A Different Kind of Transfer List

Last week, The Boro Breakdown (@Boro_Breakdown) posed an interesting question on Twitter. The question was about Steve McClaren and if Boro fans would like to see him return to the club in some capacity in the future. There was plenty of discussion about our former manager and one of the most common answers was “yes, as Director of Football”.

That got me thinking. The Director of Football is a role that many of us have become enamoured with over the past couple of years (guilty) and given the constant cycle of rebuilding going on at Middlesbrough, it’s not hard to see why.

Four of this year’s top six in the Championship have someone in place at the club who operates in that role in some iteration and are seeing the benefits of long-term plans facilitated by their men in charge, most notably Norwich and Brentford who have long been hailed as shining examples of the model. It could also be argued that Dane Murphy, CEO at Barnsley, fulfils the role at Oakwell.

For those that need a refresher, a director of football (DoF) is the person in charge of all football based operations at a club. A director of football manages everything from coaching and recruitment to data analytics, sports science and the academy but that can vary from club to club. They are responsible for the medium and long-term sustainability and success of a club.

There’s often some confusion as different clubs give this role different titles depending on the exact responsibilities so they may be known as sporting or technical director or even Head of Football Operations instead of a director of football.

With the lifespan of managers falling year upon year, as the pressures of quick success and instant gratification take hold, the director role allows clubs to build more sustainable, long-term visions for their clubs.

It’s something that *could* really benefit a club of Boro’s size and financial clout as we’re no longer at the stage where we can outspend all of our divisional rival and we can’t afford to constantly be in periods of restructuring and going from manager to manager, all with their own often opposing footballing philosophies.

So who, if it was to ever happen, could fill that role at Boro? While the consensus is often to bring in a former star name, it’s a specialist role that usually requires years of experience off the pitch in recruitment and/or the business side of things to succeed. Although, we would be 100 times more cool and trendy if we brought Fabrizio Ravanelli back to the club.

There’s also often been talk of Neil Warnock stepping into the job after he retires from management. While some fans might have already soured on that idea after the disappointing end to the season, there has always been one major issue with that. He might not act it all of the time but Neil Warnock is an old man. The director job is all about the future, the long-term. It is not a job for a 72 year old.

That would be one of my main concerns if Steve McClaren ever took up that responsibility here. Having recently turned 60, the former Boro boss isn’t quite at the stage of life that Warnock is, but he isn’t a spring chicken either. In an ideal world, you don’t want to be replacing a director type after four or five years because they’ve decided to make the most of their golden years.

There’s also the issue that, while he had so much success in his time here at Boro, he’s struggled recently. He hasn’t performed well at a club since his first stint at Derby between 2013 and 2015. Does McClaren really know what it takes to build a successful outfit anymore?

While I don’t think it’s a requisite either and potentially would be a negative if someone was overfamiliar with the club, Steve McClaren doesn’t really know Middlesbrough Football Club anymore, either. This isn’t the same place that he left to take the England job in 2006. We’re no longer the team that can keep pace in the transfer market with the big boys because Steve Gibson is a millionaire outgunned by billionaires.

However, given his decades of coaching experience, he’s an interesting prospect. McClaren is currently the Technical Director at Derby County so it’ll be worthwhile seeing how he gets on rebuilding that particular horror show.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Coventry City’s Head of Recruitment Chris Badlan doesn’t offer the experience of a McClaren, but he’s shown plenty of promise as an analytics and transfer specialist at the Sky Blues. The 38 year old joined Coventry in 2018, moving from Norwich, where he’d worked under Stuart Webber who is potentially the most well-known and successful of the DoFs in the Championship. Badlan had been Head of European Recruitment at the Canaries, building up the department that identified players like Emi Buendia and Teemu Pukki who’ve been crucial to both of Norwich’s recent promotions.

At Coventry, Badlan has worked alongside manager Mark Robins to completely overhaul their transfer strategy and has been instrumental in bringing together a squad that won promotion from League One and then secured survival in the Championship, finishing above more established clubs like Sheffield Wednesday, Bristol City, Nottingham Forest and Derby in the table despite working on the second smallest budget in the league.

