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Is the sporting director being phased out?

Damien Comolli and Juande Ramos
Manager Juande Ramos (right) reportedly lost confidence in sporting director Damien Comolli before the pair were dismissed by Spurs on 25 October

By David Ornstein


The sacking of Damien Comolli as Tottenham's sporting director provides the clearest indication yet that English clubs have turned their backs on the continental system of football management.

Spurs have persevered with the policy for longer than most but it would be wrong to suggest the White Hart Lane outfit has been alone in its dalliance with a middle man operating between the manager and the board.

Chelsea, Portsmouth, West Ham, Fulham, Stoke and Newcastle are just some of the clubs to have employed an individual responsible for pretty much all football matters apart from coaching the first team and selecting the match-day squad.

But the role of sporting director - or technical director, director of football or general manager - has come under scrutiny more than ever this season after Alan Curbishley and Kevin Keegan both cited interference in transfer policy as the key reason for their resignations from West Ham and Newcastle respectively.

Frank Arnesen
The sporting director should be the one consistent piece in the jigsaw so that information, knowledge and structures remain in place for the long term and help to ensure sustained success

Former PSV and Tottenham sporting director Frank Arnesen

At Chelsea, Portsmouth and Fulham the position no longer exists, while at Newcastle, Tony Jimenez has left his post as vice-president (recruitment) though Dennis Wise remains as executive director (football), despite having no funds to sign players.

Upon appointing Harry Redknapp to succeed Juande Ramos as Tottenham manager, Spurs chairman Daniel Levy confirmed the club was returning to a "more traditional style of football management" for the first time since 1998.

Redknapp, whose first spell as Portsmouth boss ended soon after Velimir Zajec was recruited as executive director in November 2004, insists he will deal directly with Levy and that he will not work with a director of football.

However, having spent 10 years as the general manager of PSV Eindhoven and briefly fulfilling a similar role at Tottenham before leaving for Chelsea in 2005, Frank Arnesen is talking from experience when he warns of the dangers that come with handing one man total control as manager.

"Tottenham have chosen to go back to the old-fashioned English system and it could work fantastically," Arnesen, 52, told BBC Sport.

"The problem comes when a club gives all the responsibility to one person, results go against him and he leaves.

"He takes his chief scout with him and all of a sudden the club's knowledge and information is gone.

"The new man comes in, spends a lot of money changing everything and takes the team in a new direction.

"A sporting director brings continuity. In over 45 years at PSV they had about 25 managers but only three sporting directors who covered that whole period.

"The sporting director should be the one consistent piece in the jigsaw so that information, knowledge and structures remain in place for the long term and help ensure sustained success."

Historically speaking, English clubs have indeed placed all responsibility in the hands of one person, the manager.

At many clubs on the continent, the coach is made aware from the outset that his job is simply to coach, prepare and select the team.

If the manager is fearful, thinking you want his job, that is a problem. If he's resentful and frightened you are trying to get his job, it won't work

Stoke City director of football John Rudge

He will hold regular discussions with the sporting director about players he wishes to sign and positions he needs to fill, but recruitment itself is the job of the sporting director.

"Club presidents and their management teams build the clubs knowing the coach won't be around for very long," said the former Fulham director of football Les Reed. "To last two years at a European club these days is a long time.

"So to give that person huge amounts of money to spend on players who will probably be around for longer than the coach himself would be ridiculous.

"In England, the manager has traditionally recruited players - becoming a cross between a coach and a director of football.

"In that respect, we are the odd ones out and we are finding it very hard to make the transition."

Ramos was familiar with the continental system, having worked so successfully alongside director of football Ramon Rodriguez Verdejo at Sevilla.

The Spaniards shared a strong working relationship but Ramos did not know Comolli before his move to north London.

"At a number of English clubs people have just been thrown together and told to get on with it," said Reed.

Dietmar Beiersdorfer, Martin Jol and Bernd Hoffmann
Martin Jol is now working successfully with a sporting director and president at Hamburg in the Bundesliga

"In England there has to be a massive element of trust before it works.

"But there is now an anti-feeling growing and so most managers will want to have complete control over what they do."

Reed believes the "anti-feeling" could result in Spurs and other clubs employing an experienced chief scout to work alongside the manager and chairman.

"The interim way forward is the way Harry Redknapp will work with Daniel Levy where, to all intents and purposes, Levy becomes the sporting director and he talks with Harry on a daily basis," added Reed.

"They have an extremely well-connected chief scout, who sifts through all the information, presents it to the chairman and manager and says, 'This is what you requested and these are my recommendations'.

"The manager and the chairman talk through their shopping list and then the manager gets out of the way and the chairman does the shopping."

For all the public scepticism towards the continental model, many believe sporting directors have successfully existed for some time at English clubs in all but name.

Before his departure from Arsenal, vice-chairman David Dein had a tremendous relationship with Arsene Wenger and the Gunners manager trusted Dein implicitly in the transfer market.

Maybe one of our problems is that our English coaches don't get enough, or any, experience of coaching outside of England

Former Fulham director of football Les Reed

A similar bond has been struck up at Manchester United between chief executive David Gill and manager Sir Alex Ferguson.

Since appointing Lennie Lawrence (director of football) and Paul Trollope (first-team coach) in November 2005, Bristol Rovers have moved from the lower reaches of League Two to within two points of the play-off positions in League One.

Reading named Nick Hammond as their director of football in 2003 and reached the Premier League for the first time in 2006.

Director of football John Rudge and manager Tony Pulis have helped to oversee Stoke City's rise to the top flight for the first time in 23 years.

There has been a sense in English football that a sporting director is merely brought in as ready-made replacement for the manager when he is sacked, which turned out to be the case when Avram Grant replaced Jose Mourinho at Chelsea.

"If the manager is fearful, thinking you want his job, that is a problem. If he's resentful and frightened you are trying to get his job, it won't work," Rudge told BBC Radio 5 Live.

According to Arnesen, this situation is most likely to arise when a manager comes into a club before the sporting director, as happened with Martin Jol and Comolli at Tottenham and Mourinho and Grant at Chelsea.

606: DEBATE
David O, BBC Sport
As things stand it seems more and more coaches want to guide their clubs forward in the traditional English way.

But Reed thinks this is simply not possible in its purest form and that more managers need to experience the continental system if they are to succeed.

"With each club employing more and more staff to cover the first team, the academy, player recruitment, fitness and conditioning, sports medicine and so on, in the long term I don't think you can be a manager in the traditional sense," he said. "There just isn't enough time in the day.

"When Bobby Robson was at PSV he loved the system. He had a great relationship with Frank Arnesen because he just wanted to coach and have someone else take care of the rest.

"He had a great relationship with the players because he never had to negotiate contracts with them or deal with their agents.

"Maybe one of our problems is that our English coaches don't get enough, or any, experience outside of England.

"Bobby spent 20 years on the continent and is a great English manager and coach. If he can do that the rest of us can but it's going to take a shift in attitude."

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see also
Ramos loses his spurs
27 Oct 08 |  Tottenham
Levy explains decisions to fans
26 Oct 08 |  Tottenham
Tottenham sack Ramos for Redknapp
26 Oct 08 |  Tottenham
Ramos on the ropes
30 Sep 08 |  Tottenham
Not wanted: director of football
21 Aug 02 |  Football
Trollope & Lawrence pen new deals
10 Aug 07 |  Bristol Rovers
Charlton appoint Reed as new boss
14 Nov 06 |  Charlton


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