The departure of Damien Comolli from Tottenham was a mortal blow for the role of director of football in the English game. Mark Douglas considers the demise of an unlamented position
PUBLIC appearances by Dennis Wise at St James’s Park are notoriously rare these days, so it’s not surprising that he chose low-profile settings in which to make his return to the club where he wields such considerable influence.
Wise was back on Tyneside to take in a reserve game on Tuesday, braving the elements to watch a youthful United second string continue their strong progression under Richard Money.
If he felt lonely as one of the 310 sitting in the cavernous surroundings of St James’s Park, he had every reason to. He belongs to that most endangered of species – a director of football in the Premier League.
The departure of Damien Comolli from Tottenham last month – as the north London club appointed a traditional, old-school team manager in Harry Redknapp – leaves Wise standing alone as the last high-profile figure occupying that controversial management role squeezed in between the pitch and the boardroom.
When Newcastle finally change hands, his position is almost certain to disappear in the shake-up that will follow.
For most within English football, the demise can’t come a minute too soon. The position is largely unloved among managers and supporters and it’s departure will be unlamented – hopefully signaling the end of the unseemly rows which heralded the removals of Alan Curbishley and Kevin Keegan in the space of few days earlier this season.
Certainly, the catastrophic implosion of Keegan and Wise’s relationship set the cause of the director of football role back years – the latest in a string of high-profile rows between managers and the directors of football that they couldn’t work under.
It is worth remembering, however, that the reason Newcastle found themselves in so much trouble was not structural – it was down to personality clashes.
On the continent, it works seamlessly. Just ask Sir Bobby Robson, who worked with Frank Arnesen at PSV Eindhoven and found it liberating to be able to concentrate on coaching matters while another person took care of football administration.
In Europe, the system is seen as a way of ensuring a club’s long-term planning is not put in peril by a manager’s departure.
Pivotal issues like youth development, scouting and player recruitment are handled above the manager, who is generally given limited authority over transfers alongside his major responsibility – coaching the team.
It works well at clubs like PSV, who have had just three sporting directors to in the last 45 years, and Real Madrid. But in England, the role of manager is still considered sacred, and the director of football role is seen as a threat to his authority.
On the Continent it is widely accepted that managers will rarely be given longer than two seasons in a role. In English football, there is still blind faith behind every appointment that the man being brought in will establish a dynasty like Sir Alex Ferguson has done at Manchester United, or Arsene Wenger at Arsenal.
It is rarely the case, but that belief – still widely expressed whenever a vacancy is filled – undermines the case for the wide-scale recruitment of directors of football, whose very role is to protect clubs against the high turnover of managers.
The other problem is English football does not appear to have fully understood the way the role should work. Domestic managers, used to being given unfettered authority over their clubs, have been asked to work alongside directors of football without clear guidance and that has often been a cause of conflict.
At St James’s Park, the eventual divorce of Keegan from Mike Ashley looked pre-ordained from the minute that Wise was asked to step in as director of football.
Keegan had never worked with a director of football before but, despite initial reservations, made it clear in public that he was prepared to give the system a chance if it was part of Ashley’s grand plan to turn Newcastle United into the ‘Arsenal of the North’.
It didn’t take long for the cracks to start appearing. Wise, himself fresh out of a demanding managerial hot seat at Leeds, was given far-reaching powers that impinged on an area that Keegan thought belonged to a manager and a manager alone – transfers.
While Keegan was happy to leave youth development and continental scouting to Wise and executive director (recruitment) Tony Jimenez, it was with the implicit understanding that the final say on transfers would rest with him.
But that was never the case and when Keegan had the unheralded Spanish pair Xisco and Nacho Gonzalez thrust on him at the close of the transfer window in August, the illusion of unity was shattered.
It is a cautionary tale for any English club prepared to follow the same route. The power lines must be clearly defined, not made up as they go along, as appears the case at St James’s Park.
The chemistry between manager and director of football must be better than it was at Newcastle, where Keegan found it difficult to work alongside a man whose post-playing career had been entirely in the field of first team management.
The age of the English director of football appears to be dead, and it will take a wholesale rethink of attitudes to resurrect the failed experiment.
Given the deeply entrenched conservatism of those who hold power in our national game, that day is unlikely to come any time soon.