Is it time for Derby County to seek a Sporting Director?

The spinning of the managerial merry-go-round has been intense at Derby County ever since Steve McClaren replaced Nigel Clough back in 2013. In fact, until now, a new manager has been at the helm at the start of every season since then:

2013/4 Nigel Clough
2014/5 McClaren
2015/6 Clement
2016/7 Pearson
2017/8 Rowett
2018/9 Lampard

The unwelcome, monotonous, unrelenting speculation surrounding Frank Lampard’s future this summer makes it look ever more likely that Derby are about to go into their seventh successive season with a different manager at the helm. And across the English game, it feels like that the days of a manager coming into a football club, being left alone to get on with the job and putting his stamp on things over a long-term period is almost entirely over. You still get the odd exception, but overall, the trend is for managers to leave clubs sooner rather than later. So, why leave everything to them?

What if Derby had a separate, senior, influential figure tasked with running the club’s recruitment department? In the Bundesliga, these figures are generally known as Sporting Directors and take responsibility for buying and selling players, extending contracts and hiring and firing coaching staff. Instead of having a traditional English-style ‘manager’ running everything, like Sir Alex Ferguson, Arsene Wenger, or Brian Clough as the ‘perfect dictator’, clubs run on this model have a ‘head coach’ to pick and train the first team, in line with a playing philosophy and recruitment model which is agreed with the Sporting Director.

Such an appointment should, in theory, mean that even as ‘head coaches’ come and go, continuity in the club’s style of play, scouting and recruitment policy would be assured, which would mean that the upheaval caused by constant ‘managerial’ departures, whether due to a sacking or because the guy was recruited by another club, would be significantly reduced.

If we consider the different styles of football pursued by the last four Derby managers – from Paul Clement’s dogmatic possession game to Nigel Pearson’s preference for 4-4-2 and fast forwards, to Gary Rowett’s counter-attacking style and finally Lampard’s possession-based, high-pressing preference – it’s obvious that each manager had totally different requirements when it came to playing staff. Just as an example, Rowett wanted full backs who were defenders first, like Andre Wisdom or Chris Baird, whereas Lampard wants his full backs to fly forward, like Jayden Bogle or Scott Malone.

This has led to very different types of players being brought into the club, only to find themselves out of favour within a year.

In the period immediately after Nigel Clough left, Derby’s transfer policy changed out of sight, from tedious penny-pinching and strict book-balancing, to something more akin to a drunken lottery-winner screaming ‘spend spend spend’. With the former agent Sam Rush pulling the strings as chief executive and an exuberantly wealthy new owner signing the cheques, Clement in particular was furnished with a series of wildly expensive signings as he aimed to get Derby out of the Championship. According to my records, Clough was allowed to spend about £3m during 2012/3, while recouping about £2m. Fast-forward to 2015/6 and Derby were suddenly committing something like £25m on transfers, without recouping any meaningful fees at all.

Yet sadly, by the time Pearson departed, the squad was actually nearer to dropping into League 1 than it was to the Premier League, in spite of Mel’s millions. By the time Rowett came along, it was clear that the breaks had to be put on the spending to an extent, with good players being sold to allow the Brummie some budget to remodel the squad.

Then Rowett was gone and his replacement, Lampard, was backed with funds to overhaul the squad yet again – but only after he had sold Matej Vydra (and Morris had to purchase Pride Park, to prevent the historical losses accrued from landing Derby with a season-ending points deduction).

Things went badly wrong at Derby in the Clement / Rush period. The nadir was clearly August 2015, when the club spend north of £10m on Bradley Johnson and Jacob Butterfield, but the incontinence only got worse the next January, with more millions wasted on Abdoul Camara and Nick Blackman, before Morris abruptly pulled the plug on Clement. Rush continued in post for some time, but eventually left too, after a bitter feud with Morris became public knowledge.

With hindsight, perhaps an experienced Sporting Director, with the right mix of footballing expertise and business nous, could have acted as a break on what became an unholy trinity of an overenthusiastic owner, a chief executive with close links to particular agents and an inexperienced coach in Clement, who between them, presided over a ruinous binge of spending which the club are still trying to recover from years later. There was nobody with sufficient clout within Derby County to raise the alarm and suggest alternative targets when the fees being discussed for Butterfield and Johnson, for example, became ridiculous.

There are pluses and minuses to the Sporting Director approach. One clear ‘con’ is the fact that in England, we’re not used to the model and some managers would simply refuse to countenance working with one. Of Derby’s last six managers, only McClaren and Clement, both of whom have worked on the continent, would have been open to such a working arrangement. So using a Sporting Director / Director of Football makes it more likely that you would have a foreign coach in charge of picking the team – something which has still never happened at Derby County in its history (unless you count Scots).

A couple of prominent examples of the model working well in the Championship last season were Leeds, where the great Marcelo Bielsa works with DoF Victor Orta and Norwich City, where the German head coach Daniel Farke was supported by DoF Stuart Webber to build a squad which achieved automatic promotion at the second attempt.

Nigel Clough never had a lot of money to spend. I remember reading articles in which it was explained that Clough wanted to sign strikers ranging from Billy Sharp to Gary Hooper to Chris Wood, but there was never the money available to do it. Nevertheless, he came up with some signings reminiscent of the Oakland A’s story, as narrated by Michael Lewis in Moneyball.

Chris Martin, signed on a free transfer, became irreplaceable in the McClaren side which went on to Wembley. Craig Forsyth, nominally a left-sided midfielder at Watford, was repurposed as an ungainly but effective left back (and was missed last season, after a serious injury ended his campaign early). Jake Buxton was signed from Burton Albion to hoots of derision, but became a cult hero. Richard Keogh was a signed as a like-for-life replacement for Jason Shackell in 2012 and is still giving his all for the badge as we approach the new decade.

Youth was prioritised under Clough and while Mason Bennett was arguably promoted to the first team squad too quickly, Will Hughes and Jeff Hendrick went on to become Premier League players, while Mark O’Brien might have done, had injuries and health issues not hindered his development. There were plenty of flops too, as Clough trawled the bargain bins looking at misfits, cast-offs, those whose talent had been overlooked, for whatever reason. But it’s undeniable that the foundations he put in place during his tenure were solid and allowed the club to go on to challenge for promotion in the years that followed.

Clough’s most popular signing and arguably his biggest hit was Craig Bryson. First linked to Derby in the Billy Davies era, Bryson signed for Clough from Kilmarnock and went on to become a genuine club legend, thanks to his role in Deforestation Day. The £350,000 fee invested in Bryson truly puts the mis-spending of the following seasons to shame. Or as the club put it, in a more understated way: “Few can argue that the six-figure fee that the Rams paid out eight years ago has been value for money.” Clough and his staff, the club added: “scouted Bryson extensively in the months leading up to his arrival and knew the type of character they were adding to the dressing room.”

Bryson left the club this summer, after eight years of exemplary service. On departing, he said: “I really wanted to pay back Nigel Clough too for giving me a chance. I think I am forever in debt to Nigel for bringing me to this club. I stay in contact with him a fair bit and when he was here he was more than a manager, he helped me off the pitch too. He taught me right from wrong really and what was expected at this club. I am forever grateful.”

I’m not saying it needs to be Clough himself, but a Scouting Director with the diligence, creativity in scouting, faith in youth, ability to work within tight budget restrictions and, just as importantly, the moral compass – the sense of what the club expects of a player – Clough brought during his tenure would undoubtedly be helpful, in an era when we are finding it impossible to keep a ‘manager’ with us for more than 12 months.

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