ON his first day as Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers made it clear how he felt about the idea of working under a director of football. He’d made it clear to the club’s owners too: “It’s one of the items I brought up when I was speaking to the club was that I wouldn’t directly work with a director of football.”
Liverpool had only recently got rid of the club’s first and so far only director of football, Damien Comolli, shortly before sacking Kenny Dalglish. Whatever their plans were at the outset of the process to replace Dalglish by the end of it there were no plans to directly replace Comolli. Instead of a director of football there would be a number of appointments that would work together to carry out the role of ‘sporting director’.
Directors of football and sporting directors aren’t exactly common in English football. Although every club and manager are different, the norm in England is for the manager to decide who he wants in his squad and for the chairman or chief executive to sort that out for him. Some managers will rely on scouts more than others to identify and assess targets; some managers will get more involved than others in persuading players to move or persuading clubs to part with their prized assets. Sometimes the manager gets to decide on what kind of wage structure he wants in place, sometimes that’s not a decision for him to make.
In recent years at Anfield transfers have always been a two-man process – certainly when looking on from outside – and it’s not always been a harmonious relationship.
There are many stories of Rick Parry frustrating both Gerard Houllier and Rafa Benítez – either for not finding a couple more million quid for a star of the future or not switching his phone on when there was a chance of saving a couple of million quid on a star of the future. Stories are told of overpaying for one target and then missing out on another by underbidding or not bidding at all.
Parry made way for Christian Purslow, who by most accounts seemed to think his role was as Liverpool’s first director of football. Purslow would tell reporters about talks he’d had with clubs about signings – without telling the manager he’d had those talks, or even asking the manager if he thought those players were of use to him. Purslow had, according to some reports, more or less tied up Joe Cole’s Bosman transfer months before the end of Benítez’s final season, despite Benítez making it clear he didn’t want the Chelsea midfielder. Cole is on somewhere between £90,000 and £120,000 a week and none of the four managers Liverpool have had since Purslow decided he was the answer have thought much of him. Benítez didn’t want him, Hodgson rarely used him, Dalglish sent him out on loan, Brendan Rodgers waited in vain for someone to make an offer to take him out on loan.
After Purslow came Comolli, his first title being Director of Football Strategy. He arrived when Hodgson was still boss but by the end of his first transfer window Kenny Dalglish had been install as caretaker manager and Liverpool had swapped Fernando Torres and Ryan Babel (bringing fees in of around £56m) for Luis Suárez and Andy Carroll (costing fees of around £58m). Carroll seemed to be something of a panic buy and 18 months later, having played far too infrequently for such an expensive purchase, he went out on a 12 month loan deal that sees Liverpool get £1m and the other club paying his wages for a season.
Comolli was praised by Dalglish in the spring, Kenny saying Comolli only bought him the players he’d asked him to. But Comolli’s negotiating tactics are such that however good or bad Kenny’s choices were they were made to seem bad deals because of the prices paid. The stories about how he negotiated the Carroll and Henderson deals are well known, embarrassing and – in light of how tight funds have been this summer – extremely frustrating.
Having one bad director of football doesn’t make the idea of having a director of football a bad one in its own right but the targets Liverpool looked at for the manager’s job weren’t keen on working under one. Not that, certainly in Brendan Rodgers’ case, the manager wanted to be in full control of transfers. Far from it.
Back on his first day Rodgers made it clear that what suits him is to work as part of a team: “I work best around a group of people and it’s about a group of people. When you come to a big club you can’t do it on your own. There’s not one of us that is better than all of us.
“But what you need at a football club is you need an outstanding recruitment team, an outstanding medical and sports science team, player liaison team and these are all people who will come into the group and we will form a little technical board. There will be four or five people around that group who will decide the way forward.”
It sounded quite good, really. People to identify targets and, after discussing it with the manager and the rest of that technical team, to go out and get them. People to keep an eye on the fitness of players and to ensure players coming in were right physically for the kind of football Rodgers and the club wanted to play. Player liaison people to, maybe, put an arm round a player’s shoulder or steer him away from the wrong kind of company.
