What is wrong with chairman Lee Power signing players for Swindon?

Town’s owner is also the chief scout and director of football operations, but boardroom interference at Swindon isn’t unusual, or even a problem, says Alex Cooke.

Does Lee Power signing players undermine Town manager Mark Cooper? Is the former Peterborough boss just a puppet? Or, can a chairman who says he has “the mind of a player, a manager and an owner” be useful?

What is clear is that Power has denied meddling in Cooper’s job, “He picks the team, he picks the tactics and all I do is help with player recruitment”. Cooper himself recently mirrored his chairman’s comment, adding, “He doesn’t interfere… All he does is just helps us try to recruit the best players we can for what money we’ve got available”.

It is this involvement in transfers which give Power this controversial title – Director of Football Operations. However, like other similar roles, director of football (DoF), technical director or sporting director, these titles rarely tell us much about the job, or their powers – they seem to vary from club to club. At some are above the manager, some below, some more sideways. At Swindon, that is easy: Power is clearly above Cooper, and so one problem commonly associated with DoFs – who takes final responsibility – couldn’t be any clearer.

And Power’s involvement in this recruitment role is entirely logical. At its most basic, as a former agent, he knows the transfer market and clearly has good contacts at other clubs – as demonstrated by the link with Spurs. He also has ongoing relationships with agents, which someone inexperienced such as Cooper may lack. Where Power has admitted to identifying players, he has done so alongside his coaching team of Cooper and Luke Williams. And their involvement in the process is clear to see with a number of their former players recruited.

As a model, it is very similar to Southampton’s previous version where CEO Nicola Cortese lead a recruitment committee with the manager and technical staff, gathering multiple opinions but ultimately holding responsibility himself.

However, it isn’t just through player recruitment with which a director of football can help. After all why should a manager pick the youth-team boss, head scout or physio? Why should they know more what the club needs or the demands of that specific role than the CEO, DoF or club doctor? Surely any club would rather have experts who are loyal to the club, not to one individual? Power has already said that Jamie Pitman’s role will be up for review in the summer and it looks likely the appointment will be in his gift, not Cooper’s.

However, there is also more strategic need for Power’s direct involvement. It stems from the financial model Swindon are using. The model is largely built on signings made from other teams’ development squads, made for little initial outlay, on lower wages and higher sell-on clauses. Cooper and Williams then have to refine these products in the longer term and integrate them with any loanees brought in from Spurs, or elsewhere.

The dilemma of this long-term planning can be seen in the case of a player such as Ben Gladwin. While Swindon already have numerous central midfielders, the chance to develop a six-foot-plus ball-playing midfielder was taken, despite not fitting the immediate need of the manager.

This need for long-term development takes on even greater significance if the manager is to be replaced, or sacked, because it allows for continuity of style, shape and ethos. And in Swindon’s case, the playing style has been adopted to attract loan talent, regardless of who the manager may be.

Similarly a manager has little drive to ensure progress from the development squad and the youth team, unless it will improve his results, and so continuity is certainly needed in that area.

Obviously this whole system relies scouting to ensure minimal waste, but it also needs to be planned. Budgets are simply too tight to rebuild the squad time and again. To leave signings to the whim of a manager who needs results to stay in a job leads to short-term thinking not long-term planning. So with a DoF there is automatically an element in which signings will be made for the club – not the benefit of the manager’s reputation, win percentage or personal glory. Does all this make Cooper a puppet? No, it makes him a head coach.

Again, this brings us back to the vague world of job titles. Huddersfield demonstrated this perfectly when Mark Robins was appointed as their boss, he was offered the title of Manager or Head Coach. Everything else about the role was the same: wages, responsibility and position. Tellingly, he opted for manager.


What is interesting is how many English clubs have quietly adopted some form of technical director, and how little media attention it has garnered. Ten years ago, Reading’s employment of former Town ‘keeper Nicky Hammond as Director of Football was unusual, now it is in use from Cardiff, West Brom and Exeter to Manchester City. Of course, there are successes and failures, just as there are with those who manage without assistance, but it seems to be a growth area.

Those who further question the role always vomit up names such as Joe Kinnear (formerly of Newcastle) seeing the DoF as threat to the manager or usurper – as happened at Fulham. And yet, these are two clubs where exactly the ones where planning isn’t taking place.

As Ross Wilson, head of football operations at Huddersfield, points out in a recent interview these roles need to be held by those who don’t seek the limelight or the manager’s job. Many, such as Richard Garlick of West Brom, tend to be younger, statistically minded and ambitious – but not to be a manager.

However, Wilson also admits that with the DoF model, communication of the club’s objectives and aims needs to be continually reinforced, to explain the process and why such a model is being followed… At least Lee Power is doing a good job of staying in the shadows.

The oddest example of the DoF model has to be Peterborough where Barry Fry, a former player and chairman has provided a hugely successful scouting operation earning millions for the club. And yet, Peterborough are also a basketcase of boardroom interference with tales of the chairman directly picking the team, particularly when Cooper was in charge at London Road.

While Cooper has denied that level of interference at Swindon, it has certainly happened in the past. Andrew Fitton once claiming to have signed Paul Caddis and Simon Ferry with little input from the manager and takes some credit for Charlie Austin.

Of course, the same famously occurred at Chelsea with Andriy Shevchenko and more recently with Harry Redknapp admitting to QPR signing a player he’d never seen.

