It’s becoming increasingly common to discuss the structure of a football club, now more than ever before. This is especially true when it comes to the current debate around what should happen at Celtic Football Club after the sudden departure of Brendan Rodgers. At the same time as the intense speculation around who will be the next permanent manager, there are many voices arguing for a more fundamental change at the club: adopting a new model, a new structure, a new way of managing the first team.
Historically, and especially in British football, power has been given to one man: the manager. This has led to the induction of some real legends to our game such as Sir Alex Ferguson, widely regarded as potentially the greatest manager of all time, or even someone a little closer to home, Jock Stein. A man who dragged a group of local boys from the streets of Glasgow to the heights of European success. Stein was a prime example of a manager who knew how to both coach and man-manage. Does it just take a phenomenal leader to achieve all this or is the structure itself outdated? With football developing into a global game and big clubs into global business organisations, are managers in this setup now doomed to fail?
A lot of people like to throw around the term ‘Sporting Director’ when it comes to this debate. It’s new and trendy and therefore, of course, draws a divided opinion. While some see it as an innovative way of supporting a club’s vision, others see it as cutting the manager’s legs from underneath him. The problem is that many struggle to define a sporting director, and I don’t just mean fans.
Liverpool is an example of a club who utilise the position well. The role of their sporting director, Michael Edwards, is to support Jurgen Klopp with identifying new talents, giving the German manager more room to work with his current squad. Edwards is reported to have played a significant role in the scouting and transfer of Mohammed Salah, and several other of Liverpool’s recent successful signing. While the club have spent big money, they have also used it very wisely, branding the current Liverpool structure a fundamental success story. However, many clubs have a ‘Head of Recruitment’ so is Edwards a Sporting Director in the way we would usually perceive it?
This modern setup is commonplace in German clubs. In the Bundesliga, it is common practice that a Sporting Director takes charge of all footballing matters while a Head Coach is left to work with the squad. The Sporting Director outranks the head coach and works as a link between the coaching staff and the board. So should a Sporting Director at Celtic actually be on the board as a ‘representative of football matter’, so to speak, or is the boardroom simply not their place?
A key aspect of using this structure is that long term vision is prioritised over short term goals. The setup could make a Head Coach almost interchangeable as the role becomes just another job with a set of criteria to fulfil. A way of viewing this is that everything suddenly becomes almost quantifiable. A system takes charge. On the other hand this means that a manager like Ferguson or Stein can’t take control of a club and wrestle them to success.
This isn’t to say that a single manager in charge of everything can’t have vision. Arsene Wenger was at the helm for Arsenal for over two decades. He perhaps epitomised the vision and achievements a man in his position could have. As well as bringing the London club an invincible season and countless Champions League qualifications, he made the enterprise a lot – a lot – of money. So, if this is within reach why resort to an entire structure change?
While his departure was very acrimonious, Brendan Rodgers demanded full control at Celtic and has been credited with modernising the structure around the first team in many ways – bringing the club great success with it, especially domestically. Is it just the case of finding the right person to fill the manager position?
The issue is that modern managers can be sacked almost as quickly as they take the job. This ruthless style of recruitment doesn’t leave time for someone to come in and leave his stamp on the team. In an ideal situation, managers like to lead and sign players who subscribe to their footballing philosophy, educate and retrain them into slightly different positions to accommodate their preferred style.
Crystal Palace sacked Frank De Boer, a manager who wanted to implement a more passing-based and attacking style of football, after only 4 games and then replaced him with Roy Hodgson, a lot more pragmatic and defensive coach. With a Sporting Director guiding the club and ensuring consistency in the playing style of the club, changing Head Coaches on frequent basis might mean less fundamental changes and disruption then when powerful managers are traded in and out.
It’s critical to understand the implications such a structure change could have on Celtic as a club. Many potential managers could be put off by it: having to answer to a Sporting Director would add a whole new dimension of stress to the role and could also possibly lead to them being used as a scapegoat and getting fired for things beyond their control. Plus, it’s hard to imagine some of the top managers in the world, with the egos that can come with it, to voluntarily give up any amount of power.
That being said, if, like the current loan system, Celtic fans are mostly willing to accept bigger and better talents on the condition that they won’t be with the club for many seasons, then such a structure could bring a new dimension to Celtic. With players such as Virgil van Dijk and Moussa Dembele using the club as a stepping stone into the elite leagues in Europe, the same could be the case for young and hugely talented head coaches. They could bring new, innovative ideas around tactics and man management to the club, before they – if successful – move to a bigger league.
In this case, it makes perfect sense to introduce a Sporting Director to oversee the club and provide a clear, long-term direction while head coaches come and go more frequently. Celtic’s Europa League competitors have shown where the club could be even on its current budget. 10 in a row is the priority at this moment but where do the club go from there? It’s time to take the next step up into Europe and this ‘European’ model might just be the last piece of the puzzle to get Celtic there.