But hardly any of them came in. Two of that board are still on gardening leave, their former club Manchester City refusing to allow their staff to work for Liverpool for as long as they can possibly stop it. And those two are the new head of recruitment and the new chief scout. Vital roles which weren’t actually filled during Rodgers’ first transfer window.
And was that first transfer window successful? On Thursday morning it wouldn’t have been seen as having gone too badly – by Friday night it was seen by a large number of fans as a complete mess.
Liverpool had bought Joe Allen, who looks a bargain at £15m. Fabio Borini is showing good signs but it’s too early to say if he’s going to be a success. Oussama Assaidi and Samed Yesil might not be players to go straight into Rodgers’ first-team line-ups but the loan move for Nuri Sahin was perhaps a better deal than the club are getting credit for. Reports vary but Liverpool are said to have paid a nominal fee to use him for the season and aren’t even paying all his wages. Reports also vary about what kind of option Liverpool might have at the end of the loan period but it’s likely the ball will be in Liverpool’s court should they and the player want it to be made permanent by then. And if he doesn’t work out it’s not going to leave Liverpool with a player they can’t shift.
But Liverpool also lost players. Some were already on their way out before Rodgers arrived, or had their hearts set on moving on. Kuyt, Maxi and Bellamy fall into that category and Aurelio’s contract was up anyway. It took a while but Alberto Aquilani finally moved on. It was on the last day or two that Charlie Adam, Jay Spearing and Andy Carroll were moved on – and the fact nobody came back in after them has triggered an angry response.
One player expected to sign after them was Clint Dempsey. Reports, as always, vary as to why it didn’t happen. Fulham had been annoyed by the story that appeared on the NESN website saying Liverpool had already got him and some versions of the story are that Fulham wanted more from Liverpool than they would accept from anyone else. Another version of the story is that even Spurs were told the fee would be more than the one already accepted from Aston Villa – although the difference may be more on the terms of the deal than the cost. Villa were said to have offered £5m plus £2m worth of add-ons, Spurs eventually getting the player for a straight £6m. Liverpool’s bid is said to have been £4m and not a penny more. And Liverpool’s bid is said to have been capped at that level because of the player’s age – he’d have been unlikely to have attracted a transfer fee should Liverpool have chosen to let him go a couple of years from now.
The issue for supporters is that if Rodgers felt he was worth it he should have been signed. Without any official word from the club, or Rodgers, it remains speculation but it does seem that Rodgers was overruled on bringing the player in for the price Spurs eventually paid for him.
Dempsey wasn’t the only player Liverpool were looking at on the final day of the window and it’s understood that the club were looking at signing another striker. Why that deal fell through is the subject of some dispute, but if one version of the story is to be believed the Reds boss got the final say in whether or not to go ahead on the terms being demanded by the selling club. Perhaps we’ll find out more when he speaks to the press today and in coming weeks.
Back in the early days of pre-season Brendan Rodgers suggested the deal for Sigurdsson didn’t go ahead because he felt the player was asking for too much in wages. He also made it clear that this was his decision and not the decision of the owners, suggesting that they would have backed him had he felt it was worth going ahead on those terms.
At the moment mixed messages are coming through about who is calling the shots on transfers. As is usually the case the truth is probably somewhere half-way between the two extremes.
By the time of the next window it should be quite clear who calls the shots. The new sporting director committee will – or should be – in place and Rodgers will definitely be working with football people more than he perhaps is now. Their appointments can’t come soon enough because if football people are disagreeing on which targets to go for at least they’re disagreeing based on their experience and knowledge of the game.
It’s vital now that the club manage the expectations of supporters. They chose to overhaul the playing side but Rodgers has to carry on with that job less than half done. It’s the same kind of approach that might be seen if the club do decide to redevelop Anfield; big parts of the stadium out of use and upheaval for all until the work is finished. In both cases, pretending that everything is normal won’t work. If the upheaval is the price to pay for something better, something that we have to wait for, fans can cope with it. Just don’t pretend otherwise – to anyone.
Use any phrase you like, but the club from top to bottom, inside and out, need to work as a team.