Other chairmen have taken their power much further: Valdimir Romanov used to fax the Hearts team through to his manager, while Silvio Berlusconi turned up in the AC Milan dressing room before the Champions League final to ‘approve’ Carlo Ancelotti’s team and tactics. They still won.

What is interesting is that the role of the football manager is changing, particularly in the lower leagues. Not only are many more getting sacked, but increasingly the technocrats who are being employed are being asked to improve a club’s assets in the longer term, not to wheel and deal.

It might be a consequence of fans’ ever increasing demands, it might be a result of the ever-evaporating funds, but there does seem to be a desire for managers to be technicians and coaches rather than rule as a dictator.

Which asks a question – what does a football manager actually do? Not much if you follows the statistical arguments of The Numbers Game and Raphael Honigstein’s belief that the secretive nature of football renders post-match analysis reductive. But that is a debate for another day, albeit an interesting idea.

Above all, the case for a director of football at Swindon was made by Paolo Di Canio. While successful, his tenure was horribly inefficient. Vast sums were wasted on players who had to subsequently be paid off, such as Lukas Magera and Luke Rooney. Too many signings weren’t planned out or thought out. And then bombed out.

When Di Canio departed, he took all of his staff, leaving Swindon with an empty bootroom, to go with the empty boardroom.

It was an approach which Town can’t afford now, and couldn’t really afford then. But, if Swindon’s trio of Power, Cooper and Williams can continue to bring in, develop, and sell players with the quality of Yaser Kassim, Massimo Luongo and Michael Smith, perhaps fans will worry less who precisely is pulling the strings.

Does having a director of football operations help or hinder manager Mark Cooper? Leave your comment below the line.

8 comments

  • Alex Ferguson, Wenger and Mourhino didn’t need a director of football to sign great players.
    they do it all themselves. Cooper needs to
    Grow a backbone!

    Like

    • Roy Keane, Avram Grant, Christian Gross all didn’t have a DoF and did a terrible job – examples work both ways. There have been good and bad under both models, my question is does this work for us?

      Also, on the subject of examples, Jose did work under a DoF at Real Madrid, Inter and Porto. He also has one somewhat to the side of him at Chelsea. And Roman Abramovich above him!

      Like

    • I dont see why as seems to be working currently for us.

      Like

      • Sorry, John. I don’t get what you mean? I would agree that it is working but of course the big test will be over the next few months when next seasons’ squad starts to be built as the released list come out and development games are filled with trialists – then we will see if the scouting network covers more than just Brighton and Spurs.

        Like

  • Another superb article Alex. A couple of points to throw out there:

    The DOF model seems to be working well for us ATM, and a strong youth base with young potential gems is a reasonable way to go based on the lack of a major benefactor. Would you question the fact the owner/chairman/DOF are the same person?

    There is a difference between Power scouting and recruiting players and dictating tactics and starting line ups/substitutions. As long as he remains the right side of that line I have every confidence of future success, though obviously without major cash injections this will take time.

    Like

    • I would question that, obviously it places all of the eggs in line basket somewhat negating the idea of continuity should Power leave. However, such a departure would fairly surely be his decision and set to his time schedule – I
      Unless Jed gets some money from somewhere to sort whatever complexity it is with his 40 or 1 % share.

      The notion of him dictating tactics seems dealt with – obviously he has set the strategy in choosing to create a team which attempts to used highly technical young people who players rather than more physical specimens. Really that is little different from many teams who have a strategy which is reflected in their playing style such as Wimbledon. But then some teams have to play a certain way as it is part of their identity – eg Ajax who have had a major coup because Cruyff felt they were playing the Ajax way. Or Liverpool or Manchester United but that might be more about not winning than how they are not winning.

      Like

  • Great article about a development I strongly support.
    As we saw with the former Italian manager, the club went from a small debt to £10 mill within 18 months. For a small club like Swindon, this could not work in the long run. There aren’t enough money earned in the Championship (if promoted) to keep spending money like in that period.

    A bit speculation: The players that are being brought in to play the style of football Swindon is now, are more valuable when being sold than a stong 6 feet ++ ballkicker/header/tackler. There are of course clubs higher up the league who values a big and strong player and are willing to pay for them, but if we look at the players that Swindon got some money for, they are either great goalscorers (Austin,Cox) or technical players who scores goals or set up others (Ritchie). The others are journeymen who keep changing clubs every second year as free agents or are released by the club if somebody are willing to pay their wages.

    It hurts to sell a good player for a fee that feels to low (remember Duncan Shearer, Jan Aage Fjortoft and Matt Richie), but if I’m not wrong, all of these were sold because the club needed money. The only ones that I feel we got a resonable fee for are Charlie Austin and Simon Cox and those were sold when Swindon wasn’t in a horrible financial state. If the club is struggeling, the other clubs will be aware of this and offer a lower sum as they know we have to sell to be able to stay alive.

    Swindon aren’t the only club who has to live like this. Even a large club like Borussia Dortmund who sells out 80.000 seats every homematch are operating like this. Manager Klopp said he cried when they sold Kagawa to Man.Utd and everybody knows he wasn’t happy when the club sold Götze to Bayern M (even if this was due to the clause in Götze’s contract). But they brought in other (cheaper) players to replace them (yes I know that Dortmund aren’t winning the German league, but that is an other discussion).

    Like

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