Why hiring the right director of football for your club is so hard

Until the past decade, most English clubs did not have a director of football or its equivalent. This was long after they were a staple not just at every football club, but just about every professional team in every professional sport everywhere in the world.

(For convenience, let’s call the gig director of football (DOF) in this column, though depending on where you are it might be head of recruitment, sporting director, technical director or even chief football officer. What we basically mean is the football equivalent of a general manager in U.S. sports.)

Maybe it was tradition. Maybe it was managers (read: coaches) not wanting to give up power. Or maybe it was the fact that Sir Alex Ferguson never had one at Manchester United, and he was the GOAT. (That sort of logical fallacy is especially idiotic in hindsight — like thinking that because Iowa’s Caitlin Clark can shoot from the logo or Elon Musk can borrow billions against his assets, it’s a good idea for you to do the same.)

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Whatever the case, these days they’re a must-have, to the point that Manchester United’s pursuit of Dan Ashworth (who is presently on “gardening leave” from his role at Newcastle United) is being treated with all the gravitas and speculation of a traditional transfer story, with talk of the Old Trafford club paying out as much as $20 million in compensation. (Fun fact: United do have a DOF, John Murtough, in place now, except his title is “football director” and not “director of football.” Why? Beats me. Maybe it’s a way of being incognito and befuddling the competition?)

The problem with hiring a DOF is that unlike recruiting players or coaches, it’s a pretty fuzzy, subjective and gut-feel endeavour. You can apply analytics, video study and old-fashioned eye test to evaluate players. You can judge coaches based on the results they achieve with the resources at their disposal, the football they choose to play and the in-game decisions they make. These are all more or less objective data points (more in the case of players, slightly less in the case of managers) that smart folks can then rework and reinterpret.

The same is not true of DOFs. Why? Let’s start by defining what a DOF is and what DOFs do.

Broadly speaking, it’s somebody who sits beneath the CEO and the board and is ultimately responsible for the football side of the club. That means, above all, making personnel decisions: Which players to sign, whom to let go, how much to pay them — that sort of thing. On the player side, they’ll act in concert with the coach — or manager, if that’s what you want to call him — the club’s scouts and the analytics department if the club has one. And they’ll play a big part (along with the board and CEO) in appointing not just the manager, but also the folks who run the youth system, the scouts, the backroom staff and so on.

Oh, and they’ll do all this working to a budget and thinking about the club’s well-being in the medium and long term.

That last part is crucial, and it’s one of the (several) reasons why you don’t want to leave this to the coach. In most cases, coaches will inevitably think short term because they have to. If they do poorly, they get fired; if they do well, they jump to a bigger club with more resources. That’s why most focus all their time on their own team and their own players. After all, they have to. Ask them to think about other players at other clubs and their knowledge will inevitably be limited mostly to guys they worked with before, guys they might see on TV playing for really big clubs, or guys their agent tells them are really good.

(I don’t want to pick on United, but take a look at the players United signed in the post-Ferguson/pre-Murtough era, when the managers had outsized say on transfers, and you may spot a pattern.)

The DOF also needs to be an expert dealmaker. In fact, it’s so important that some clubs even have specialists who do this on behalf of the DOF. The skill is getting the right player at the right price, both in terms of transfer fee and wages/contract length. That requires information both objective (How much do they earn at their current club and what would they want if they come to us? How much of a transfer fee would their club want?) and subjective. (Would they settle in at our club? Do they have off-the-pitch issues that we can help resolve or would we aggravate them?)

And, of course, there’s a whole reverse process when it comes to shipping players out. How do you get the best possible fee for the guys you move on, whether you’re trying to offload them or whether they’re being targeted by others? The best DOFs have hefty contact books and trusted sources of information. They can smell bull a mile away.

Part of the dealmaking side can also take you to some unsavoury places. Few deals get done without a gaggle of intermediaries these days. Sometimes, they provide valuable services in advising clubs in deals. Sometimes they’re just there as “bag men” to solicit commissions (essentially, de facto bribes) that go back to club officials who sanction a deal or family members who push their promising player in your direction. DOFs need to figure all this out and do what’s best for their employer.

Basically, the DOF needs “hard skills” (in player evaluation and resource allocation) and “soft skills” (in building consensus and keeping employees happy), as well as a ruthless streak (you’re the guy who will tell a coach he’s fired or a player he’s no longer wanted) and a proven ability to suck up (or, as some call it, “manage up”) to the CEO and the board in an industry where everybody has an opinion.

DOFs will be influenced by people below them (scouts, analytics staff), people above them (owners, CEOs) and, of course, managers who typically earn far more than they do.

Imagine you just hired a fancy new coach and gave him a three-year deal at £10m a year, and he marches into your office and says: “Hey, I know you said we can only spend £30m on a striker, but I need to get Player X because I worked with him before and he costs £50m and trust me, he’s really good and if we don’t get him, you’re not giving me the tools to do my job and I’ll have to talk to the owner.”

What do you do? You can’t sign Player X and risk having an unhappy coach who might do badly as a result, and then you look bad for hiring the coach. Or you can sign Player X and the coach will take all the credit if he’s good while you’ll have to take the blame if he’s bad.

There are few KPIs that work here. Yes, we can all marvel at clubs who sign players for modest transfers, outperform those with bigger budgets and ship guys out for vast profits. What’s tougher to establish is how much of it is down to the DOF, how much of it is down to the scout, how much of it is down to the coach, or how much of it is down to luck and small sample sizes. (After all, it’s not like clubs sign dozens of players a year.)

Brighton are the gold standard in that regard and they duly lost a gaggle of executives, including Paul Winstanley (now at Chelsea) and the aforementioned Ashworth, yet the club’s recruitment hasn’t suffered. Were they actually not that important to the success? Did they put in place processes and mechanisms that would ensure Brighton flourished once they were long gone? Were the club just smart in replacing them? (And if so, shouldn’t you look to hire the smart guys who chose their replacements?)

Who knows?

(Incidentally, this is why every time there’s a reshuffle at a club, or even before it happens, the spin doctors — usually PR folk working directly or indirectly for the club or one of the parties involved — will get to work. Good signings are down to whoever their client is. Bad signings are guys they opposed, but ultimately had to accept because others at the club insisted on acquiring them.)

More than most jobs in football, the narrative rules and it’s about selling yourself — to fans and media, sure, but mostly to owners and CEOs, which may be one of the reasons why the DOF tends to stick around longer than coaches.

It’s hard for outsiders to judge the work of a DOF and most like staying in the shadows. Club insiders are in a position to judge their work, of course, but those beneath them — scouts, analytics folks and lesser executives on the football side — often owe their jobs to them and aren’t going to expose their shortcomings. Insiders above them — chief executives, owners and board members — would have to admit to having made a mistake if they let them go, which is not something they like doing.

That’s why hiring the right DOF is crucially important and also so difficult. It’s hard to isolate their contribution to the performance of a club from the other moving parts. Information is limited and often tarnished — gossip and bad-mouthing, some of it self-interested and totally unfounded, is as rife in football as it is at middle school. And anyone can spin a tale.

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