Badlan and Robin’s transfer policy has seen the likes of Matty Godden (their top scorer in League 1), impressive midfielder Callum O’Hare, 2020 Player of the Season Fankaty Dabo and 2020 Player’s Player of the season Liam Walsh propel Coventry back to what many will say is their rightful place in the league system. The Sky Blues also spun a profit on Conor Chaplin who joined Barnsley.

Bristol City wouldn’t release Walsh back to Coventry for a second loan spell, so he was expertly replaced by Gustavo Hamer who has been a revelation in midfield for City.

However, while Badlan certainly has the transfer market credentials to jump up to the role of a DoF, it’s hard to say exactly how much of Coventry’s success can be attributed to him. Manager Mark Robins is the man often credited with implementing the blueprint that has Coventry back in the Championship.

Another Head of Recruitment making waves, at the opposite end of the Championship table, is Swansea City’s Andy Scott. Joining the Welsh side a month after the appointment of Steve Cooper as manager in 2019, Scott arrived to what he has called “a mess” as Swansea were struggling to deal with the impact of relegation from the Premier League. The 48 year old was charged with balancing the books by getting the aging players who’d been given ridiculously expensive contract in the Prem off the wage bill and cashing in on exciting young prospects.

The former Aldershot manager oversaw the departures of Oli McBurnie, Dan James and Joe Rodon, while Leroy Fer, Luciano Narsingh and Wilfried Bony all left South Wales as much richer men than when they had arrived.

This is all while helping Cooper reinstall the “Swansea Way” into the club which had gone slightly off track in recent years and rebuilding a recruitment department that had been gutted by Graeme Potter’s move to Brighton, as lead analyst Kyle Macauley and others followed Potter out of the door.

Under Cooper, with the help of Scott, Swansea have reached the play-offs in back-to-back seasons and face Scott’s old club Brentford in the final this weekend. Scott, who was manager at Brentford before going into a behind the scenes roles at the Bees, has helped implement a new contract policy that sees deals heavily incentivised to stop future stars simply picking up a wage without impacting the first team.

He has also made use of the loan system to bring Rian Brewster, Connor Gallagher, Marc Guehi (twice) and Conor Hourihane to the Liberty City stadium all of whom have been major players in both of Steve Cooper’s seasons in charge.

Scott isn’t just a loan merchant though, as shown by his time at Brentford as Head of Recruitment. Scott, who won promotion to League 1 as Brentford manager in 2009, is credited as being the man who spotted and brought both Neal Maupay and Ollie Watkins to the club. Both strikers netted bags of goals for Brentford before moving on, potentially bringing as much as £53 million to Brentford in transfer fees. They were signed for a combined fee of £3.4 million.

While Scott did spend 6 months as Watford’s Sporting Director, it’s not a guarantee that a move to a DoF job would be a seamless transition for him, which is the same issue facing Badlan. Scott may also be out of reach should Swansea get promoted through the play-offs. While the DoF role is a significant step-up from being the Head of Recruitment, the allure of the Premier League would be too strong.

Given the relatively new introduction of the role into English football, it’s hard to find someone with a decent amount of experience in the job who is available. One man who ticks both of those boxes at the minute is David Webb, who is being tipped to join Celtic as the Scottish giants look to battle back against Stevie Gerrard’s resurgent Rangers.

If he did so, it would likely be as part of a reunion with Eddie Howe, who Webb worked with at Bournemouth. Webb, 43, was Head of Recruitment through the Cherries climb through the leagues has shown an incredibly keen eye for talent. England international Callum Wilson and Junior Stanislas were both recommended to Howe by Webb, while he’s also largely credited with the discovery of Wilfried Zaha on a Croydon playing field.

Often regarded as the “unsung hero” of Bournemouth, playing a large part in creating the strategies that saw the team play 5 season in the Premier League, Webb left the South Coast to join Tottenham and worked closely with Mauricio Pochettino as Head of Elite Potential Identification (that’s a fancy way of saying recruitment apparently). At Spurs, Webb was the main man behind the deal to bring Heung-Min Son to White Hart Lane and was a key factor in helping integrate youngsters like Harry Winks and Dele Alli into the first-team picture.

