The Agenda: Can a director of football succeed in England?

Directors of football have often been regarded with suspicion in English football but Sunderland have taken the plunge. Stuart Rayner asks two men to have done the job how it can work

Southampton's then director of football Lawrie McMenemy and Saints boss Graeme Souness
Southampton's then director of football Lawrie McMenemy and Saints boss Graeme Souness

They are words which can strike fear into the hearts of English football fans: “director of football”.

This week Sunderland unveiled Roberto De Fanti as the first in their history.

Directors of football are commonplace elsewhere in Europe, yet viewed with suspicion here. But the days of the all-powerful manager are numbered as England moves closer to the Continent.

“The problem is the perception of the role,” explains Mick Wadsworth, who has coached abroad and worked as Gretna’s director of football and under a ‘director of sport’ at Hartlepool United.

“The way things have developed in the UK is different to how it’s developed on the Continent.

“Our view of it is tainted by the tradition of what the football manager is in this country. When Bobby (Robson, who Wadsworth coached under) was working abroad he was the coach and his responsibilities were purely and totally relative to football – coaching, management of the team, day-to-day life at the training ground, etc etc.

“Most other issues managers take on in the UK weren’t of any concern to him.

“Player acquisition was often down to other people, although Bobby had the final say.

“They have to be clearly-defined roles and there’s got to be shared views on philosophy – what type of football club are we and what’s the blueprint of the player we want to bring in?

“Two people can often have different opinions on who to sign, and once there’s an impasse you’ve got problems. It’s a very, very difficult thing to introduce.”

English football’s first director of football was a former Sunderland manager from Gateshead.

Lawrie McMenemy was Southampton’s from January 1994 to June 1997.

“I could have been assistant manager or assistant to the manager, but I think they felt because of my experience and because I was already a director, director of football was the best title,” he recalls.

“I’d been with England and when that came to an end I was invited back on to the board with Southampton. Not long after there was a change of management and they asked me if I would take over. I said I didn’t want to, but I was happy to work with a younger manager if it was the right one.

“We appointed, at my suggestion, Alan Ball, who’d played for me at Southampton. I also worked with Graeme Souness, who was my suggestion again. I hadn’t worked with him before but he was well-known for his achievements.”

McMenemy believes the key to a successful director of football is a nice cup of tea – or in the case of Sunderland’s Italian mafia, perhaps a glass of wine.

“It should be exactly as it was then – a partnership where two people respect each other and are happy to work together,” he says, echoing Wadsworth’s choice of word. “It helps if the director of football has been in the business as long as I had. You need some sort of experience of what the manager is going through.

“You need to be able to get together for a cup of tea, a glass of wine or whatever so the manager can bounce ideas off you and come up with suggestions for the good of the club.

“We used to have board meetings regularly – probably too regularly – at Southampton and I would tell the manager to arrive 15 minutes early, have a cup of tea with me and discuss anything he would bring up so I could be right behind him in there.”

Little is known about De Fanti, but his background is that of an agent rather than a player or manager, which does not sit entirely comfortably with Wadsworth.

“If it’s going to work out perfectly it needs to be someone with a very profound and solid knowledge of the game, tactically and technically,” he argues.

“That being the case, surely that person should have had experience of being a top-level coach or player. Of course the danger of that is you rule out damn good people.”

But some English clubs have found difficulties giving the job to someone who, at heart, is still a manager.

“Especially if you’ve done the job you sometimes get a bit frustrated,” McMenemy admits.

“I did the first training session after Alan had been announced to the media on the Thursday afternoon. I did it to show Alan what we did, then we got on the bus to Newcastle.

“On the Friday lunchtime he knocked on my door and said, ‘Come on boss, we’re off training,’ but I said it was his job now.

“The things we talked about on the Thursday, particularly about Matt Le Tissier, came off and we won 2-1.

“I didn’t always understand what the manager was doing. You’re bound to think what you would do but you’ve just got to bite your tongue, wait for the cup of tea situation and hope he asks.

“Once under Bally we were playing at Norwich (in April 1994). I was up in the (director’s) box getting all agitated, desperate to get a message down. I couldn’t help myself.

“I wouldn’t go down the tunnel, but I stood at the other end shouting for the trainer. A copper got his attention and I signalled get tight on whatever number player it was.

“Bally wasn’t too happy, but when we discussed it he understood an extra pair of eyes in the stands could maybe see something he couldn’t. It’s very rare I would do something like that.”

McMenemy is of the old school, but the League Managers’ Association vice-president recognises the need to help coaches.

“If I was to go back in now I would accept some things and not others,” he reflects.

“I can see the benefits in some cases of taking the weight off the manager’s shoulders but the bit I would question is has the manager still got the last word on transfers because he will stand and fall by results.

“I was talking to Alex Ferguson a while ago about how it had changed since my time, when it was just the chairman, the manager and the team.

“Now there are all sorts of appointments between the chairman and the manager all having to justify their roles. It looks as if the cup-of-tea fella’s above the manager, which shouldn’t be the case.”

Perhaps there are more directors of football than we realise. Was David Dein’s role as Arsenal’s chief executive much different? Is Newcastle United’s influential chief scout Graham Carr a director of football by stealth?

“There are probably people out there doing the job without the title,” Wadsworth concurs.

“I don’t think Sir Alex travelled the world scouting players, his brother (Martin), scouting staff and Les Kershaw before that did it. There was great trust there.”

McMenemy is encouraged that De Fanti, a close confidant of owner Ellis Short, apparently recommended Di Canio as coach.

“The signs are there’s respect between Paolo Di Canio and his director of football,” he says.

“They’ve got to get on, and knowing Di Canio will flare up every now and again, but so what? I didn’t always agree with Bally or Souness.

“You need strong partnerships in the football area and the more they succeed the more they can bang on the owner’s door and ask for support.”

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