The Director Of Football: How To Get It Right

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Anybody’s who’s ever sat next to Steve Perryman at an Exeter City knows to expect plenty of noise around them for the full 90 minutes. The former Spurs midfielder leads the junior supporters in singing, makes his opinions on the match very clear, and is happy to chat to both City regulars and journalists alike from his seat in the Old Grandstand.

But Perryman is much more than just a matchday cheerleader for the Grecians. Unlike Comoli at Spurs and Wise at Newcastle, Perryman has added much needed stability to the club in his role as Director of Football and is just one of several examples as to how the position can benefit a club.

An experienced head with young shoulders behind him

Perryman was first brought to Exeter in 2000 through boardroom contacts to help then manager Noel Blake battle relegation, a fight that was ultimately successful. Perryman stayed in contact with the cub and when the Grecians were eventually relegated from the league three years later, the Supporters’ Trust – who’d just taken control of the club – invited Perryman back to add some much needed experience to a youthful setup, both on and off the pitch.

After relegation City were in dire financial straights with a thin squad and a bad name among other football clubs for not paying off debts relating to loan spells of players during their relegation season, with both Bolton and Reading still owed cash for the blink-and-you’ll-miss-them loan spells of Cleveland Taylor and Adrian Whitbread respectively.

In addition, Exeter were without a manager and their options were limited, with very little cash to pay a manager and even less for him to work with. Unsurprisingly, one candidate stood out – Eamonn Dolan, the director of the Grecians’ youth academy.

Dolan was a former Exeter striker whose career had been cut short by cancer. After beating the disease, he was offered the position of Football In The Community Officer, before gradually moving onto taking over the youth team. After 12 years at the club as player and coaching staff, plus a brief spell as caretaker manager, he was ideally placed to step up to the top job.

There was just one major question mark against Dolan – his lack of experience as manager of a club at any level, let alone at the helm of a once-proud football league club, now cash strapped and desperate to fight their way back out of the Conference.

This was where Perryman came in. The former Spurs legend had experience managing Watford, as well as three different J-League teams, winning the Manager of the Year title in 1999, and provided a source of advice for Dolan, as well as working with City’s youth setup, and getting his contacts book out as the Grecians looked to add to their squad. And with Perryman’s name and the respect he commanded within the game, other clubs were suddenly more forthcoming with loans and working around the debt they were owed.

By the end of their first season in the Conference, Exeter were stable, if far from debt-free, and Dolan lead them to a respectable sixth in the table, one point off the playoffs.

Bridging the gaps

A few months into the start of the 2004/05 season, Dolan left to take up a job as Reading’s Youth Academy Manager – a position he still holds and once again Perryman’s skills and knowledge were invaluable as the Grecians began their hunt for another new manager.

Not only did he provide continuity during this period by temporarily taking control of the first team, alongside veteran defender Scott Hiley, he also sat on the interview panel for the new manager, where they unearthed another young gem in Alex Inglethorpe.

Inglethorpe was another player who, due to persistent injury problems, had retired early, and moved onto youth coaching with spells at Leyton Orient and then as coach of Letherhead. He also surprised the City faithful by getting the job ahead of 89/90 promotion-winning club captain Shaun Taylor, but few people were questioning the wisdom of this decision when the rookie manager secured a famous 0-0 draw with Manchester United at Old Trafford in 2005.

Again, Perryman was there to offer support and advice to Inglethorpe and the pair could often be seen on the phone to each other during matches, with Perryman offering a different take on the game.

When Inglethorpe left in the summer of 2006 for a job coaching Spurs’ youth team, Perryman again had significant input in the appointment of another young, intelligent but somewhat green manager in Paul Tisdale. Formerly coach as semi-professional student club Team Bath, Tisdale snatched the job ahead of the more experienced ex-Shrewsbury boss Jimmy Quinn, and Shaun Taylor again.

While the appointment was questioned at first, it proved to be an inspired choice as Tisdale lead the Grecians to a play-off spot in his first season in charge before going one better and securing promotion last summer. Currently Exeter sit 7th in League Two in the last play-off spot.

Again, Perryman provided a vital bridge between managers and knew exactly the type of character Exeter needed. While his favoured tactics are different from Tisdale’s, he nonetheless provides an alternative viewpoint and is always on hand to help from the first team right down to the young academy players.

But it’s off-the-pitch in recent years that Perryman has really proved his worth to the club. As a seasoned old pro, Perryman has been around long enough to add weight and nous to transfer negotiations. When Inglethorpe left for Spurs, Perryman’s connection with the Premier League club ensured Exeter received a generous compensation offer, while several recent sales have seen the Devon club pocket significant figures, thanks in no small part to Perryman’s skills at the negotiating table.

First he helped negotiate a £65,000 fee for Billy Jones when the high-scoring left-back left for Crewe in the summer of 2007, a decent sum of money for a non-league club. Then, the following January, when several clubs put in bids for star striker Jamie Mackie, Perryman was one of those at the club who helped ensure they dug in and received £125,000 from Plymouth Argyle plus add-ons.

More recently, he was key part of the negotiations that saw young defender George Friend leave for Wolves last transfer window. Although neither club has disclosed the fee, it’s believed to be a significant six figure sum, far higher than that received for Mackie.

Perryman also helps out on the scouting side, and has a wealth of contacts within the ground, although Tisdale is firmly in control of which players are brought to St. James’ Park. On and off the field Perryman is an asset to the club. Indeed, such is his love for his job that it’s not uncommon to see him at the Cat and Fiddle training ground sweeping up leaves from the training pitch or shouting words of encouragement to a raw youth prospect.

An unloved role

If this sounds very much like a Perryman love-in, it’s worth noting that Exeter’s Director of Football hasn’t always been loved by the fans. At varying stages, usually when the team have struggled on the pitch, some fans have blamed Perryman for imposing his tactics on the team and selecting young, inexperienced managers he can easily control, without being accountable. He’s also criticised the fans on occasions for booing players or not getting behind the team.

But this is part and parcel of Perryman, who exudes passion in whatever role he undertakes. And one look at the differing tactics of Dolan, Inglethorpe and Tisdale will tell you that these are three very different sides managed by three very different people. Perryman has helped keep the club stable while generating extra revenue through transfers and fundraising.

He’s not the only Director of Football in the league who’s good work has contributed a lot to where the club is now. At Reading, Nick Hammond has added balance and stability to the Royals, both during their time in the Premier League, and now as they look to bounce back from the Championship.

Meanwhile, nobody could accuse Barry Fry is being the shy and retiring type, but his presence as Director of Football at Peterborough has helped secure some of the cream of non-league talent in George Boyd, Aaron McClean and Craig Mackail-Smith, while also providing advice for young manager Darren Ferguson. The result has been promotion from League Two and the Posh are serious contenders for at least a play-off spot this season in League One.

But quite whether the models adopted by Exeter, Reading or Peterborough could work for clubs like Newcastle and Tottenham, both of whom have unloved incumbents, is another question. Reading, for one, have proved the position can work in the Premier League and with Newcastle, it’s not too hard to see the structure Mike Ashley was trying to impose on the club.

Had it been successfully implemented with the right people in both manager and director of football positions, the Toon could have been looking at longer-term stability combined with astute dealings in the transfer market. Perhaps the structure wasn’t so much the problem for Newcastle as much as having Ashley, Wise and Keegan in the respective positions.

Spurs is a completely different case altogether- it’s not just having the wrong people in the system as a lack of a system altogether. Director of Football Damian Comoli’s position has felt ill-defined since before he took up the job, while you have to question the wisdom of allowing a man to overrule the manager on spending large sums of money on the likes of Darren Bent and Kevin-Prince Boeteng.

And if a man who’s job specifically relates to transfers can make such a hash over the sale of Dimitar Berbatov to Manchester United, it’s no wonder the patience of many Spurs fans is running short with both the position of director of football and the man who currently occupies the job title.

But rather than conclude the system simply doesn’t work, perhaps Tottenham should look at examples both home and abroad as to how clubs can achieve success with a Director of Football. You suspect that, right now, they’d be a lot happier if Steve Perryman was in the role rather than the hapless Comoli.

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