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Understanding the role of the Sporting Director

The Sporting Director is a relatively new position within football however the majority of English Premier League Clubs now have someone in the position. Some take the title of Sporting Director, whilst others include Technical Director, Director of Football, Head of Football Administration and General Manager. Many established Sporting Directors are now well sought after as the benefits of implementing effective structures have been observed as a method to help clubs improve areas such as recruitment, analysis, and operations. However, the benefits can be much broader for football clubs from balancing short-term success and long-term sustainability. In this article we speak to a number of Association of Sporting Directors members to gain an understanding of their perspective and their experiences in the role.

The Sporting Director role

We have observed that each football club has different aims, and as such have different requirements. This has a consequence for the role and the type of candidate they require to strengthen their club. Many sporting directors oversee multiple disciplines and teams within a football department and see the position as ideally operating at Board level where strategic decisions are influenced and made.

Having previously worked for clubs including Norwich, FK Bodø/Glimt and now currently the Director of Football at Blackburn Rovers, Gregg Broughton said:

“It is different at every club and has to be context specific. At Blackburn Rovers the role of Director of Football is to oversee the sporting side of the Club including the six departments: First Team, Academy, Player Recruitment, Analysis, Performance and Medical.

“I think this is a question that at times can confuse the public and people on the outside of our game. The role can be very different in different clubs. For me it has to be relevant to the desires and strategies that an individual clubs wants to adopt. In the same way any leadership role should.”

We have also seen members rise to Sporting Director from the aforementioned departments. Liverpool’s Michael Edwards came from an analysis background, while Stuart Webber has headed up Scouting and Recruitment before assuming his current Sporting Director position with Norwich. Ross Wilson came from an operations background and is now Sporting Director at Rangers Football Club having held similar positions in England and Scotland. Sitting on the Board at Rangers, he added:

“From my own personal perspective I think I’m totally clear on my approach and I’d hope that Rangers and my previous clubs would recognise me as someone who leads the Football Operation as both a Board Member and person responsible to lead our Football Department on a day-to-day basis, who sets and then drives alignment towards the Clubs Football Strategy and who builds and works with a team of people who are all working collectively and in-line with that vision. Developing our Academy, our medical and high-performance functions is critical to what I believe in, as is the scouting side and the development of elite facilities.”

The growing number of roles within football departments, across the multi-disciplinary teams, has required that clubs have needed to build support and leadership. In some clubs we have seen the introduction of the role of Assistant Sporting Director. Two include Neil Adams at Norwich City FC and Andy O’Boyle at Manchester United FC, whilst Julian Ward and David Weir have recently progressed from Sporting Director assistant roles at Liverpool and Brighton respectively. This suggests clubs are investing not just in the role, but in succession planning. We asked our members what they feel the benefits of having a Sporting Director are?

Association of Sporting Director Founder, Mike Rigg is one of the pioneers for the role within the English game. Rigg see’s the position as allowing:

“long-term strategic planning and ultimately pulling together the matrix of management across all the football operations and departments. Ensuring that all departments work together to create a high-performance environment and bridging the challenges of both the football and business strategies.”

Long-term and strategic planning were recurrent themes in our members answers with Rich Hughes, Director of Football, Forest Green Rovers FC adding:

“The role has several benefits, but the main one in our opinion is an ability to provide continuity and stability in transition periods for a football club, with the average tenure of a head coach or manager being as short as it is, clubs should not find themselves in a scenario where a manager leaves and the club finds itself without structure or information.

“Having a Sporting Director in situ also means that the club is able to work on a medium to long term basis as opposed to continued short term strategies. Having a Sporting Director will also be beneficial to a Head Coach or manager as it will give them a sounding board to develop forward and will avoid the Head Coach becoming stuck in an echo chamber.”

Hughes touched on the short-term nature of team management, which Gregg Broughton also relates to. Broughton feels the Sporting Director:

“allows a club to have sustainability at the forefront of everything it does, always keeping the medium and long term vision in focus without neglecting the fact that the short-term demands of winning every game is central to operations.”

Strategic vision and long-term sustainability were both associated as benefits of having a Sporting Director appointed. However, as a key leadership position, we asked how can the Sporting Director appointment fit with a Club’s football & business strategy?

Ross Wilson has a direct involvement as a Board member at Rangers, he said:

“It is my view that the Sporting Director has to either set and lead the club football strategy, as I did on appointment at Rangers and Huddersfield or join a club where they feel true alignment to an already existing culture and strategy, as I did at Southampton. I’ve genuinely loved every day in each of those three jobs because I’ve felt totally connected to those three clubs and the people working at those clubs.

“I would encourage that as individual Sporting Directors, we shouldn’t ever allow ourselves to join a club whereby the strategy is one that has misalignment from the outset, it’s never going to end well if it doesn’t feel right from the start.”

