It exists in almost every organized sport in almost every country. You can call it whatever you like: Director of Football, Sporting Director, General Manager -- it really doesn't matter.
It's the guy (or girl) who acquires and offloads players; the guy who handles the contract negotiations; the guy who liaises with the scouting department to evaluate potential acquisitions; the guy who listens to what the coach or manager (more semantics) needs and tries to deliver it; the guy who deals with owners and the financial folks and works to a budget; the guy who oversees the youth development; the guy who tries to give the club some kind of medium-term strategy.
And yet in England, where traditionally the manager has been all-powerful and all-knowing, such figures are viewed with suspicion and even bile. That has been evidenced by the recent events at Newcastle and West Ham, clubs that have chosen to employ a Director of Football and have since suffered acrimonious splits from their respective managers, Kevin Keegan and Alan Curbishley.
But are Directors of Football an evil unto themselves? Or are recent developments at Newcastle and West Ham simply a function of poor communication, poor planning and, perhaps, a little bit of self-serving rewriting of history?
It doesn't take a rocket scientist to understand the benefits such a figure can bring. If a manager is doing his job properly, his main priority is going to be working with the squad in training, developing a tactical approach for the next match, motivating the players, satisfying his media commitments and, on match days, making the crucial decisions. A serious manager -- one who doesn't hit the golf course at every opportunity and doesn't hang out at the race track on his nights off -- will necessarily be spending 60-odd hours a week on his team.
Which, frankly, makes it impossible for him to have the necessary knowledge of players other than his own. After all, the only time he really sees opposing players is when they play against his team. And, when that happens, he does so from a terrible vantage point: pitchside. In any case, he'll be more focused on his own team than the opponent.
Forget videos, too -- you learn almost nothing from them. So how is a manager supposed to have any kind of informed opinion about other players? In the old days, he would rely on the club's scouts and would probably go watch a number of players personally.
These days, however, you're just as likely to sign a right back from the next continent as you are from the next town. What's more, a whole generation of scouts, raised in the days when overseas players were virtually unknown, are finding themselves unprepared to venture too far outside of the national boundaries.
And that's why it often makes sense to have a Director of Football (or his equivalent), a guy who knows how to cut deals, who has contacts all over the world and who, crucially, is loyal to the club, not his own career. Managers come and go, they are focused on the next result; Directors of Football ideally stick around longer and can take a broader view on things.
Plus, ideally, they will have a better sense of what the club's budgets and financial constraints are. According to reports in one newspaper, Keegan's wish list for Newcastle included Frank Lampard, Ronaldinho and Jonathan Woodgate which, given the club's financial state, was totally unrealistic.
Of course, there are incompetent Directors of Football. Crooked ones, too. But that's no different than managers. A big deal has been made about supposed "interference" from Directors of Football in club affairs and how it hampers a manager's work. Obviously, you don't want that. Which is why you have hard and fast rules from Day 1. And, from the manager's perspective, it must be made clear that he's not working with his own money.
Ideally, a manager would request a player with a certain profile: say, early 20s, left-footed, good dribbler, fast, runs at people. They would then work together to identify say five potential targets. Then the club would try to sign them, based on the budget. And if, to get the one who's top of the list, they need to sell someone, the manager and the Directors of Football would put their heads together and figure out a solution.
Even as I write this, it seems so glaringly obvious that the pros of this system far outweigh the cons. I can already envisage the comments I'm going to get -- "But Sir Alex Ferguson, Arsène Wenger and José Mourinho did just fine without a Director of Football when they were in the Premier League, so clearly it's unnecessary!" -- so I'll launch a pre-emptive strike right now.
Wenger did have a de facto Director of Football until recently. David Dein may have been Executive Vice President, but he was the guy who did all the deals (and did them very well, witness Arsenal's transfer balance). He and Wenger trusted each other and, while it's true that Wenger personally did more scouting than others, it's equally true that when Arsenal got an offer that was too good to refuse (witness Nicolas Anelka, Emmanuel Petit or Marc Overmars), Dein got his way.
Mourinho at Chelsea was a slightly different case. The club relied heavily on a whole gaggle of internal and external "advisors" who were close to the owner and to the chief executive, Peter Kenyon. But Mourinho never did any negotiating personally. Nor did he always get his way. And, in any case, Chelsea did have a Director of Football, Frank Arnesen, albeit one who focused primarily on youngsters.
As for Ferguson, he's in his third decade at the club -- in some ways he's a creature from a different time. With all the success he's had, obviously his power is nearly absolute at Old Trafford. Rest assured, however, he doesn't negotiate the deals and he knows how to work within budget.
But anyway, to those managers who cry about having a Director of Football watching over them and cite Sir Alex as evidence that one isn't needed, I can only paraphrase the late Lloyd Bentsen: "Sir, I know Sir Alex Ferguson. And you sir, are no Sir Alex Ferguson."