GRAEME MCKAY’S ARTICLE FROM THE MOST RECENT EDITION OF THE 90 MINUTE CYNIC QUARTERLY MAGAZINE THE CYNICAL ON THE ROLE OF THE SPORTING DIRECTOR.
If there is a football role equivalent of the EU, it’s the Sporting Director. Threatened with suspicion and often misunderstood in Britain, the rejection of it is likely to lead to declining performances and internal chaos. In the rest of Europe it’s a natural part of things, an instrument of consistency and stability. Trapped in deepest EU-land, Graeme McKay looks at the nature of the sporting director role and how after Brendan’s Rodgers departure from Celtic it should be the foundation upon which to continue his work.
“The example I gave the players was Barcelona who have been working the same way for over 20 years, since Johan Cruyff came in. They enjoyed great success under him, but then had a more difficult period, but they didn’t doubt it. Rather, they stayed with it and that paid off again when Pep Guardiola took over,”
The quote is from Brendan Rodgers’ recent autobiography. Continuity of culture is a pretty big theme in his book and seems to be one of the key tenets to his style of management.
This idea of cultural continuity and consistency is very reminiscent to management and organisational culture theories from the business world. In a famous model from the 1980s, Edgar Schein spoke about the need for an organisation to have levels of culture that penetrate every facet. In short, these three levels encompass the organisation’s artefacts, values and core assumptions. The theory is that the core of the culture is the essence of the organisation; in this case, why does Celtic exist as an institution? The next layer up constitutes what the club says about itself, the way the employees act and the philosophy they have when it comes to working. The outer layer represents the visual examples of the values the organisation has, whether that be decoration or dress code.
From Rodgers’ word choice in his autobiography, it is fairly clear that he has knowledge of leadership and organisational culture:
“I had done a presentation for all the staff […] I wanted to ensure that everyone from the kitchen staff to the ground staff, the people working in the technical team, the cleaners, knew that we’re all together,” he wrote of his first day at Lennoxtown.”
“I gave the players a four-piece document (called One Vision, One Club) of how we work, the collective ideas and what our responsibilities are […] the internal rules to be followed in relation to every aspect of their life as a Celtic player.”
Rodgers is fundamentally interested in how his values can take over the whole of the football club. He wants professionalism throughout, or as he puts it, he wants the club to show “three core values […] respect, unity and excellence.”
He writes about how this excellence needs to be a part of everything the club does, all the way down to his employment of an Executive Chef that goes to European away venues the day before the squad does so that the players’ normal dietary requirements can be in place for their arrival.
He sees the importance in artefacts and ensured that the Hampden dressing room is well-prepared before cup games by having the lockers adorned with big images of each player and their squad numbers, as well as having pictures of positive team moments on the walls along with words of inspiration.
“It is really important the players feel a sense of having brought Lennoxtown and Celtic Park to Hampden. It gives the players a lift and anything that can provide optimism and a positive feeling, we want to do,” he wrote.
Rodgers also recognises the importance of emotion and communication when it comes to maintaining the culture of the club. In the lead up to the cup finals last year, he had DVDs prepared which contained player highlights, music the players liked and inspirational words. Before the Scottish Cup final, the players were shown a video of messages from their loved ones. He refers to his team talk as a “pre-match speech” and also noted that:
“[I] become a sort of storyteller in that moment […] we have a huddle in our changing room and that’s a symbol of our togetherness and our unity.”
(If you have made it this far without groaning and hitting that little ‘x’ at the top of the screen, then congratulations, you are not yet a Celtic Da.)
Rodgers has fanned the embers of whatever core values were still left at the club and he has enhanced them to the extent where there is a definite ‘Celticness’ about everything the club does at the moment (especially in comparison to Beggars Belief FC across the city [idea for Rangers newsletter called Beggar’s Belief]). Apart from Celtic TV. That’s still a garbage fire.
The culture of Celtic appears to be bent to the will of whoever is in charge next. When Strachan replaced O’Neill there were rumblings from the players about the amount of fitness training they were expected to do. When Deila replaced Lennon he spoke of the dietary problems and then had conflicts with the big personalities of the group. I imagine they shouted something which is inherent in organisational culture: that’s not the way we do things around here!
