Directors of football

Directors of football are a little-loved breed. Adam Powley looks at how the role is plainly failing at Spurs

 The various billionaires now carving up the Premier League are not used to deferring power to their employees. Both Roman Abramovich and the new Abu Dhabi-based owners of Manchester City, coming from cultures that tend towards autocratic rule in commerce and politics, view an omnipotent manager of the British variety as a potential obstruction to the way they do business.

At City, the story is yet to play out but already the profile of chief executive Garry Cook has been raised. At Chelsea, Luiz Felipe Scolari’s control over transfers is lessened by the presence not just of Peter Kenyon but by “global scout” Frank Arnesen. He arrived at Stamford Bridge via Tottenham, where a director-of-football structure has been in place since Alan Sugar’s reign.

ENIC’s version of the system promises continuity: there is a curb on costly buying and selling every time a new coach is appointed, and transfers are decided by committee. But at Spurs it has never been clear who has the final say, so the system has provided anything but stability. In seven years of control ENIC has had seven managers (including caretakers), three directors of football and a constant turnover of players.

The latest incumbents, too, are struggling to make things work. Unfinished business during the transfer window left Spurs short of striking options, with only Roman Pavlyuchenko a direct replacement for the fresh losses of Robbie Keane and Dimitar Berbatov, plus that of Jermain Defoe in January. It was reported that Daniel Levy had wanted to make Berbatov stay, but at the 11th hour reluctantly decided to let Juande Ramos make the decision; yet Ramos has said: ‘‘The person who has the capacity and the wherewithal to control the club is the chairman. That’s what he’s there for and that’s what he does.”

Ramos later tempered that statement by saying “the decisions are made together”, though this only added to the confusion. And that’s the nature of ENIC’s system. It is opaque enough so that not only the manager can take the rap for any failings (as in the case of Martin Jol), but the director of football as well. It was Damien Comolli, after all, who had to front the official statement about the end of the window that in Levy’s words had been a “disappointment”.

The situation at Spurs has echoes at Newcastle, where Kevin Keegan resigned because players were apparently being bought and sold by Dennis Wise without his agreement. Intriguingly, Mike Ashley had been advised by his associate Paul Kemsley, a former Spurs director. Kemsley first came to press attention for a clandestine meeting with Ramos during the prolonged farce of Jol’s sacking – and for exposing faults among candidates on Alan Sugar’s The Apprentice.

Such examples do not mean that the director-of-football system cannot work in this country. At Reading and Exeter, the presence of one appears to have complemented stability and progress. Spurs argue that three successive UEFA Cup qualifications and a healthy balance sheet prove the structure has been a success. Plenty of fans argue that the set-up has been a handbrake on the club’s potential, but that is not to say that the theory is fundamentally flawed.

With the demands of modern football, managers do not have enough time to do what they used to. Even at Manchester United and Arsenal, where the managers exert almost feudal control, responsibilities have been delegated: Alex Ferguson was happy to let Carlos Queiroz take charge of coaching, while Arsène Wenger had former director David Dein do much of the ­negotiating legwork in transfers.

But crucially, such bosses have tended to retain the final word on player ins and outs, and their success proves the principle. Tellingly, another steeped in the old-guard traditions, Martin O’Neill, claims he turned down the chance to take over at Tottenham precisely because of the system there. Aston Villa’s recent defeat of a disorganised Spurs provided a timely justification of his standpoint. But an illustration of how fraught removing power from managers can be has a much older precedent. Manager Keith Burkinshaw reportedly said on his departure from Spurs in 1984: “There used to be a football club over there.” Despite doubts over its veracity, it has been repeatedly quoted to illustrate the creeping commercialisation of the game that led to Burkinshaw’s resignation. Twenty-four years on, it increasingly bears the look of prophecy not just for Spurs but for football as a whole.

From WSC 261 November 2008