he needs to be a very good tactician, he needs to be good at creating training sessions, he needs to develop young players, he needs to be good with the press, he needs to be a great leader, he needs to be a great communicator, he needs to be knowledgeable in sports science and in medicine, he needs to have an opinion on players on the recruitment side, he needs to manage staff of anywhere from 25 to 50 people, he needs to know how to manage up — billionaires who have got a lot of businesses.
“And this Superman needs to fit with the club’s culture, whatever it is, whether it’s winning at all cost at Real Madrid, Bayern Munich or Juventus, whether it’s developing players at Tottenham and trying to win a trophy and getting into the Champions League, whether it’s trying to break into the top six at Everton…
“And if you look at the appointments that we have just seen: Spurs went for Nuno and everyone knows he was fifth, sixth, seventh or maybe 10th choice. Real Madrid went back to a coach (Carlo Ancelotti) they sacked five years ago, Bayern Munich paid €25 million for Julian Nagelsmann who is brilliant but has never won anything, Juventus went back to Massimiliano Allegri. I could go on and on and on.
“It just shows the market is small. Those people who can manage the big clubs and tick all the boxes are unique and there is only a handful in the world that can do it. So all the others are trying to pick up the rest, basically the pieces, and tossing a coin in the air. But at the beginning they aren’t working with the pieces; they are trying to get the best ones as well.”
One of the main strengths of the sporting director model is that, in theory, strategic decisions are made by somebody with football expertise who is thinking of the mid-to-long-term interests of the club, rather than a manager who is generally only ever a bad run of results away from getting the sack and, as a consequence, compelled to focus on the here and now.
In those circumstances, and with so much at stake in the Premier League in particular, it can be hard for a manager to think about giving younger players an opportunity unless he knows he has the backing of the people above him and that there is a genuine commitment — a plan, a culture or a vision at the club — to develop talent in that way.
“It’s really important that you have a supportive board and you have a supportive sporting director as a manager,” Ashworth says “If we’re saying to Graham Potter, ‘One of the things in your remit is to help make the academy work and try to get young players into our first team’, we can’t then say after four games, ‘Ah, yeah, sorry it’s not working, off you go’.
“To have the courage to put (back-up goalkeeper) Robert Sanchez into our Premier League first team in November, when we were close to the relegation zone… anyone can put in a young player with nothing to play for.
“To put Robert Sanchez in, who had only played two seasons on loan in League Two and League One, takes immense courage. But it also takes immense support. Because Graham won’t make that call if he feels, ‘Jeez, if we get beat 6-0 at Tottenham, I’m gone’.
“So it’s really easy to be critical of first-team managers and say, ‘Ah, they don’t play young players, they don’t give them a chance’. Well, my answer back to that is, ‘What support and reassurances are you giving them as a club?’. Young players are not proven, they are potential. So by default, you’re never quite sure what you’re going to get. So if you’re going to ask your managers and your clubs to do that, you’d better give them some support.”
That kind of story makes a mockery of the idea — and this was certainly one of the biggest misconceptions in the early days — that the sporting director will be more of a hindrance than a help to a manager. In reality, the total opposite should be true.
“Having a sporting director and a head coach doesn’t mean conflict,” Comolli adds, laughing. “It means people working well together — most of the time. Steve Hitchen’s relationship with Mauricio Pochettino (at Spurs) was perfect. What Stuart Webber is doing at Norwich with Daniel Farke is great as well. And Txiki and Pep Guardiola — how much better can it be? Or Michael Edwards and Jurgen Klopp.”
Stuart Webber enjoys a good working relationship with Norwich manager Daniel Farke (Photo: Nigel French/PA Images via Getty Images)
There was only one occasion Comolli clashed with a manager over his role. “With Martin Jol, because there was a period when he was on his own and Daniel Levy was consulting him on every decision and he felt he was making all the decisions,” he says. “So when I came in, it was an issue.
“But with all the other managers I worked with in the Premier League, or in France or Turkey, I never had an issue. As long as the job description of every individual is very clear, the remit is very clear, people know who reports to who, what are the rules and responsibilities, then there is no reason for an issue to appear.”
One former Premier League sporting director told The Athletic that he had far more problems with chief executives than managers because of the perception that his role was some sort of threat to their control at the club. “They (chief executives) end up fighting for power and ego and authority,” he says.
He goes on to tell a story about a Premier League chief executive who would hold regular meetings with the manager in the boardroom in private, deliberately marginalising the sporting director. “I said, ‘No, that can’t happen’. So then they got me in the meeting. But when I’d leave, they’d end up having their own meeting afterwards.”
One area where there is potential for friction between the sporting director and manager tends to be around transfers. “There is (friction) if the roles and responsibilities for every individual are not clearly defined when you start,” Comolli adds. “If the manager has a clause in his contract which says he will have an influence over recruitment, then he will have every right to say, ‘I want this and I don’t want that’.”
Brendan Rodgers was unhappy with the “transfer committee” that was in place at Liverpool and had the power to veto transfers. “That was a recipe for disaster,” Comolli adds. “The way FSG (Fenway Sports Group) works and the structure they’ve put in with data, with Ian Graham, with Michael Edwards, with their chief scout, there was no way it was going to work. And it didn’t.”
At Fulham, the sporting director has the power to veto transfers, which is largely down to the fact he is also the co-owner and the general manager and the director of football — quite a list. Fulham operate a “two boxes ticked” approach under Tony Khan; one for data and the other for scouting. The head coach does have input but, ultimately, Khan is in control. It is an unusual set-up but not unique; David Sullivan, West Ham’s co-owner, has always had more than a passing interest in transfers.
