Before we go any further, this is not an attack on Steve Gibson. Despite recent failings both on and off the pitch, Steve Gibson remains one of the best owners in English football. He has continuously propped up the football club with his own money and delivered moments that a club of Middlesbrough’s size should never have been able to achieve.
Yesterday marked the anniversary of the Ayresome Park gates being padlocked as the club entered liquidation and nobody needs reminding of Gibson’s involvement in helping to save the club during those dark days of 1986.
During his time as chairman he has overseen the Riverside Revolution, helped bring household names to Teesside, we’ve reached cup finals and won the only piece of major silverware in the club’s history. We’ve seen superb players like Fabrizio Ravanelli, Emerson, Mark Viduka, Gareth Southgate and of course Juninho grace the Riverside pitch.
We’ve produced homegrown talent who’ve gone on to represent their countries in Stewart Downing and James Morrison. From the samba inspired magic of 1996, to UEFA Cup drama in 2006 all the way to promotion in 2016 and being back in the “big time”; Steve Gibson has helped this club to achieve brilliant things.
Anyone that thinks that Gibbo should sell up to some rich, foreign investor off the back of the past few years really needs be careful what they wish for.For every example of clubs who’ve greatly benefited from being taken over by a Thai billionaire like Leicester or by a Chinese company as Wolves were, there’s a Blackburn Rovers, a Portsmouth, a Sheffield Wednesday or sadly a Wigan that showcase the pitfalls of overseas investment.
The same goes for these domestic Alan Sugar wannabes with no idea of football who are way in over their heads or want to make a quick bit of money who run clubs into the ground. You only need to look up the road at Sunderland and the mess they’re in or see that the team we beat to claim that bit of major silverware Bolton Wanderers are now playing in League Two to realise we’re pretty lucky to have someone like Steve Gibson and for everything he’s achieved in the past.
But therein lies the problem, this isn’t 1996 anymore. It isn’t 2006 or even 2016. The modern game is changing at a rapid rate and Boro are at risk of being left behind. The footballing decisions made by the club in recent years have directly led to a situation where we’ve just about managed to survive relegation to League One and are once again talking about a rebuild.
Neil Warnock’s comments about the club needing a restructure behind the scenes are identical to the ones Tony Pulis was making as recently as 18 months ago. Steve Gibson, for all of his good work, needs help. Steve Gibson needs a director of football.
Yeah, we dropped everyone’s favourite buzzword. It’s the go-to thing now in any football debate. Get a director of football in, that’ll solve it. They’re the trendy thing to have. They’re the Pokemon cards or Beyblades of the football boardroom. Everyone either has one or wants one. But, what exactly is a director of football?
Simply put, they’re the person in charge of all football based operations at a club. A director of football (sometimes known as a sporting or technical director) manages everything from coaching and recruitment to data analytics, sports science and the academy but that can vary from club to club.
The director of football role isn’t a new thing. Do you remember the Sevilla team that battered us 4-0 in the UEFA Cup final? Course you do. The name Dani Alves still makes me feel a little bit sick and it has been fourteen years.
For as much credit as then manager Juande Ramos deserves for winning a UEFA Cup, he didn’t build that squad at Sevilla. Tha team, as well as the one that won three Europa Leagues in a row from 2014 to 2016, was formed by Monchi, former Sevilla goalkeeper and probably the most recognisable DoF in the game.
Have you ever wondered how Borussia Dortmund have been able to regularly compete in the Bundeslia and Europe even though they seem to lose a star player every other summer, usually to Bayern Munich? It’s because Michael Zorc has installed a recruitment policy that allows the Black and Yellows to identify and acquire the most promising young talent and bring in head coaches that are best suited to work with those players. Zorc, Dortmund’s record appearance holder as a player, has recently signed an extension that’ll keep him as sporting director until 2022.
English clubs are also coming round to the idea. Fifteen of the twenty Premier League clubs in 2019 had someone that filled that role. Man City’s Txiki Begiristain is widely credited as the main reason Pep Guardiola joined the blue half of Manchester. I mean, his pay cheque is pretty nice too. Michael Edwards at Liverpool has been crucial in most of the signings that make up the Champions League and Premier League holders squad, including Virgil Van Dijk and Alisson.
It isn’t just the big clubs that are making the most of the position either. Les Reed helped to mastermind Southampton’s ascent from League One to transfer supermarket to the stars, under the management of Nigel Adkins and then Mauricio Pochettinno. Jon Rudkin, working closely with super scout Steve Walsh, was the unsung hero of Leicester’s fairytale title win in 2016. Only Cardiff from the top six in this year’s Championship haven’t got some form of footballing director in place.