We are currently reaping the benefits of having someone in charge who is much more than a football coach. Rodgers is a unique individual that marries psychology, science, management and leadership in a way that other coaches will not have any interest in. He is essentially an amalgamation of the main aspects needed in modern football management. But what happens next? What happens to respect, unity and excellence after Rodgers wins the 10 and moves on?
Organisations place a large emphasis on storytelling as a way of passing on the values between management as the older retire and the younger begin. But what is going to be left of Celtic’s culture when Rodgers and his backroom staff leave an awesome-shaped hole at the club? Who is going to be left to pass on the stories?
Europeans have a positive answer to that question, just like they do with the questions: should I get naked? Should I sneer? And should I smoke cigarettes?
One of the minor but annoying things about living surrounded by Germans is the fact that they stand ridiculously close to you in a checkout queue (like so close that you can feel their bellies touch your back when they breathe out), and also their inability to use either indicators or roundabouts, and also their complete lack of convenience, and also how they stare at complete strangers for a serial- killer length of time, and also how if you are two people at a four-person table in a restaurant, they will sit another two randoms at your table, BUT MAINLY how when you ask them who the manager is at their football team, they will tell you the name of the Sporting Director or Director of Football.
To Germans, the Sporting Director manages the club, the Head Coach coaches the team.
One of the major criticisms of Carlo Ancelotti’s time at Bayern was pretty vague: Bavarian people accused him of just not getting Bayern. He just wasn’t in sync with the workings of the city and of the club. Essentially what they were saying was: he doesn’t fit into our culture. What Celtic should be doing is taking the building blocks of excellence that Brendan Rodgers and his team have put in place and using them as a jumping-off point in the creation of what it means to be modern Celtic. Re-design a specific Celtic way. To do that, they need to employ people in sports management that are going to be responsible for defining a footballing direction.
The concept of a Sporting Director has a pretty toxic reputation in Scotland. Celtic tried it once or twice, but didn’t actually really try it: they once appointed a commentator off the telly to be the ‘General Manager’ and they once appointed Kenny Dalglish to play golf and hang out in Spain for a few months. But the club’s heart never seemed to be in it.
The Banter Years have thrown the concept back in the Scottish football limelight, and with equally hilarious consequences. In 2017, Rangers unveiled what would be their new model, following it up by not being able to find a DoF before appointing a head coach in March. Three months later, Mark Allen was appointed and Rangers spunked their transfer kitty on players head coach Pedro Caixinha wanted — classic Sporting Director move.
In Europe, the SD is one of the most consistent aspects of a football club. He outlives the coaches and is essentially tasked with the creation of a footballing identity for the club. One of the most famous, Monchi, spent 16 years at Sevilla and was the man behind the modern incarnation of the club. He joined them in the second tier and was responsible for the promotion of the likes of Sergio Ramos and the signing of players like Dani Alves and Rakitic.
When Sevilla lost 5-0 to Barcelona in this season’s Copa del Rey it was not the coach, Montella, that was moved on, it was the SD who had just replaced Monchi, Oscar Arias.
“There will be change in terms of the person who directs the sporting arm of the club. We understand that mistakes have been made this year and there was a need to put it right,” said the president. Sevilla understood that their coach had not been given enough support and ammunition.
German football has some of the most impressive Sporting Directors around. Ralf Rangnick has been in his position at RB Leipzig for two years. He brought Ralph Hasenhüttl from Ingolstadt and together they led Leipzig into the Champions League. The culture of RB Leipzig is clear: they have a defined style of play and a well-supported mechanism of youth promotion and acquisition.
“We [are] only interested in players aged between 17 and 23,” said Rangnick. And this philosophy has seen the likes of Timo Werner, Sadio Mane and Naby Keita progress through the club.
As Sporting Director, Christian Heidel brought relevance to FC Mainz. In his 14 years at the club he promoted Jürgen Klopp from player to head coach and then replaced him by plucking Thomas Tuchel from obscurity. He recently moved to Schalke 04 and has overseen their regeneration this season. He appointed the unknown 30-year-old Domenico Tedesco (t-t-t-tiling) and the club now sit second in the Bundesliga, while also showcasing the talents of great prospects like Breel Embolo and Weston McKennie.
