In light of the tragic news that Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha’s helicopter crashed shortly after it took off from the King Power Stadium on the 27th October, it seemed fitting to cast an eye over and admire the work that goes on behind closed doors at football clubs of todays game.
In terms of the more corporate side to clubs, it is often unknown to the average football fan what occurs off the pitch. While different football clubs have distinct ways of management, it seems that in the modern game the most successful clubs have all adopted a common position between the manager and the owner. This position is often called “Director of football”, “Sporting director” or “Technical Director” as well as variations of these titles. This role is pivotal in order to facilitate relationships between managers and owners as well as re-structuring transfer strategies or hiring new staff.
Leicester City Football Club is a good example of a football club to highlight the role of the director of football. Leicester currently sit 10th in the league table, one place below their 9th place finish in the 17/18 season. Of course for Leicester fans, nothing has compared to the 15/16 title-winning season and perhaps it is just cup runs that fans can dream about in a post-title winning slump.
There were many factors that contributed to their title-winning season, one of which were the decisions of the board and owner. Some pivotal decisions were made and the one to facilitate these was Jon Rudkin – the director of football. Not only did Jon Rudkin play a major role in the hiring of Claudio Ranieri but he also facilitated transfers into the club including Riyad Mahrez, N’Golo Kante and Jamie Vardy. Often, people have been quick to credit Ranieri and many have corrected those by stating Rudkin as the start of it all. Rudkin’s role has been described to include, inter alia, the following: leading both staff and player recruitment, improving player development and reinforcing the club’s football philosophy.
Modern-day success in the more corporate side to football is not rare. Club setups have seen success in Italy with Giuseppe Marotta, who although he has been around the block and back in Italy (8 clubs in total so far), has gained international fame from his time at Juventus. Since joining in 2010, he has been the one responsible for the signing of both Antonio Conte and Max Allegri as well as players who were, at the time, undervalued or unwanted such as: Sami Khedira, Paul Pogba, Carlos Tevez and Patrice Evra. It has been these successive and massively successful decisions that have turned the Old Lady into a Champions League force to be reckoned with once again.
In Spain, Monchi has been responsible for revolutionising the scouting and recruitment system at Sevilla, which has allowed a handful of managers since 2000 to all have world class players with the likes of Dani Alves, Sergio Ramos, Carlos Bacca (to name a few) all making a name for themselves in Seville.
In Germany, there are currently two contrasting styles of sporting director that have impressed in an equal manner. Michael Zorc is an example of a sporting director who did not necessarily need to introduce a philosophy of football that guided the Dortmund team how to play, instead he introduced a strategic philosophy that focused on youth facilities to ultimately create a more sustainable business model for them. For Zorc, Dortmund is his magnum opus and it has been since 1981. First as a player and a captain (making 463 appearances) and then as sporting director from 1998. He is the epitome of a one-man club.
In contrast to Zorc is Ralf Rangnick. As a former astrophysics graduate who played non-league football in England, Rangnick gained a name for himself with fast counter-attacking football in the Bundesliga before stepping away from coaching in 2011. It was this style of football he wanted to integrate into the playing style of RB Leipzig since 2012 and almost coach from a distance if you like. He thus carefully made sure any manager who had any chance of being hired, suited his style of play exactly. In addition to this, which is becoming a bit of a theme in this article, he invested heavily in recruitment and facilities. However, Rangnick illustrates how the role of sporting director means one cannot have any less football knowledge than any manager, because fast forward six seasons and not only did Leipzig finish runners-up in the Bundesliga in their first season in the top flight, but Rangnick had also spent two stints as manager whilst painting his role as sporting director.
The list goes on and proves when done right, the position is the keystone for club development. These examples also show influence over varying lengths of time. Someone like Zorc, who dedicates his life to the club (20 years as the sporting director), is completely contrasted to that of Marotta, who has spent time in senior roles at 8 different clubs before only requiring 8 years to pull off one of the most successful turnarounds in modern footballing history.
The importance of the role is also evident in the English national set-up with Dan Ashworth. Ashworth has occupied the technical director’s role for England since 2015, after making the step up from the role as director of elite development. His time ultimately culminated in a very successful World Cup run, which took England to the semi-finals before crashing out to Croatia, a team who many fancied England to beat. Nonetheless, the World Cup performance, as well as the steady incline in world rankings, have caused many to applaud the work done by Ashworth in close contact with Gareth Southgate.
For those that think that behind closed doors transfers are mundane, they are mistaken. As Ashworth completed a move that was as eyebrow-raising as Rafa Benitez to Newcastle (after leaving Real Madrid) or Rob Green to Chelsea. It is a career move that landed him at Brighton and Hove Albion as the Technical Director, which was described as the following: to oversee the development of the squad and club in unison. This role needed to be filled by someone with great experience to guide a club who has little experience operating with so much money and in such a competitive league. Many have labelled this a blow for Southgate, who has seen steadily increasing success in partnership with Ashworth. While for the Seagulls, this is a huge acquisition for the development of the club.
While it is obvious to point out that the Technical Director position is different to the Director of football’s position, it is still unclear to fans just how different it is but one thing remains clear; it is undoubtedly pivotal in the development of a football club. It is also a role that covers the whole of the club without being narrowed to certain aspects. For a club like Brighton who are in such unchartered territory (their record best position is 13th in Division One in the 81/82 season), the addition of Ashworth to oversee a new era in the club’s history is essential. It is impeccable timing for Brighton and fans will be eager to see the long-term repercussions of this appointment.
The role of Technical Director has become sought after for many clubs (big and small) and this need gave rise to the Footballing Association’s course (set up by Ashworth) where trips to Google and the RAF were part of the curriculum. The first intake of the new level five course included students such as: Dougie Freedman, David Moss, Les Ferdinand and Jim Fraser. The fact that this is the first course officially offered by the FA indicates just how modern this new role is in the development of football clubs in the United Kingdom.
The large variety in talks given to the students highlights the inter-disciplinary approach taken by those at the FA, with talks from individuals from YouTube, Nokia, the SAS, the RAF and a poker player. These talks encompassed critical thinking, self-awareness, analytics, examination of risk and decision-making under cognitive load. In addition to this, there is a three-day visit to BMW in Germany looking into recruitment. It seems that to be a successful director, one needs a truly dynamic and wide-reaching skill set.
This course sets a precedent for Premier League clubs and within the coming season, do not be surprised to see almost all of the Premier League clubs with directors, whether they are Technical Directors or simply just Directors of football. It also showcases the tough responsibilities of being the middleman in many different scenarios within a club set up. It is undoubtedly important to have a supreme knowledge of football, however, the additional attributes make the position particularly unique to each club in the Premier League.
As a final note, our thoughts and prayers from all of us at 90MAAT are with Leicester as well as the families and friends of those who sadly passed in the crash a few weeks ago.