Webb then spent a year as Technical Director at Ostersunds as the tiny Swedish side continued to punch above their weight in the Allsvenskan top flight before joining Huddersfield as Head of Football Operations. It was there that Webb lobbied for the appointment of the Cowley brothers and secured the signing of Emile Smith-Rowe on loan from Arsenal, who helped to keep the Terriers in the Championship last season.

Webb and the Cowley’s were then dismissed by owner Phil Hodgkinson after months of disagreement over who had the main say over transfers and styles of play, with Hodgkinson wrestling back control from the men he’d employed for that exact reason.
Huddersfield sounds a complete shit show, to be honest, as they’ve cycled through 5 DoFs in 3 years and 5 managers in 18 months.

Again, it feels like identifying a DoF who is available and is doing well in that role is a near impossible task which might be one of the reasons holding back Steve Gibson from venturing down this road. There is someone though, not too far down the road.

Jeremy “Jez” George, former manager of Cambridge United, is helping to build something special at Lincoln City. Head of Football since 2018 and officially DoF since September 2020, George has overseen The Imps rise from League 2 to a date at Wembley with a Championship place at stake. While he benefited from joining a club on the rise, under the management of the Cowleys in 2018, it was George that recommended current manager Michael Appleton for the job.

In their defeat of Sunderland (cheers for that lads) in the semi-finals, every player that started the game was brought to Lincoln during George’s time in charge of the football side of City.

Assembling the youngest squad in League One, with an average age of 23.3 , George has upset a lot of the “bigger” boys in League One.  Lewis Montsma from FC Dordrecht has been a monster in defence while Jorge Grant, Anthony Scully, Tom Hopper, Regan Poole and James Jones have been cheap and hugely important acquisitions that have made the most of the domestic market.

The 51 year old has also utilised an extensive contact book to secure the loans of Morgan Rodgers and Brennan Johnson, who helped to push the Imps over the line in an extremely competitive race for a top 6 spot. His revamp of the Academy system at Lincoln is also starting to pay off with the emergence of highly rated youngster Sean Roughan.

Lincoln are a side that press well, in part due to the youthfulness of their squad, while creating lots of chances for their front men. It’s a style that bodes well for a one off shot at the “big time” when they face Blackpool at Wembley. 

So, if Lincoln are such an exciting project on the rise, how is George “available” then? 

Even if Lincoln secure promotion to the 2nd tier of English football and become our divisional peers,  Middlesbrough is simply a bigger opportunity. 

We offer a chance to pull a reasonably sized club into the modern era, without the insecurity and craziness of a Derby or Nottingham Forest. 

Steve Gibson, our heralded Academy, the potential for a full and thumping Riverside, top line training facilities, tea and a round of golf at Rockliffe are still all major attractions especially to those working behind the scenes. 

Of course, this isn’t a game of Top Trumps. Outscoring another club on training facilities doesn’t automatically mean Jez George or any candidate for the DoF job will decide to leave their current abode for Teesside. 

And for all of the talk, analytics and evidence that it’s a role that works, specifically for clubs of our size and situation, it doesn’t mean Steve Gibson is looking or wants to look for someone to join the club in that capacity. 

He’s been burned before by a “meddler” in Victor Orta and saw how allowing a powerbase to develop under his nose can have a negative effect on the team. 

That’s what matters most. If the club were ever to appoint a Director of Football it would have to be someone that Gibson could trust not just someone with the best CV or a reputation for unearthing gems in the transfer market. 

Someone that he can trust to shape and implement a vision that will allow for long-term success and sustainability at the club and whether anyone is worth sticking with over the time it would take to create such a plan.

That’s what Steve Gibson has to work out for himself. He’s not paying me to find candidates after all. 

 

Photo Credits: The Guardian, Wales Online, Coventry City F.C., htafc, LincolnshireLive, Teesside Live/The Gazette

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