Who are directors of football and what do they do?

On the one hand it’s the same thing and on the other, it isn’t… at least when it comes to the Premier League. Confusing? Let me explain.  

These roles are relatively new to English football and have been introduced to clubs at varying times, so the titles tend to differ according to what each particular club decided to call them. In essence, though, they do pretty much the same thing. 

The director of football (DoF) title appears to be a lingering anachronism from the bygone days when the managers tended to be all-encompassing operators. Think of the likes of Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger, whose powers in roughly all aspects of their football clubs – bar finances and commercial operations – were practically total.  
Not that those managerial legends ever worked under or together with a DoF, but at other places – such as David Pleat at Tottenham Hotspur – the transfer activity (i.e. scouting, negotiations) was moved away from the manager’s remit and assigned to a DoF. Then, as now, the DoF would typically report to the owner, chairperson or the board, but the lines of command back in the day would often be nebulous and hard to understand.  

Some managers reported directly to the upper echelons, while others didn’t. Equally, some managers were happy to work under such a structure, whereas others were less enthusiastic.  

However, with the emergence of foreign owners in the Premier League clearer management structures – akin to those in continental Europe – have been put in place. And with that arrived the figure of the sporting director (or SD).  
While the areas of responsibility still vary from club to club – no structure is identical – the general principle is that the sporting director entertains stronger mandates, reporting directly to the top dogs (owner, chairperson or the CEO) with the manager – now generally known as head coach – placed, in most cases, below the sporting director in the organisation chart. That said, the media and the fans still interchange DoF/sporting director willy-nilly when referring to the roles.  
What are their roles and responsibilities at a club?  

With the semantics out of the way, here’s a look at what a sporting director actually does, or is supposed to do. We’ll stick to this term from this point onwards as it can be described as a modern version of the DoF and that’s what those acting out the role prefer to call themselves; there’s even a UK-based association for/of sporting directors. 
The overriding idea is for one executive to have overall responsibility for the footballing side of a club. To secure continuity it’s better that this isn’t the head coach, as they tend to come and go.  

In an ideal world the sporting director will lay out a 360-degree strategy for the club, making sure that it is aligned from Academy level through to the first team. Aligned in this context means adopting the same development principles and working methods, thus facilitating a swift adaptation for Academy graduates to the playing style of the first team.  

Ajax and Barcelona are probably the best examples of clubs with longstanding traditions who work according to such a model. Then, in turn – though this doesn’t always happen in real life – the sporting director will to their best ability appoint coaches and backroom staff who are deemed the most capable of implementing the club’s defined playing style and modus operandi.  
How about the recruitment side? Sporting directors tend to be judged on their transfer record and that’s the main talking point with a new SD – but is this fair? 

It’s hard to determine. With transfers stirring up such excitement and debate, it’s tempting to reduce the sporting director role to something of a glorified chief scout (which in some cases is not far from the truth, especially where the role hasn’t been properly implemented.) Yet along with every SD there’s a scouting department consisting of traditional scouts and an analytics team. At most clubs the head coach also enjoys a certain input when it comes to selecting reinforcements (or deciding who to let go). For that reason, the signing of a player is rarely down to one person; it’s generally a team effort headed by the sporting director.  
In any event, the whole idea of having the sporting director in charge of player recruitment is to ensure that the signings fit in with the club’s playing style and sporting vision. In today’s reality – with exceptions – that means bringing in up-and-coming talent with resale value. 
What is a technical director then? 

This is another term that’s often lumped into the same bag as SD. Depending on the actual mandates handed to the occupier of the role, it could theoretically be the same as a sporting director. However, in order avoid confusion, (as previously pointed out, clubs often mix up these titles themselves) a technical director is usually – at least in continental Europe – the right-hand person to the sporting director or even an assistant who, in the capacity of being the sporting director’s eyes and ears “on the ground”, has lesser executive powers and is tasked with overseeing the real day-to-day running of the sporting operations.  
How does a sporting director interact with other people at the club over player signings/manager hirings? 

Though it’s easy to get stuck in the on-paper interpretation of the role (structures, who reports to who and who has the final say), it’s the day-to-day performance of the sporting director that is the most vital aspect. In theory the division of tasks may look clear cut but, especially when it comes to transfers, the SD’s diplomatic skills will come into full force.  

