Edu and Arteta Arsenal
Edu and Arteta Arsenal

Technical Directors of Football – What exactly do they do, does anybody really know?

There are currently five Premier League clubs employing ‘technical directors of football’, showing that use of the title is increasing. Although its genesis and original remit remain a mystery, a select few have successfully interpreted its meaning. 

Despite existing for over thirty years, the role of the technical director has yet to receive a concise and agreed upon definition. The title is often used interchangeably with director of football, director of football operations and sporting director, though none of these designations provide an insight into the role.

There is a common misconception, reinforced by the recent media spotlight on Arsenal’s Edu, that the sole responsibility of the technical director is the recruitment of players. In reality, every chairman and/or chief executive interprets the role differently, tailoring it to the structure, size and needs of their organisation. 

The modern technical director may be tasked with any number of ancillary duties, including responsibility for and the overseeing of the club’s playing philosophy, the academy, the training ground, player contracts and the recruitment of both players and coaching staff.

Unsurprisingly, the role has become the source of much debate among fans, with concerns and scepticism often centred around its sheer intangibility. In March, when Manchester United announced the appointment of Darren Fletcher as the club’s first technical director, Red Devils fans reacted with an understandable mixture of bewilderment, cynicism and optimism.  

So how, if at all, can we define the job of the technical director?

To answer that question it is necessary to look at who, rather than what, has embodied the role.  

A Brief History of Technical Directors

Like the sporting director (or its variants), the role of technical director was engendered in continental Europe more than three decades ago. Not to be confused with the Spanish director técnico, which refers to a coach or manager, pioneers of the role were typically involved in most of the moving parts within an organisation.

The majority of the initial successes that came were attributed to those who held the positions at international level, with the Swiss Football Association’s hiring of Hansruedi Hasler in 1995 among the most notable appointments.

Hasler was effectively given a carte blanche, to develop a new footballing identity as he saw fit. When Switzerland’s young guns – including Haris Seferovic, Granit Xhaka and Ricardo Rodriguez – emerged victorious at the 2009 U-17 World Cup, their triumph was largely chalked up to Hasler’s fundamental restructuring of football in the country.

Similarly, Belgian football owes a huge debt of gratitude to visionary and former technical director, Michel Sablon. 

Based on the successful 4-3-3 systems used by their Dutch neighbours, as well as clubs like Ajax and Barcelona, Sablon embedded a philosophy that transformed the minnows into a powerhouse of European football. His ten-year plan to revitalise the ailing Royal Belgian Football Association is the foundation upon which Belgium’s ‘golden generation’ has been built.

A smattering of British clubs followed suit throughout the years, each defining their own vision of the role, each with varying degrees of success.

Perhaps the first and most forgettable technical director in the Premier League era was Israeli Avram Grant who, having been appointed to the post by Portsmouth chairman Milan Mandarić in 2006, jumped ship at the end of the season to become Chelsea’s director of football. 

Of all the technical directors that have come and gone since, few if any have been entrusted with the breath of responsibilities that were afforded to Sablon or Hasler. Among the lucky few, one currently plies his trade in the Premier League.

A Role Defining Technical Director

Just as Liverpool’s Michael Edwards, Man City’s Txiki Begiristain and Everton’s Marcel Brands are lauded as some of the best directors of football in the game, Brighton’s Dan Ashworth continues to define what it is to be a top rate technical director.

There’s a real buzz on the terraces at the Amex these days, with the south coasters playing some of the most attractive football in the division. Having built a competitive team, a beautiful stadium and an ultra-impressive training centre – all on a modest budget – The Seagulls are, in many ways, a model for any up and coming English club. 

Ashworth, who joined the club in 2018, has been key to Brighton’s stabilisation in the top flight.

His role is an all-encompassing “proper technical directors job”, with the former Norwich City defender casting his eye over the men’s and women’s first teams, player recruitment, the academy, the medical and sports science departments and player loans. As Ashworth puts it,“I stand in the middle of a wheel and my job is to bring together seven departments, connecting those spokes.” 

During his time as the English FA’s technical director, where he made a telling and lasting contribution, Ashworth wrote and delivered a course about the technical director role. Last year, in an insightful interview, he outlined his current take on the position.    

“The principle for a technical director, in my opinion, is to look after the medium to long term interests of the football club. It’s not about short-term ‘get a result tomorrow’, it’s to try and make sure our club is set up in a way that other departments supplement and help Hope [Powell] and Graham [Potter].” 

At the centre of Ashworth’s teachings is the importance of cultivating and maintaining a strong philosophy and culture within the club. He explains that the vision must come from the top down, and that continuity gives people the confidence to express themselves and flourish. 

“If you keep changing the head coach every fourteen months or so – which is about the average lifespan of a manger unfortunately – going from one philosophy to the next, you’ve got no chance of joining up your loans, your academy and your recruitment. You end up having to change 16 or 17 players to change your principals.” Ashworth said.

Unfortunately, the majority of those in key positions aren’t as forthright, or available, as Ashworth.

Are Titles Meaningless?

The exact responsibilities of the technical director, like the sporting director, will undoubtedly remain a mystery to those outside the inner circles of elite football. As if by design, the obscurity of senior management’s jobs hinder fans’ evaluation of their club, denying them a metric against which they can measure an individuals performance.

However, just as Dan Ashworth and his predecessors have proven, words are meaningless. The Brighton technical director could adopt any number of labels, but if his remit remained unchanged, he would be equally as successful. 

Rather than getting hung up on succinct definitions or job descriptions, on what role Edu and Richard Garlick play, or which duties Darren Fletcher and John Murtough have, perhaps we should focus on the stellar jobs being done by Ashworth and his ilk. 

His outstanding impact at Brighton highlights the value of an intermediary, of a competent personality acting as a link between the manager and his board. More importantly, The Seagulls prosperous future underlines the galvanising effect of an unambiguous and well-implemented philosophy.

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