The Agenda: Are football's bosses their own worst enemies?

Managers need assistance to cope with the many demands of their job but the problem is, says Stuart Rayner, most are unwilling to help themelves

2014 Getty Images Sunderland head coach Gus Poyet
Sunderland head coach Gus Poyet

The words were delivered light-heartedly, but they were worrying nevertheless.

“I used to read, but now I can’t read, I don’t know why, it doesn’t go in,” Gustavo Poyet told the assembled media at Sunderland’s Academy of Light on Friday. “I need to find something to do and switch off. If it is not a video, it is a game you want to watch. If there is no game, it is a plan. If there is no plan, it is pre-season. If it is not pre-season, it is a player. If it is not a player, it is the next game. We need to live and have a normal life as well!”

Poyet’s main gripe – or at least one of them – was that he was unable to switch off from the intensity of Premier League management. His other was that the North East wind was too strong for him to play a round of golf, another of his preferred forms of relaxation in the past.

Little wonder there are so many scare stories about the poor health of the men who manage Premier League football clubs. The only surprise is that more do not suffer heart attacks.

In Poyet’s case, though, they are problems he is bringing on himself. There is no helping some people.

When the Uruguayan joined Sunderland in October, it was as the Black Cats’ head coach. Officially, that is still his role but in practice he is now their manager.

The departure of Roberto De Fanti midway through the January transfer window saw to that.

The Italian came to Wearside as the club’s director of football in June, around the same time Joe Kinnear was appointed at Newcastle United.

The thinking behind De Fanti was very continental. The idea was to ease some of the burden on the man picking the first team (particularly when that man, Paolo Di Canio, was new to Premier League management), and to bring a bit of continuity.

Former Sunderland head coach Paolo Di Canio
Former Sunderland head coach Paolo Di Canio
 

It failed on both counts, but owner Ellis Short is still apparently committed to the principle, even if De Fanti is yet to be replaced.

The reason for holding off may have something to do with uncertainty – or perhaps certainty – about how Poyet will react to having his wings clipped. Last month he was given freedom to sign the players he wanted, budget permitting, and he clearly enjoyed it. How he will respond to being told his next set of transfers will have to be negotiated with a director of football will be interesting to see.

While directors of football are supposed to make life easier for managers, many see it the way Mike Ashley appears to have seen Kinnear.

The former Magpies manager was not really there to help Pardew, he was there to curb him. His arrival was a blatant slap in the face to Pardew, an unofficial demotion from manager to head coach. If nothing else, Kinnear achieved that.

Perhaps wrongly, Pardew saw Kinnear not as a help, but a direct threat to his job. Rene Meulensteen probably saw Fulham’s technical director, Alan Curbishley in the same light.

A fortnight ago Pardew, like Poyet, won his power struggle. At least for now.

The problem with directors of football is that managers are too often held accountable for their mistakes. When Tottenham Hotspur’s Franco Baldini spent Real Madrid’s money so badly in the summer it was the coach, Andre Villas-Boas, who lost his job. The technical director remains, though perhaps not for long. West Bromwich Albion had a poor summer’s wheeling and dealing, losing Romelu Lukaku and replacing him with Victor Anichebe, Matej Vydra, Stephane Sessegnon and a past-his-best Nicolas Anelka. Between them the quartet are still not into double figures for the Premier League season. Steve Clarke was told to clear his desk, Richard Garlick was not. Di Canio was sacked before De Fanti.

This is not to say the coaches were blameless, but that responsibility does not seem to be shared out correctly.

A director of football, head of recruitment, sporting director or whatever else the man upstairs is called can sign the best player going – but what if the man picking the team does not rate him?

Pardew has gone on record as saying he would be happy for Newcastle to replace Kinnear. Just about.

Mike Ashley and Joe Kinnear watch Newcastle United in action
Mike Ashley and Joe Kinnear watch Newcastle United in action
 

“I haven’t got any problem with taking the club forward in whichever way the board decide to go,” he said last week.

“The most important thing is we have good people here. We have a good scouting team and we can go forward as we are. If that decision is made then it’s no problem.” From a man who rarely strays far from the party line in public, it was hardly a ringing endorsement.

Given the choice between an easier workload and control, most managers will choose the latter – and not only the English ones.

Having to work within West Bromwich Albion’s continental-style structure appears to have been one of the stumbling blocks which delayed Pepe Mel’s arrival. It is not so much that Mel objects to the structure itself, just that he wants it filled with people he knows and trusts.

Alan Shearer recently argued that Kinnear’s successor should be hand-picked by Pardew, but the theory is supposed to work the other way around. In practice, most managers only want directors of football who think exactly the way they do.

It is a natural enough reaction, but the point of this way of doing things is that those around the head coach provide the stability he cannot.

Managers want to control their own destiny and directors of football are an obstacle. If it comes to a straight decision between health and power, most will choose the latter.

Problems behind the scenes in 2013-14 Premier League

CARDIFF CITY: Sporting director Iain Moody sacked in October over an alleged £30m summer transfer overspend. Twenty-three-year-old Alisher Apsalyamov appointed as his interim replacement, only for visa issues to prompt a rethink. Moody has since taken up a similar job at Crystal Palace.

FULHAM: Alan Curbishley was made technical director in December, quickly leading to rumours he would be the next manager. Instead he followed Rene Meulensteen out of the door yesterday.

MANCHESTER UNITED: The Red Devils’ failure to pull off the high-profile summer transfers they hoped for was blamed more on David Gill’s replacement, new chief executive Ed Woodward, than Sir Alex Ferguson’s, David Moyes.

NEWCASTLE UNITED: Joe Kinnear quits as director of football this month after failing to make a permanent signing during two transfer windows in the job.

SUNDERLAND: Roberto De Fanti ousted as director of football during January transfer window. The former agent made 14 signings after taking the job in June, but few have had much success.

SWANSEA CITY: Reports that Michael Laudrup’s agent, Bayram Tutumlu, attempted to buy and sell players without the board’s knowledge saw the club end ties with him in the summer, and marked the beginning of the end of Laudrup’s time in South Wales.

TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR: Weekend rumours technical director Franco Baldini’s job is under threat after the money received for Gareth Bale was spent badly.

WEST BROMWICH ALBION: Pepe Mel turns down vacant coach’s job in December after refusing to work within club’s existing structure, only to get the job a fortnight later. The suspicion is his backroom could quietly arrive in the summer.

Journalists

David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer