Sporting Directors: A Reality Cech

With the imminent arrival of club legend Petr Cech in what we expect to be a Sporting Director role, I felt compelled to write something about it. The good, the bad and, most importantly, to dispel any misconceptions about what the role entails. It is worth noting that clubs big and small have adopted the role across continental Europe, although the concept still seems foreign to most fans, teams and their owners on British shores.

I felt a good place to start was to re-tell one of the stories Martin Stranzl told of his time at Borussia Mönchengladbach. When the wife of the current club captain, Lars Stindl, started to experience complications during her pregnancy, the club responded immediately. Stindl was allowed to spend all his time with his wife and their unborn child from Sunday to Wednesday, before returning to training on Thursday, and on Saturday he was back on the pitch. Far from hampering him, this special dispensation allowed Stindl to remain focused, and give his all on the field that season. The players at the club, like Stranzl, respected the arrangement. They knew that if they ever had problems the club would always be there to turn to for help.

Stranzl admitted that he had spent the best years of his career at Gladbach, thanks in part to the conditions and atmosphere created by the club’s leadership.

“The clubs today are modern business enterprises, and the players are merely employees. We are all replaceable here; the only constant is the name of Borussia Monchengladbach.”

The ability to convey this idea to the players and simultaneously treat them as family is the work of Max Eberl, Gladbach’s Sporting Director, and one of the most respected professionals in his field. The owner or president is often far removed from the daily lives of the 25 men that form the playing squad. CEOs, Managing Directors or Chief Executives are no better placed to assume the responsibility of looking after them, instead often finding themselves occupied with solving wider and more complex organisational issues. No, this role is reserved for a Sporting Director, with an ever-increasing remit that no longer covers player recruitment alone.

This is where we turn to our club. For many years, despite having an enormous financial advantage even by European ‘super club’ standards, Chelsea are faced with the fact that personal conflicts soon turn into problems that engulf the club. Disagreements between the players and the manager are the norm in a team of ambitious people with big egos. Of course, as we saw play out last season, those public conflicts are not exclusive to the manager and players, but the club hierarchy can also become involved. They have easily derailed Chelsea in the past, none more so than last season, somewhat easier when there is no strong Sporting Director figure in place for all parties with the power to take appropriate action.

At Chelsea, for years in the event of a conflict, the team has divided into smaller factions that then begin to plan their preferred schemes. One group goes straight to Marina Granovskaia (in the past, some players had direct access to Roman Abramovich), while others go to their agents, who begin to plot moves through the press. The rest are left to fend for themselves.

The more demanding and controversial the coach, the more authority and decisiveness is required from the Sporting Director. Even with Pep Guardiola at Bayern there were plenty of conflicts. Certain senior players ran to the board with their complaints, reluctant to accept his coaching and training methods, and refusing to bend to his will. This is where Matthias Sammer, a legend of German football, played his part. At first he was seen as alienated (his office was not even in the same building as the offices of other club directors) and criticised by the press as someone who appeared to responsible for almost nothing. But, as time passed, his role became clearer. He was more than just a negotiator and mediator, but also a governor of coaching requirements, and a champion of discipline.

Following a health scare in 2016, Sammer was allowed to resign from his role at Bayern, and the club has appeared to be drifting ever since. In 2018, his former club Borussia Dortmund – Bayern’s closest title rival – called him home to appoint him as a Technical Advisor, where he continues to work in the shadows and be a stickler for authority, introducing a code of conduct at BVB.

When young Frenchman Dan-Axel Zagadou adopted something of a a liberal approach to his attendance of German lessons, Sammer took issue with that. The defender quickly had had his personal translator privileges removed and he was subsequently forced to study harder. It’s a singular example that may seem trivial on its own, yet a breakdown of communication can lead to disaster on the pitch, and demonstrates the importance of having someone in a position dedicated to resolving matters like that.

A Sporting Director must be impartial; an arbitrator with the ability to distance themselves from any perceived loyalties they may hold. They cannot be anyone’s lackey or a front for poorly conducted business. This brings us back to Petr Cech’s candidacy. Forget the pretentious nonsense of carrying on the club’s winning traditions and mentality. It’s just that; pretentious nonsense.

It is obvious that Cech is not your typical footballer. He’s a level-headed and well-read polyglot with a diverse range of interests that stretch far beyond fancy cars and clothes. His steely resolve in goal will hopefully serve him well in his post-playing career ventures. Furthermore, Blues fans can feel confident in knowing that this appointment comes straight from the top. Cech was always rumoured to be one of those players that had direct access to the owner, which the goalkeeper himself recently confirmed in an interview discussing a meeting with Abramovich at one his many residences in London.

“He wasn’t too happy, and didn’t want to see me in that (Arsenal) shirt, but he knew I’d done everything for his club. I expressed the reasons why, and he kind of closed his eyes and said ‘Okay, you can go.’”

Yet, it’s important to note that the role of Sporting Director at Chelsea may not be what it appears, and this is where my biggest reservations about Cech’s arrival seep from. We have come to associate Sporting Directors with the all-powerful figures such as Monchi at Sevilla, Luis Campos at Lille or perhaps the best-known current example on British shores, Michael Edwards at Liverpool. Whoever is installed at Chelsea may well find themselves cut off from the primary function of the role, which is player recruitment. I would hate to see Cech find himself the patsy for Granovskaia’s latest tug-of-war with another manager over transfers, just like the previous incumbent, Michael Emenalo, was. It is why I went into great amount of detail to list other important functions that Cech can play a significant part in and, with time, become more assertive and perhaps be a voice that needs to be heard when it comes to transfer dealings.

We ought to rein in our expectations for wide-sweeping changes in player recruitment. I think it is safe to assume that Granovskaia will continue to be the person chiefly responsible for all negotiations, and the one controlling the purse strings. While Chelsea’s scouting department leaves a lot to be desired, hopefully Cech can be the unifying factor that can bring harmony and unity off the pitch, and inspire new successes on it.