Why Celtic need a Director of Football; key issue not covered at AGM

By Euan Davidson

December 15, 2020

Celtic’s AGM was a stramash; pre-recorded soundbites and no talk of the future.

In the first online-only Annual General Meeting for the club, Celtic’s directors failed to ensure that the shareholders and fans would go away with much to discuss.

Peter Lawwell defended himself with the vigour you’d expect. Lenny was backed. The club’s transfer spending was – rightly – used to defend the board against protest.

One thing wasn’t discussed though. Does the structure at Celtic need to be changed? Additionally, would that involve a Director of Football?

Defining the job

Whether you call it a Director of Football, Sporting Director or Technical Director, it’s a job that elite clubs in Europe have made use of.

In Italy, club legend Paolo Maldini has a big say on transfer movement at A.C. Milan (Herald). At Manchester City, Txiki Begiristain is the man pulling the strings – a job he did successfully at Barcelona (The Guardian). Paris Saint-Germain, Liverpool (Echo) and others have adapted to having a Director Football under their employ.

What do they actually do? Well, it’s essentially about identifying the transfer ‘culture’ within a club. For example, Chelsea (as explained by this Tifo Football video) invest heavily in young players and engage in cyclical loan deals. Some clubs have chosen to adopt a “moneyball” style, like Christoph Freund at Red Bull Salzburg (Marca).

In short, they take an active role in implementing player recruitment models and assign scouts to various assignments. This takes pressure off the manager. If it were to happen at Celtic, it would mean that Neil Lennon would only have to say “I want this kind of player”, and the Director of Football would assign his staff accordingly.

It might also mean that Lennon would field fewer questions about recruitment. In the case of Milan, Maldini has taken the heat off Stefano Pioli in that regard. He appears regularly in the Italian press, so that Pioli only needs to talk football. I have little doubt that Lennon would enjoy that.

Directors live and die by their transfer record. If they’re successful in carrying out their job according to the “culture” of a club, then they are heralded. Too many expensive flops, and they’re out the door. Their job security is similar to that of a head coach.

It doesn’t actually affect the manager’s tactical choices to any huge extent. They work for the manager, as opposed to the other way round. In a successful version of the job, anyway.

(R) Sports Director of Lille OSC. Luis Campos / (Photo by Jean Catuffe/Getty Images)

Success stories

The big, obvious names are obvious for a reason. You probably know who Michael Edwards is. Begiristain, too.

However, Luis Campos at Lille (Chronicle Live) is in large part responsible for the revival of the French club. He’s overseen incredible coups for the club, including the signing of Renato Sanches from Bayern München.

The most relevant example of a Campos success though? Victor Osihmen signing for £20m then leaving for three times that a year later (Transfermarkt).

‘The Professor’ has managerial experience and knows where to draw the line. He’s been integral to the good work that Lille are doing.

Similarly, Marc Overmars has performed minor miracles at Ajax (Transfermarkt). The former Arsenal and Barcelona winger has overseen huge player turnover in Amsterdam, but has kept the club mightily competitive.

Take the summer for example: Sergiño Dest, Donny van de Beek and Hakim Ziyech all left for big fees. They spent a third of what they made (Transfermarkt), and are top of the Eredivisie.

Agents of chaos: Mike Ashley and (R) Joe Kinnear / (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)

Where it’s gone wrong

Tottenham Hotspur may have got it right in recent years, but the Bale transfer and its consequences were a stark warning. Franco Baldini replaced the Welsh wonder with the likes of Roberto Soldado, Paulinho and Vlad Chiricheș (Transfermarkt).

Fine, pass marks should go Baldini’s way for signing Christian Eriksen, but that’s a one-hot-signing-every-seven-move average.

He also earned the scorn of Roma legend Francesco Totti last year (Football Italia), selling £223m’s worth of talent for less than half of that sum.

Then of course, there’s Joe Kinnear (BBC), whose year in the role at Newcastle United featured more profanities than astute transfer moves.

However, on balance, the model has worked in Europe. Champions League-winning sides use a Director of Football. Why shouldn’t Celtic?

Chief Executive Officer Ferran Soriano (L) chats with Manchester City’s Spanish director Aitor ‘Txiki’ Begiristain (R) / (Photo by LINDSEY PARNABY/AFP via Getty Images)

With an eye on the future

Celtic’s history has been littered with charismatic head coaches who run everything at the club. Jock Stein was part of a socialist, ex-mining culture which includes Bill Shankly (Liverpool FC) amongst its alumni. Willie Maley has a song about the players he brought in.

More recently, Brendan Rodgers and Ronny Deila had a big say in implementing their own version of the Celtic culture. A number of the players Deila brought in are either still at the club, or left for large fees.

However, modern football managers are under immense pressure. One look at Neil Lennon’s body language this season will tell you that succinctly.

With a transfer team including the manager, Peter Lawwell, Nick Hammond and a Director of Football, Celtic could have a much more coherent strategy in place. In my view, an experienced recruiter and scout would bring freshness to the club and help to keep our top players.

There’s clearly a disconnect between the manager and the scouting department just now. Signings have either not been played, or they’ve just not been fit. Shane Duffy looked very much like a signing taken out of Lennon’s hands, for example.

There are huge pros and cons, but that’s true of every high-profile role in football. At the very least, it’s worth considering. The fact that it wasn’t discussed at the AGM was startling.