Director Of Football: The Modern Game’s Greatest Misnomer?

“We all understand that the role of football manager is a results based position and clearly the results have not been satisfactory. The regression of the team led by the manager may be the immediate trigger for today’s action; it is also the result of some poor decisions over the last six years. Three managerial appointments each with different playing styles and the player investments that they triggered.


To achieve the long term expectations of our supporters this needs to be a catalyst for a fundamental review of the football operation to reset our culture and playing philosophy, then restructuring the football operation, appointing a manager and investing significantly in player transfers consistent with that philosophy. 


Clearly times have changed since Sir Alex Ferguson ran the club pretty much from top to bottom and a Director of Football role must be a key consideration to lead that process. We’d like to see funds for team investment ring-fenced and significant independence given to football appointments by people with football expertise. 


It is important now that we all come together behind the team and we see the players giving their all for the Club and the fans for the rest of this season and beyond.”


The above statement was released by MUST (Manchester United Supporters Trust) in response to Jose Mourinho’s sacking on Tuesday and calls for a rethink of the football structure at the club. Andrew McGregor, associate in the sports law team at independent legal practice Brabners discusses the role of the Director of Football and whether this approach is right for Manchester United going forward. 


The prospect of another January transfer window looms and Manchester United will be under immense pressure to show that they have been able to steady the ship post-Mourinho. One key question from critics will no doubt be whether the club should have already appointed a director of football (DoF). 



Before his departure, Mourinho’s transfer struggles were a central talking point in the summer and the club’s failure to sign a centre half has been strongly linked to an apparent lack of cohesion on transfer activities off the pitch. Ineffectual, expensive signings coupled with below par performances on the pitch have seen pressure mount to ‘put things right’, and quickly.


Appointing someone to alleviate this pressure seems like a logical step, but the suggestion that a DoF will simply come in, take the reins and have an immediately positive impact in the next transfer window is an overly simplistic one.


The perception of what a DoF is and does changes from one person to the next – and from one club to the next. Working with clubs and representatives at different levels of the game, we regularly encounter different versions of the role and have seen how it interlinks with more traditional management positions like the CEO, COO, finance director and club secretary.


The purest definition of the role is to take the title literally – to direct all football-related operations. But the range of ownership and management structures in football means that clear demarcation of responsibilities is often difficult to identify. Consequently, clubs use the title to describe a role which seeks to plug gaps in those complex structures. 


Some clubs are looking for specific recruitment expertise – talent identification, trusted domestic and international networks and negotiation skills. Others will be looking for more technical and strategic expertise to address the technical development of both players and coaching staff.


Finding someone who suits the specific ask is difficult and, as Manchester United has proven, often time-consuming. It’s not always right to parachute someone in to solve a club’s immediate transfer woes, although this has been the approach at some clubs – for example, an agent is contracted as a consultant to support transfer related activities during a particular transfer window.


The ambiguity is partly due to the DoF being a concept that has struggled to translate from foreign club ownership models into the English game. Traditionally, the consensus has been that all transfer related activities should be the responsibility of the manager so the DoF has had to battle a lot of cultural resistance.


It’s also true that you will rarely find two clubs anywhere in the world with the exact same operating structure. As a result, the DoF position has developed differently in different places. 


Take some of the best examples. Giuseppe Marotta built a legacy at Juventus through key signings like Antonio Conte as manager and on-the-pitch talismans such as Paul Pogba, Andrea Pirlo and Carlos Tevez.


Monchi’s time at Sevilla turned a financially unstable club into a commercial powerhouse.  Now one of the most profitable clubs in the Spanish league, ‘Los Hispalenses’ has used this platform to win three consecutive Europa League trophies.


Both of these men are excellent examples of the role in action, but they were not brought in to fill the same roles or overcome the same challenges. 


Where does the director of football fit in?


When you consider the variety and intricacy the DoF role can have, it’s easy to appreciate the importance of it to the modern game.


The job of a manager is more complex than ever – shorter transfer windows, extensive regulatory frameworks and an increasing number of intermediaries (agents) make for more hectic transfer windows. It’s difficult to see how a first team manager could physically handle all transfer-related activity, current player contract management and prepare the team for upcoming fixtures all at once.


With these increased demands on a manager’s time, something has to give. The transfer window is the busiest time of year for a football club, and this is when the seams coming apart is most apparent. But that doesn’t mean the problems are limited to just two periods of the year.


A DoF can relieve the pressure on the manager and allow him or her to concentrate on the tasks which lead to results on the pitch. They can take a step back and think more long-term – particularly as the average lifespan of a manager is fewer than 100 games. The DoF can develop a strategy and succession plan for the club, which encourages sustainable financial management and a productive relationship with clubs’ academies and develop the ‘identity’ and ‘culture’ of the club.


Manchester United and Manchester City – English football’s two biggest clubs by revenue – are comfortably big enough to sit in the FTSE 350 were they listed businesses in the UK. The responsibility of managers to drive success on the pitch is not always conducive to running a huge commercial enterprise off it.


The DoF is the perfect bridge between the football club and the business. By forming key relationships with the senior management – the CEO, finance director, commercial director and the club secretary, for example – they can ensure that commercial and on-the-pitch ambitions are aligned as much as possible.


But, while this is true, simply appointing a transfer window administrator is unlikely to resolve the issues facing a club – be it a giant like Manchester United looking to match former glories, or a struggling lower league team that needs to steady the ship. The director of football role must be far more nuanced, and finding the right person who will embed seamlessly into the existing management structure is no simple task. 


Image: PA Images