Andrew Lawn looks at the proposed changes to City's backroom structure. The switch to a Sporting Director and Head Coach from the traditionally autonomous Manager, remains unpopular in Britain, but is bearing fruit across Europe and at Southampton and Huddersfield, so and will the switch lead to on-field success at Carrow Road?
Alex Neil’s sacking as Manager of Norwich City was the end of an era in more ways than one.
As well as spelling the end of a rollercoaster ride of massive Wembley highs and stomach-churning relegation lows under the Scot, it looks like it was also the end of the old way of doing things.
One week after terminating Alex’s contract, the club announced a new off-field structure that will in all likelihood mean Neil will be City’s last ever manager. Much to the chagrin of some, his replacement is likely to be a Head Coach, working under the new Sporting Director.
So what’s changed and will we notice anything different come 3pm Saturday afternoon?
The big change is the separation of football and business responsibilities, with the Sporting Director taking control of all “football operations”, while the Managing Director (currently Steve Stone) handles the business side.
“Football operations” means that the Sporting Director oversees the entire footballing side of the club, from the under 7s to the first-team, ensuring each team has an identity and a way of playing that is focussed on doing all they can to help the first team, both now and tomorrow. The theory is that by ensuring a consistent approach throughout the club, every single player is instilled with “the Norwich way”, ensuring that by the time they reach the first-team having learned how we play and their role within that, they can slot in seamlessly.
Alleged City target for the role, Huddersfield’s Stuart Webber, described his position to the Terriers official website as;
“At Huddersfield there is a focus on recruitment and scouting, which is a massive part of my job, but I’ll also be supporting the Academy, the Medical Department and the Sports Science operations. It’s a broader view of the entire club rather than simply recruitment. These functions work together and give the Manager, coaches and players the best opportunity to perform well and win. This all needs planning and controlling in a coordinated way from day to day.”
Recruitment works the same way. If we have an identity, it makes it much easier for the Head Coach and scouting team to work with the Sporting Director to identify areas the team can improve and which players around the globe are likely to do that. For example, if we play a high-tempo pressing game, there is little point recruiting Andy Carroll type players, either for the first team or youth sides, because that type of player doesn’t fit.
The idea of a ‘Sporting Director’, ‘Head of Football Operations’ or ‘Director of Football’ is a relatively new one in Britain and one that initially we were very sceptical of. Unlike the rest of the world, Britain followed the massive success of managers such as Herbert Chapman at Huddersfield and Arsenal, Brian Clough at Derby and Forest, Bill Shankly at Liverpool, Arsene Wenger at Arsenal and Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United. This has developed a fondness for longevity and for titans of men who rule their clubs from top-to-bottom. This was all well and good, but the days of managers being given time to build this empire is over. Furthermore, what happens when these titans leave? Manchester United are still recovering from the departure of Ferguson over 3 years ago, and a similar fear of what happens next is currently suffocating Arsenal’s resolve to bow to fan pressure and remove Wenger.
Southampton have become the flag bearers for the new approach. As their Head of Football Development (and former first-team manager) Les Reed told the Guardian in 2008;
“The manager cannot physically manage everything any more. The Sporting Director is not necessary where the manager has longevity but at clubs where faces come and go, there has to be some way of keeping continuity.”
That continuity has borne fruit as first Mauricio Pochettino, then Ronald Koeman and now Claude Puel have found success, despite losing both the Head Coach and key players each season. Succession is planned and shortlists are drawn up so a replacement is lined up before a key individual is lured away, vital at clubs the size of Southampton and Norwich.
Of course it doesn’t always work. The infamous pairing of Dennis Wise and Kevin Keegan at Newcastle United is one such example as Wise was made responsible for player recruitment, while Keegan picked the team. The two famously didn’t see eye-to-eye as then Director of Football at Southampton Lawrie McMenemy told the Guardian, that’s why it didn’t work.
“On paper, the combination of Kevin Keegan and Dennis Wise should have worked: they both had experience of football management. As to why the set-up didn't work, Kevin didn't appoint Dennis and even if he had approved of the appointment it would appear that he didn't answer to Kevin in terms of player recruitment. The manager didn't have the say that he should have. That was the crux of the problem.”
The relationship between Head Coach and Sporting Director is key. As Les Reed adds;
“At Fulham I went into the club at the request of the manager, Lawrie Sanchez, who wanted to focus on pitch matters while I concentrated on matters at board level. As director of football, I didn't buy or sell players, I simply managed the process to assist Lawrie.
But at the moment, our directors of football are often managers pushed upstairs or they come from the continent where they are used to autonomy. So by and large, we haven't been able to grow relationships between the sporting director and the manager or define who does what in their roles.”
Reassuringly at City the board appear to have identified this and are keen that the Sporting Director we bring in goes on to assist in the appointment of the Head Coach, ensuring that from day one their roles are clearly understood. That is an approach that has worked at this level before; when Huddersfield appointed City target Stuart Webber, he found himself initially working with Chris Powell. However, Webber wanted something different so directly oversaw the appointment of David Wagner, then manager at Borussia Dortmund II, as part of a plan to overhaul the entire club culture at the John Smith’s Stadium.
“Huddersfield were like a club that had won a raffle to be in the Championship. The focus wasn’t on winning, it was all about survival and there was no identity. To be frank, it was boring to watch Huddersfield and I wouldn’t have paid £350 or whatever for a season ticket. The club needed a cultural shift, a plan and we needed to do something drastic in terms of appointing a head coach who could help create an identity.”
How many City fans think we’re currently in that boat?
The manager is dead, long live the Head Coach.