What do sporting directors do? ‘I feel like a bin’ – The Athletic

Tom BurrowsMar 21, 2024

“I see the role as a bit like the conductor of an orchestra.”

Simon Wilson, Stockport County’s director of football, is describing his job, explaining how it works and setting out what the position entails.

Victor Orta, now in the role at Sevilla, having worked at Middlesbrough and Leeds United, had a slightly less glamorous take: “I feel like a bin.”

It’s a topic that’s come into focus recently as both Manchester United and Liverpool went about filling the vacancy, which could set the wheels in motion for movement across this sector heading into next season.

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Newcastle United’s Dan Ashworth was placed on gardening leave after telling the club he wants to join Manchester United, and Richard Hughes’ arrival at Liverpool from Bournemouth was confirmed yesterday, as part of a restructure that has already seen Michael Edwards rejoin as CEO of football for Fenway Sports Group.

Dan Ashworth is arguably the highest-profile sporting director in English football (Serena Taylor/Newcastle United via Getty Images)

With those high-profile moves in mind, The Athletic spoke to a range of people within the industry to get a better understanding of what a sporting director does and the challenges they face.

The sporting director role sits between the head coach and the board/owners in a club’s hierarchy. They are expected to provide a clear vision, oversee all the departments and have the ability to manage up and down.

“If you are trying to grow a club,” Wilson explains, “you have to have someone who is the guardian trying to get you to where you want to be over multiple seasons. The movement of players is quite quick, the average lifespan of a manager is quite short, and so someone has to look at it as a multi-year project, almost to be the architect saying, ‘We’re at this point now, we want to be at this point in the future’. If things change, if a manager leaves, then the project can continue.”

“You are the link, a bridge, between the board and the football side on the grass,” is Orta’s assessment. “You try to be a leader and align decisions.

“It’s a role where you’ve got to have a good range of knowledge — you need to know about the technical side, use of big data, regulations and laws, about the economy as you’re managing budgets/salaries, psychology so you can manage the team, staff and board. It’s not an easy role.

Richard Hughes (centre left) in conversation with Bournemouth manager Andoni Iraola (AFC Bournemouth)

“More times, I feel like a bin because I receive a call from the owner saying, ‘We’re not winning’, or from the head coach saying, ‘We’re not performing’, or from the academy saying, ‘We’re losing this player’, or from an agent saying, ‘My player is not playing’, or the same thing from a player. You are often the first call for people to offload.”

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A former sporting director at a top-division club, who wished to be anonymous to protect relationships, agreed: “Their job is to protect and enhance a club’s long-term playing health. Protecting against the short-term impulses of a manager who needs to win on Saturday against medium-term progress. To design, install and lead a plan for the football side of the club, normally taking in playing style as well as recruitment. It’s to define what it is we are, and what we are trying to do, and how we’re going to do it.

“You need a front man to draw up a plan, and then drive that plan through.”

But how do you define success in the role? Is that not tricky and harder to judge than with a manager, for example?

Matt Wade, head of sporting strategy at Feyenoord, disagrees and sets out how the Dutch club would go about doing this.

“It’s easy so long as an organisation knows where they want to get to,” he says. “Let’s say we were going to hire a sporting director tomorrow. At Feyenoord, it’s important that you can over-perform versus budget, as we have to compete with Ajax, who spend much more than we do on salaries, for example.

“You also need to be comfortable with selling your best players and constantly pushing that net plus transfer balance and consistently qualifying for Champions League football. They are our real key drivers, so if we were looking at a sporting director, we would be looking at who has demonstrated the ability to create a player development environment, to hire coaches who grow the value of the team, and you need to be strong in player trading.

“We have seven sporting goals, so we would probably create a measurement point against all of those seven and try to bring someone in who could demonstrate their ability to do that.”

Asked the same question, the anonymous ex-sporting director says he pays careful attention to changes made to the first-team management. In his mind, a constant revolving door is a sign of a sporting director without a clear and coherent plan.

He said: “If you see a club sacking a manager after six weeks, as we’ve seen a lot in the Championship this year with Millwall and Sunderland of late, that’s a catastrophic failure of leadership. A good director of football shouldn’t — you can never say never — allow that to happen. You have to minimise the chances of that happening.

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“I’m not saying either Joe Edwards or Michael Beale is a terrible manager but, for whatever reason, they weren’t right for those clubs at that time. That’s a failure of leadership. You have to minimise the chances of a bad fit. Taking Gary Rowett’s players and asking them to play Joe Edwards football… Neil Harris will probably suit those players better.”

Pete Couhig, who is the sporting director at Wycombe Wanderers in League One, agrees: “I see clubs that go through 10 managers in a decade. It’s a cop-out that clubs fire managers. I don’t understand how you build a squad from a window-to-window basis with a manager who wants to accomplish certain things, without having a serious commitment to letting them have the time.

“There’s pressure when things aren’t going well to fire the manager and a lot of people fold. The hardest thing to do is keep your manager. I don’t understand how you can build a team to compete with a multi-season approach when you don’t have a good partnership between the manager, the sporting director and the owners.”

A recurring theme mentioned by those approached for this piece is the importance of hiring a sporting director who aligns with a club’s vision.

Alex Muzio, chairman of Union Saint-Gilloise, uses the examples of Liverpool and Manchester United to explain this.

