IT’S a question often asked when comparing the way top foreign clubs are run to the Premier League’s elite, and it reared its head again in the form of Henry Winter’s Twitter account after Arsenal’s 5-1 defeat to Bayern Munich.
— Henry Winter (@henrywinter) February 16, 2017
Too many clubs in England, not simply Arsenal, lack real footballing, dressing-room expertise on their boards. Contrast with Bayern.
— Henry Winter (@henrywinter) February 16, 2017
It’s a valid question — why aren’t more ex-players involved in club affairs?
As Brendan Rodgers side faltered in defence, many longed for the defensive heads of Jamie Carragher and Sami Hyypia to be appointed in order to help coach the lads on how to stop the round thing going into the rectangle thing so often.
I’d argue against this in certain cases. It’s not that I’d be opposed to former Reds being appointed but these days managers usually join clubs with their own preferred team of coaches and analysts. They like to have things their way. If that’s what the manager wants in order to do his job to the best of his ability then that’s the way it should be. And vice-versa, if they wanted the opinions and expertise of former players.
Where I’d argue those sort of expertise matter more are at boardroom level. While investors and businessmen leading the operations at football clubs is something of a necessary evil, there are some cases in which they have no idea what that club is about or how much it matters to the fans. Fans are seen as a valuable way of marketing the club and selling the match-going experience — and the ticket, shirt and other merchandise sales that go with it — but it’s rare that you see Premier League clubs being ran with the best interests of the fans at heart, despite the efforts of fan groups and supporters’ trusts in recent years.
The key attraction of having a former player in some form of advisory role within the board of directors is that these are people that know the club inside and out. They know what it takes for the club to be successful on the pitch, in most cases. They offer insight into the club that a PhD in Maths from Harvard doesn’t. But most importantly, these legends have an affinity with the fans.
If you look at the way clubs in Germany and other countries around Europe are run, they have club legends sitting on the board. Even in more unusual cases, such as at Ajax, they have their hall of famers in more hands-on roles on the business side of things — Edwin Van der Sar is the marketing director and Marc Overmars is the technical director.
Just a Google search — or a lot more in my case — will tell you which foreign clubs across Europe have their former players in active roles on the board. It will also tell you how many Premier League clubs don’t. The number of directors who actually have some form of experience in the game prior to their current role is staggering. Boardrooms seem to be mainly populated by the club’s owner and chairman and a group of their rich mates. In some cases they have ‘lifelong fans’ at the top of the chain (wonder why I put that in quote marks…).
The obvious counter-argument to this, particularly in Liverpool’s case, is that many players are choosing careers in the media once they decide to hang up their boots. This issue was raised on the most recent edition of our Back Page show, asking the question whether there are too many former Reds now operating as experts and pundits — looking at the effect that can have on the current players within the team.
Liverpool seem to have dozens of ex-players making appearances on the telly and radio. A point I made on the show was that it had been described by Carragher as the ‘easy way out’ — footballers expressing their opinions/offering some kind of analysis (or very little in some cases) and being paid well to do so. Contrast that with going into management or coaching, which requires a lot of hard work and leads to much more scrutiny in most cases.
It’s interesting that Steven Gerrard has talked about buying his time before making the step-up to management, in that sense. Almost as though it’s something which requires a lot of preparation, which it obviously is. There have been cases, though, of experienced players moving quickly into management. Alan Shearer is an example of that — added to the fact he now seems so scarred by the experience, he’s completely swerved that particular career path to chat wham on Match of the Day.
Would that be an issue if ex-players were on the board, though? I can’t imagine fans criticising a single player based on a decision made by the club’s hierarchy — then again some football fans do offer up some particularly unreasonable criticisms, so you never know for sure. You would assume any criticism would be sweeping, though you would also assume less decisions that annoy fans would be made in general.
It’s hard to see the pitfalls from either side. The former player gets to be a key decision maker at the club he loves and help ensure the fans that supported him throughout his career get what they want. Those high up at the club can get the fans on side and gain some valuable expertise on how to make their product successful. Ultimately, winning trophies is the best marketing strategy. The fans get to see somebody they admire and, crucially, somebody with the best interests of the club at heart in the boardroom.
More often than not it seems owners and directors are happy sitting off in their ivory tower while the supporters are left to worry about the direction their club is heading. Whatever you think about Fenway Sports Group it clearly hasn’t helped that they haven’t been seen to show much interest in the fans’ desires or the community that the club belongs to — and even they have Kenny Dalglish as a director, so maybe it doesn’t have the effect I believe it would (and none of this is to say I’m #FSGOut, by the way).
The key to the whole process is success on the pitch. Trophies bring money, make fans happy, so on and so forth. Ultimately, nobody knows the key to that better than the legends of the game. Getting the mix between business heads and football heads is vital.
There is no getting away from the fact that football and the Premier League in particular is now a global market. Investors are attracted to that, it’s an opportunity for them. Everybody would have a much smoother ride if ex-players were involved in the decision making at boardroom level.
Football clubs should always be run with the best interests of the fans and the club itself at heart. Too often that isn’t the case.