Not only is it important to be able to manage upwards to convince the CEO or the owner that a proposed reinforcement is indeed needed, but also it’s crucial to establish an understanding with the coaching team (let alone scouts and analysts) to make sure that everyone – or as many as possible – is on board with the name in question. After all, it makes zero sense to secure a new acquisition that the head coach sees no prospective role for. Hence the sporting director role doesn’t just need first-class negotiation skills – when dealing with agents and other clubs – but also the ability to read the room of his/her own house, exert leadership skills, communicate well internally and to have a strong inkling for what is best for the club (after all, sometimes the veto card has to be played).  

It’s a fair assumption that the majority of the signings made are the results of compromises rather than the work of one person or a unanimous decision, yet as a general rule the sporting director makes the final decision. 
Why is it that the number of Premier League clubs with these roles has traditionally been lower than in continental Europe? Who was taking on these roles if not the DoF and SD?  

It’s been down to tradition more than anything. British clubs lived well for decades with “The Manager” being in sole charge of sporting matters. Now the mood has shifted – likely due to the intensified pressures of the job plus the exponential growth in transfer spending – as modern-day owners demand a stricter process before decisions are made.  

Consequently, it does seem more logical to divide the non-matchday/non-training ground work of the manager between other professionals with a high level of expertise in their fields.  
So were there people doing these jobs, but just under different job titles? 

To a certain extent, yes, but as club budgets have grown, so have their organisations. While it was previously common that the manager would even negotiate transfer deals and the personal contracts of prospective signings (yes, this seems rather odd in 2024!), a chief scout – more often than not linked to the manager – would perform some of the duties that a sporting director, or head of recruitment, is tasked with today.  
It wouldn’t be unheard of that certain scouting duties would be handed over to the assistant manager either. The crux, however, is that in today’s structure headed by a sporting director the loyalty of the recruitment staff predominantly lies with the club rather than with the managers who happened to be in charge. That said, ironically perhaps, if the sporting director moves on, it often happens that the recruitment staff follow suit.    
Why is it Premier League clubs are starting to place greater emphasis on such roles? 

 Based on evidence from Premier League clubs that are already working along such structures – let alone from continental Europe – the appointment of a sporting director does ensure more continuity and stimulates long-term thinking.  

Rightly or wrongly, the position of the head coach tends to be more volatile – as unideal as it might be – and having an “independent” back office or organisation that keeps plugging away regardless of whoever may be head coach seems a sensible step to ensure stability. 
What are the downsides of the sporting director structure? 

Accountability is one – at least some head coaches would say so. As many transfer moves are handled by the sporting director, the one picking the team (the head coach) may not always end up with the first name on their wish list. And if the signing doesn’t work out, it inevitably triggers a chicken-and-egg dilemma: was the failure because the player wasn’t the right one for the head coach or was the head coach unsuccessful in getting the best out of the player? 

Another aspect that may require more clarity is communication. With some sporting directors keeping well out of the spotlight, the head coach is often left to respond to media questions touching on transfers and long-term strategy (“the project”).  
A better approach would be to share these responsibilities too, with the sporting director taking a more active role in sharing the club’s vision with media and supporters. 
Who have these roles at PL clubs?

Arsenal: Sporting director – Edu Gaspar
Aston Villa: President of football operations – Ramon Rodriguez Verdejo (Monchi); Director of football – Damian Vidagany
Bournemouth: Technical director – Simon Francis
Brentford: Director of football – Phil Giles, technical director- Lee Dykes
Brighton: Technical director: David Weir
Burnley: Director of football – Paul Jenkins
Chelsea: Co-sporting directors – Laurence Stewart and Paul Winstanley; Technical director – Christopher Vivell
Crystal Palace: Sporting director – Dougie Freedman
Everton: Director of football – Kevin Thelwell
Fulham: Sporting director – Tony Khan
Liverpool: CEO of football – Michael Edwards; Sporting director – Richard Hughes
Luton: Chief recruitment officer – Mike Harford
Man City: Sporting director – Txiki Begiristain
Man Utd: Technical director – Jason Wilcox
Newcastle: Sporting director – formerly Dan Ashworth
Nott’m Forest: Sporting director – Ross Wilson
Spurs: Technical director – Johan Lange
West Ham: Technical director – Tim Steidten
Wolves: Sporting director – Matt Hobbs

Tor-Kristian Karlsen is a former sporting director at Monaco and at Maccabi Haifa as well as scout at Bayer Leverkusen and Hannover. He currently writes a column for ESPN.