Alexander Rosen is a further example of German excellence in this area. His work at Hoffenheim over the last five years has been monumental and has ensured the continual top-flight status of a village team. And then of course, there is Dortmund legend Michael Zorc, the man that loaded the bullets for Klopp to fire by marrying wonderful and obscure recruitment with youth progression.
These Sporting Directors have far-reaching responsibilities. As the president of Sevilla said: “[they are the person] that directs the sporting arm of the club.” An article in The Routledge Handbook on the Business of Football named “The Sporting Director: Exploring Current Practice and Challenges Within Elite Football” noted the SD’s responsibilities as including:
“1st team, u23s, player movement in and out of the club, loans, academy, performance and sports science, medical services, performance analysis and the training ground. Where relevant this will extend to the Community Foundation/Charitable Trust.”
The tide is turning in the UK (including at teams as varied as West Ham United, Huddersfield and Bury) and it is clear to these organisations that relying upon the decision-making of a manager that is faced with the intense weekly pressure of securing three points is perhaps not the best method for maintaining success. Why would Everton trust Big Sam to bring in players on large wages, when they can employ the SD that brought through the likes of Mousa Dembele at AZ Alkmaar? Why would they trust Big Sam to spend such vast sums of money when he is, of course, only going to be interested in his own needs at the club?
But progression is slow, and to a lot of people the concept just doesn’t feel right. On a recent Huddleboard thread, some members dismissed the idea of Rangers signing Scott Arfield because “they don’t even have a manager yet” and Barry Ferguson recently repeated this sentiment on the radio. There appears to be either a misunderstanding of modern football or a desire for it to revert. As Monchi (presently the SD of Roma) said after Roma’s humbling by Liverpool: “It’s true, I sold Salah, but I was forced by UEFA’s constraints.” I sold…
I would argue that Celtic operated with a pseudo-DoF for a few years, basically during Lennon and Deila’s terms. But it was a mutation of a DoF. There was no one technically in place, but player arrivals were being determined by others. Not to be all ITK, but IK of someone that worked at Celtic during the Deila years and he told a story of how Carlton Cole came in for a trial, was utterly horrendous and was then subsequently signed without an ‘OK’ from the coaching team or manager.
It feels very much like Celtic were trying to play at being serious: a misunderstanding of how a DoF/SD needs to be at the forefront of the club and needs to be operating on a sustainable mission for the future of the club and the promotion of the club’s culture.
And then of course there is Arsene Wenger.
“Director of football? I don’t know what it means, is it someone who stands on the road and directs traffic. I am not prepared to talk about that, I am manager of AFC and as long as I am manager I will decide what happens on the technical front, that is it.”
This was last year, a few months before Arsenal employed Sven Mislintat as head of recruitment, Huss Fahmy as contract negotiator, Darren Burgess as director of high performance and Raul Sanllehi as DoF. It’s like when your bird installs Tinder a few weeks before having ‘the talk’.
What is worrying about the future of Celtic can be found in the past. When Celtic appointed Ronny Deila, they had, a couple of days before, just been knocked back by Roy Keane. When they appointed Brendan Rodgers, he was allegedly on a shortlist with David Moyes. Where is the joined- up thinking there? What resemblance is there between the coaching techniques of Deila and Keane or Moyes and Rodgers? It appears to have been utterly scattergun.
We as Celtic fans talk about ‘the Celtic way’ and what we mean by that is attacking football. It’s not a specific version of attacking football, it’s just scoring goals. But ‘the Celtic way’ needs to become the culture that permeates throughout the whole club and it is something that needs to continue no matter who is in charge of selecting the first XI.
For this to be possible, when Celtic win their 10th title in a row and we wave Rodgers and his buddies off into the sunset, the most important question to answer will not be: “Who replaces Brendan?” It will be: “Who becomes our first Sporting Director?”
“As Rodgers wrote in his book: “What we’re trying to do here is build stability.”