Hull City’s Head of Strategic Analysis & Recruitment, Lee Darnbrough spoke to his experience:

“I think the overall football strategy has to have short, medium, and long-term plans and it’s essential that the sporting director is involved in the creation, implementation, and review of the performance targets as they progress. I think where the football strategy is very short term based, then the potential negative implications can be massive. For example, you could look at the largest investment in the football club (player acquisition and maintenance of contracts) and if this is constructed without a clear alignment then the ramifications could take a long time to recover from. Additionally, even if the Sporting Director then loses their own job, the replacement sporting directors that follow may have different views of how they want to run things without considering the ownership group and the model they want to implement. It allows for some consistency across departments, in processes, and hopefully ensuring that every department is fully aware of their role within the overall football strategy.”

At this point, it is clear that the Sporting Director can provide additional leadership support to the Board and Head Coach or Manager. We asked members if club structures need to change to accommodate a Sporting Director? It is clear that the tasks were often performed by different people within a club and the Sporting Director can help provide a more structured approach to operations.

Mike Rigg doesn’t see the need for wholesale restructuring provided the club has a sound leadership structure, clarity in their aims and objectives and clear decision-making processes:

“Not really, they have been there in some form for many years, now this is just more formal, more structured and focussed on what the aim and objectives of the role are.”

These views were mirrored by Lee Darnbrough who said:

“I think the club football structure doesn’t need to change specifically, as every department exists already and operates within the roles and responsibilities within the bigger organisation.

“However, one area that potentially needs to adapt may be the acceptance of the role and that the Sporting Director is there to assist the manager (rather than be a threat) In achieving success for that football organisation.

“Historically, there has been resistance to change and, in some cases, seen as a power struggle, but there is growing evidence and acceptance that an effective structure within a football club can bring about improvements in performance and success.”

Forest Green Rovers Director of Football, Rich Hughes mirrored the above:

“A club structure does not need to change to accommodate a Sporting Director, but it does require people’s views and previous methods of working to flex. People may have been used to working in a certain manner, perhaps reporting into a manager who would have been the link to the hierarchy of the football club, with a Sporting Director in charge this would be different to the manner in which people are used to working.”

These comments link to the need for some form of stability and that a Sporting Director can be introduced successfully. However for progress there appears to be greater clarity required on the position of the Sporting Director and their actual position within the Club, with far too many Sporting Directors not having full decision-making power and / or a seat on the Board. For many, the Sporting Director must assume a Board level position to protect against some of the challenges of making the role a success.

Clubs hiring Sporting Directors often allow them strong input surrounding the appointment and future of the Head Coach or Manager. Strong relationships appear to be key with a strong degree of trust necessary. With the first team Manager / Head Coach lifecycle notoriously short-term, we asked if employing a Sporting Director can change that?

Mike Rigg experienced a strong relationship with Mark Hughes who he worked with at the Football Association of Wales, Blackburn, Manchester City and Queens Park Rangers. He feels that they can certainly assist:

“Yes, I believe they can. The Sporting Director is as strong and successful as the Head Coach they work with. True on field success is beneficial to both the Coach and the Sporting Director. The Sporting Director taking away the daily noise and challenges from the Head Coach allows him or her to do what they have been brought in to do, match day preparation and execution.”

Lee Darnbrough notes that:

“there is of course no guarantee that employing a sporting director can change the lifespan of any employee. However, somebody with an overall involvement in managing the ownership group of the football club may have a positive impact in measuring and managing expectations. They also may be a sounding board for when they need help, advice, or maybe a different perspective….It’s vital that there is a close working relationship built around trust and honesty in wanting the best working environment in an attempt to achieve success.“

Speaking of his experience Ross Wilson also notes the need for positive relationship:

“I am fortunate that I have positive relationships with every Manager or Head Coach that I’ve ever worked with. I’m proud to remain in contact with them all and close friends with others such as Steven Gerrard, Sean Dyche, Mark Robins, Ronald Koeman and Ralph Hassenhüttl.

“I think that’s important for us, naturally there will be relationships in any walk of life that don’t work but hopefully solid and developing football club structures and processes will lead to increasing relative success for clubs, for coaches and for managers. I work at a club that has only had 17 managers – Giovanni van Bronckhorst is the 17th manager of Rangers in our 150-year history, and I am delighted with the strength of personal and professional relationship that we have developed.”

Club structures are continually evolving with the off-the-field investments to help enhance on-field performance. Sporting Directors are growing in importance as clubs can see how having strong leadership can benefit them in the medium and long-term.

This article discusses the role of Sporting Director and how those working in the role see it. A recent article we published fcbusiness Magazine on the topic can be found here.  

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