“It’s all about what you’re aiming for,” he says. “Liverpool have used data over a long period to identify people, players and even Jurgen Klopp. So if you’re being hired there as a sporting director, maybe it’s not the same profile as somewhere like Manchester United. You’d be expected to drive the recruitment processes as a priority. Alex Inglethorpe does the academy and can kind of be left to himself.

“So it depends a lot on which club you’re at. If you were Liverpool, you’d be looking for someone with an analytical background who understands the processes that are in place. At United, it makes total sense they want someone like Ashworth, who will drive the process and hire good people underneath him.”

Another common theme among those interviewed was the need for patience and how a sporting director can only be judged after at least three years.

Of course, recruitment — and nailing that part of the job — is still king.

Arguably the best example of this was Edwards during his time as Liverpool’s sporting director. He identified Klopp to replace Brendan Rodgers in 2015 and helped bring in players such as Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino, Alisson and Virgil van Dijk, who all contributed greatly to the club winning the Premier League and Champions League.

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Edwards was equally skilled at getting rid of unwanted players for tidy profits, including Jordon Ibe and Brad Smith to Bournemouth for a combined £21million ($27m), Kevin Stewart to Hull City for £8m and Danny Ward to Leicester City for £12.5m. He also shifted Philippe Coutinho to Barcelona for £142m. Not every signing worked though — Lazar Markovic for £20m is one notable example.

GO DEEPER

Michael Edwards – the football visionary FSG simply cannot live without

In comparison to this, and as explained in this piece, Manchester United’s recruitment has often seemed a muddled and dysfunctional mess, with several expensive signings failing to deliver, such as Antony from Ajax for £85.5m, and their very public failed pursuit of Barcelona’s Frenkie de Jong.

“The biggest spend of a football club is on its players and the biggest range of things happen around transfers,” says Wilson. “So if you get that right, you are getting 80 per cent of the problem right. You can see why people who come from a recruitment and analysis background tend to come into the sporting director position. You have got to get talent right — and that could be your own homegrown players, rather than recruitment from the outside.”

Orta and Couhig mention recruitment as a testing part of the job.

“The market is a bit crazy,” says Orta. “People think signing a player is like Football Manager, that you click and the player plays for you. You have to align a lot of interests — the team that is going to sell, the player, the agent, the environment of the player, your own club. It’s like a jigsaw — you need all the pieces together.

“Sometimes you can do a really good job but then there are things that can be out of your control, such as a big club coming in with more money, or the agent having other interests. That’s the part I find hardest.”

Victor Orta is now the sporting director at Sevilla (George Wood/Getty Images)

Couhig adds: “Contractual situations, the pure business side of the sport, dealing with agents… those are the toughest parts but those are also the bits I enjoy. If you’ve got thin skin, this is not the job for you. The pressure is unbelievable.”

There are still some clubs — Fulham under Tony and Shahid Khan and David Sullivan at West Ham United, for example — where the owners have a big say in transfers but this is increasingly rare.

Aside from recruitment, what are the other most challenging parts of the role? And what are the ideal character traits for a sporting director?

For Wade, anyone in that position must understand their weaknesses and be happy to delegate responsibilities.

“What clubs do wrong is they try to find these ‘unicorn’ sporting directors who can do everything or they hire someone with specialist strengths and don’t surround them with complementary skill sets,” he says. “The good sporting directors will go, ‘My strengths are coaching/recruitment so we, as a club, are going to hire an assistant sporting director or equivalent who is strong on data/performance’, for example. It’s about covering your blind spots.

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“The hardest part of the job is the expectation to be everything to everyone. You are the leader of a multi-faceted department that covers everything ranging from guys who code data models to medical, performance, operations, coaching, recruitment and player development. You are expected to have a level of competency across all these things and develop people. The hardest part is this unrealistic expectation to be everything to everyone.”

This was a view echoed by Damien Comolli, who was a pioneer for the position in England when he was hired by Tottenham Hotspur in 2005. He said the main advice he passes on to others is to avoid working in isolation.

Damien Comolli was a sporting director pioneer (Valentine Chapuis/AFP via Getty Images)

“When I look back at my time as sporting director, the biggest mistakes I made were decisions where I couldn’t listen to people or consult people. It’s such a frantic job. It’s 24/7 and it’s 12 months out of 12. You must have people around you that you can listen to, who you can go to for advice, to have the time to take a break and think about the next decision.”

In previous interviews, Ashworth, who held similar jobs at West Bromwich Albion, England and Brighton & Hove Albion, has also referenced this. He once described the job as “sitting in the middle of a wheel and my job is to bring together different departments, connecting those spokes”.

Wilson said a particular challenge was trying to balance out competing interests in what was a constant juggling act.

“You’ll have everyone focusing on Saturday’s game but you might have the long-term interests of the academy in mind,” he says. “You might have someone in the medical team who wants to safeguard the players because they know it’s high risk, a coach that might want to play them, and a player who wants to be available for selection.

“You find yourself in a lot of conflict situations, people with different opinions, and you have to try to find the line of best fit. You are making a lot of decisions.”

GO DEEPER

Dan Ashworth – the sporting director Manchester United want to lure from Newcastle

(Top photos: Getty Images; design: Eamonn Dalton)

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Tom Burrows is a football news writer for The Athletic UK. He was previously a staff editor for almost three years. Prior to that, he worked on news and investigations for national newspapers. Follow Tom on Twitter @TBurrows16

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