Andre Villa-Boas may or may not get the sack soon. Certainly the media pressure on him is huge and with the Tottenham board keeping the shutters down in the way the old Soviet-style Kremlin would have envied there is no way of knowing what will happen to Spurs’ Portuguese head coach. Observe I use the words head coach to describe his job, not manager.
The reason is that what is really interesting about this saga is the light it throws on the concept of director of football, an idea English football was supposed to shun. Indeed its acceptance means the constant changing of the head coach, something that has always been routine on the continent, is now beginning to emerge in this country.
Here is worth recalling a conversation I recently had with Damien Commoli. He was director of football at Tottenham and then Liverpool before he was sacked by both clubs. His departure from both White Hart Lane and Anfield was sudden and quite dramatic. His experience suggested that director of football was yet another continental idea that just would not work here. Commoli, of course, believes he was a success but before we react by saying he “would say that”, it is worth recalling how he feels about the job of director of football.
My question to him was: “We in Britain still, as you well know, have this resistance to the idea of a director of football. How far do you think it has come since you were first involved?”
His answer was: “At my first press conference [at Tottenham in 2005], the first question I was asked was ‘Do you think there is a future for a director of football in England?’ Eight years on there are a lot of directors of football throughout the four divisions. The fact that so many teams are winning trophies in England having a director of football, like Manchester City, like Chelsea [means] I think there’ll be more and more. Even Spurs have one. When he [Franco Baldini] went in everybody said, ‘that’s great’. In 2005 when I went in everybody said, ‘that’s going to be a disaster’.”
And this is where we come to the really interesting twist to the AVB saga. In all the media drama since Tottenham were beaten 6-0 by Manchester City and the press hysteria about how AVB’s days were numbered nobody has mentioned anything about Baldini’s job, let alone that he should feel insecure.
Contrast this with what happened back in 2004, immediately after the Euros. That is when Daniel Levy, the Tottenham chairman, announced Spurs were going continental and unveiled the pairing of Jacques Santini, the former coach of the French national team, as head coach and Frank Arnesen as director of football, although his official title was sporting director. But that did not work. Santini did not last the season and what is more the criticism extended beyond the Frenchman’s failure to the whole concept of the dual management of a football club. Everybody rubbished it, even Levy seemed to have doubts and, in any case, Arnesen was on his way to Chelsea by the end of the season.
So now even if AVB does go there is no suggestion Baldini will depart. He remains anchored to Levy -the pair are always pictured sitting side by side – and what this means is that English football is at learning to accept that the Brian Clough, Bill Shankly era of football management has, like the great cotton mills of this country, had its day. This style, so brilliantly expressed by Clough, was that the manager of a club managed everything not just the players on the training ground and on match days. So Clough was proud of the fact that he knew everybody at Nottingham Forest from the lady who handled the washing to the men at the top. Of course it helped that Forest had an ownership structure that was different to most clubs. A single owner or group of owners did not own the club, it was more of a co-operative. But while no other manager has enjoyed the dictatorial powers that Clough exercised most of the managers of that era did command their club from top to bottom. Little happened at their club without their knowledge, if not approval.
AVB is in a very different position. As head coach his management role is restricted so if he is sacked Tottenham will lose one individual or at best a couple. It will not lose its entire football management set up. That under Baldini, the director of football, will carry on. He will continue to be the eyes and ears of the board and Levy. This is what happens on the continent and this is what makes it possible for owners and chairmen to frequently change their head coaches. Just examine how many head coaches Real Madrid, the greatest football club in the world, have had since 1992, the year the Premier League started: 23. Coaches come and go at the Bernabeu, Real Madrid goes on because the departure of the head coach does not rip up the club’s football management structure.
English football has not quite come that far but should AVB go it will suggest that is where it is definitely heading. Harry Redknapp may not have cared for a director of football, modern managers in English football will, like their continental counterparts, have to learn to live with them. However you view Commoli’s ability it is hard to question his wider judgement about the acceptance of this job in the oldest football league in the world.