Brighton’s approach is more in keeping with the continental sporting director model and involves “three pillars”. The process starts with the manager identifying a “positional need”. The first port of call then is to establish if there is an existing player at the club, on loan or playing in the under-23s. “If not, we go to market, the recruitment department then jump in and that’s their role,” Ashworth explains.
“All the time I would expect them to have a rolling list, all different positions and relevant targets within our price range and within our playing style and philosophy. That list works in three different ways: we have numbers and data — most clubs will use data to identify or confirm players; then there’s the subjective, so that’s your more traditional scouting reports; and then you have the view of the manager. We’d hope to get a tick in all three.
“If one of the departments is not sure — let’s say Graham isn’t sure that the right-back is good enough in building up play — we get some more footage and more reports on that specific bit. He might say, ‘I still don’t see it’. ‘OK, fine, here’s the next option’. And that, in my view, is how you align.
“If not, you’ve got dysfunctional recruitment, a waste of resource. There’s no point in us signing a player that Graham doesn’t want or can’t use in the way that he wants to play football.”
“The essentials for us coaches are being able to prepare a game freely, decide a team freely, to know that you have a good background (behind you at the club) and that you don’t have to run all the bullshit and the interests that surround football. In England, it’s like that. There are a few powerful agents that control the market in the UK, that want to force or inflict certain coaches and players in certain teams. And the fan? He buys this, if the results are good or not. There’s a certain tolerance to accept this kind of thing if the results are there or not.”
Those comments were made by Andre Villas-Boas in a fascinating interview with The Athletic last month and raise an interesting issue in relation to this subject, bearing in mind several sporting directors said that the influence of agents on owners is one of the biggest challenges in the role. Some accept that is the way football works these days, even if it can be frustrating. Others shake their head.
“There is a bit of name-dropping and they get besotted by these figures who end up running their clubs. It blows my brains,” one sporting director says. “You’re paying your sporting director £500,000 a year but you’re going to listen to this agent, who may just have his own agenda. Because, guess what, he’s trying to make money. Your head of recruitment has been looking at players for the last five years, and then you get taken out for a nice meal and end up signing a totally new name.”
Comolli listens to those remarks. “The issue with what you just mentioned is not the agent; the issue is the dysfunction at the club,” he says. “If this is happening, the club has got the wrong culture and the wrong values. So it is not a debate around agents. People should look at themselves within the club and say, ‘What are we doing and why are we doing it that way?’. That should never happen.”
“I haven’t experienced that at either of the clubs I’ve worked for,” adds Ashworth. “I’m sure it must be very frustrating for my colleagues that are working in the game, that they try and make decisions around a football club, and somebody parachutes in and recommends a player. Any agents’ recommendations I just pass into the system.
“And agents can play a really important and beneficial part. So sometimes an agent will recommend a player you didn’t know was available. As long as it goes into the system in the right way, and that player is treated the same as any other player… for me, that’s absolutely fine. What I think one of my colleagues is talking about (in the anonymous quote above) is if they have some sort of shortcut and bypass the system, and I can imagine that would be frustrating.”
With or without the influence of agents, owners can be challenging for a sporting director full stop. Comolli describes ownership as a “totally different beast” to anything else at the club and admits he found managing up hard at times — certainly far more difficult than dealing with a coach complaining about a player or a signing.
The main advice he passes onto others is to avoid working in isolation. “When I look back at my time as sporting director, the biggest mistakes I made were decisions where I couldn’t listen to people or consult people. It’s such a frantic job. It’s 24/7 and it’s 12 months out of 12. It’s important that you have people around you that you can listen to, who you can go to for advice, to have the time to take a break and think about the next decision.
“The GMs (general managers) in US sports are a lot more powerful than sporting directors in football, or the vast majority of them, yet they’ve got this army of people who are experts in different fields and whom they take input from.”
Comolli frowns when it is pointed out to him that he once told a newspaper that he had taken only 15 days off work across three years. “That was really, really stupid (to work that much), and that’s also something I’ve changed dramatically because otherwise, you don’t see things clearly,” he adds.
That, though, is the nature of the job and this industry. Indeed, Ashworth describes the sporting director role as like “sitting in the middle hub of a wheel” — and, by the sound of things, it is a wheel that doesn’t stop spinning for of them.
He laughs when I say that many years ago I heard a story about him that involved a trip to a theme park with his family and a multi-million-pound transfer.
“I was at Euro Disney in Paris with the kids and I was in the queue for the aerospace ride,” Ashworth says, smiling. “I was on my BlackBerry at the time, trying to do this deal — it was for Nicky Shorey — and you’re trying to muffle your voice. I said, ‘Listen, I’ve got to go’ because the barriers opened for me to get on the ride.
“I did the ride, got off and a few minutes later got back on the phone and the deal ended up getting done there and then. I think they thought I was playing hardball. Actually, I had to jump on a roller-coaster.”
(Lead image: created for The Athletic by Sam Richardson using Getty Images)
id say his record in the market is sketchy at best. i have said before though i still dont know who chooses the players and what thought process goes into it. Its like he chooses a few, the manager chooses a few and even moshiri and bill get to pick a couple. Theres no doub we are hamstrung until we sell but a lot of those we need to shift came in on brands watch.The fact the side has started with a number of free signings (effectively) and he's had to bring on Delph and Gordon, speaks volumes. Presumably it'll be Davies on soon, too.
He's obviously not solely to blame but the transfer business has been a complete and utter disaster.
He must be good at the things the average fan doesn't see, being around the club on a day to day basis etc. It's the only explanation for him getting a new contract. Well, that and the rest of the board haven't got a clue themselves.