In recent years, Brentford and Norwich City have become media darlings for putting together dead nice football teams at a low cost, unearthing gems from less traditionally scouted regions like Scandinavia. The common denominator? They both follow the DoF model.
So why should Boro follow in their footsteps?
Football is unrecognisable in a business sense from the world Steve Gibson entered into during the mid-eighties. The Premier League boom and the rise of the oligarch owners has forever unbalanced the playing field. Steve Gibson is a millionaire in a billionaire’s world and the riches on offer at the higher levels of the game has created a minefield of bloated wage bills and insecurity. The average lifespan of a manager since the 2012/13 season is 14 months. The days of dynasties being built over decades by one manager are over.
Fans love to talk about bringing in a young manager for a three or four year project but the likelihood of that actually happening is shrinking by the year which is why the director model has suddenly become so popular in England. Ultimately, it is the directors objective to oversee medium and long-term strategy that maximises a club’s potential and create a sustainable system that remains in place even if a manager is sacked or moves clubs. God, that was a bit Brent. You get the gist.
One of the biggest criticisms of the current situation at Boro is how we seem to sway from one extreme to the other in terms of the coaches we bring in and their respective ways of playing. Whatever Garry Monk was trying to do, to Pulisball to Jonathan Woodgate’s desire for high pressing, exciting football and now to Neil Warnock.
With each managerial exit comes the almost comical switch of philosophies and leaves us with a horde of players that either don’t suit the new manager so are cleared out or ones who are forced into positions that don’t suit them. That might be the traditional way of running a football club, where the manager has the final say on everything but it isn’t how the game works anymore.
Steve Gibson recently said that football works in cycles. It does and if he doesn’t begin building for the future right now, we’ll be having the exact same conversations about the Boro again in twelve months time. Gibson needs someone at the club to help him with that vision for the future. He needs somebody with real knowledge and experience in football.
Not a football suit or former banker, but somebody who has played the game or has real experience involved in the type of departments they’d be tasked with operating. A person who knows what it takes to create a long lasting culture at a club, who knows the types of characters needed to make that vision a reality and the ability to identify those players.
We have sort of been here before with Adrian Bevington. Bevington, as head of recruitment, was meant to weave the “golden thread” from the academy to the first team that would see the club playing a style of football that would be instantly recognisable as the Boro way. He didn’t even make it to 2020.
Looking back though, it was wishful thinking to hope a brand new manager in Woodgate and a man that had spent a large part of his career working in sports communications in Bevington could deliver that goal. It speaks volumes of the club’s haphazard approach that neither of them are in those roles anymore, a little over a year down the line.
It also shows that way of operating a football club isn’t foolproof. You need the right people and the right environment. Villa have just replaced their director of football after spending over £100 million last summer equated to staying in the Premier League by a single point. The much hailed Stuart Webber has come under fire for not equipping Daniel Farke with enough quality players to beat the drop, even though Norwich probably aren’t going to go bust any time soon as they aren’t stuck with overpaid big names like most relegated sides are.
You also need time. Brentford’s steady progression to being on the cusp of promotion started eight years ago when Matthew Benham took over the club and really ramped up five years ago with the introduction of Phil Giles and Rasmus Ankersen as co-directors. That is something Steve Gibson actually has now. Time.
Gibbo should, touch wood, not have to worry about the upcoming season if the club can bring in some decent players this summer. Warnock guarantees security at worst and success at best. That’s why he’s still managing at 71 years old and why it’s the perfect appointment for now.
That time needs to be used wisely. Not backslapping in the boardroom because we’ve gone from fighting relegation to mid table or higher. Look at where we have been going wrong and learn from those mistakes. Listen to Warnock and put his advice into place. Map out what you want Middlesbrough Football Club to look like in five, ten years time and find the people that can help to make it happen.
It will come at a price. Sporting directors aren’t doing this for minimum wage but the six figure annual salary someone might command is surely better long-term than constantly overhauling players and coaching teams?
There would need to be change in other departments as well to aid a potential director and to really shape a new outlook for the club but that’s worth it especially if Boro can start finding and nurturing a number of players. If Brentford lose the play-off final, they’re going to bring in vast sums of money for Benrahma, Mbeumo and Ollie Watkins. If they win, they’re in the Premier League as the club everyone else is going to aspire to be like.
We like to do things our own way on Teesside. Maybe it is time we followed in someone else’s footsteps, for once.
Photo Credits: BBC, Gazette Live