Football sporting director

What Is a Sporting Director in Football?

Normally when a football club is willing to fork out £20 million on a new recruit, you expect it to be the signing of a player during the transfer window. But now there’s a market for sporting directors, with Newcastle United putting a £20 million compensation bounty on the head of their incumbent in the role, Dan Ashworth.

Manchester United want Ashworth to head up their football operations, and will seemingly stop at nothing to snare him – even paying the £20 million compo as requested by the Magpies. So what, exactly, would the Red Devils be getting if they’re able to persuade Ashworth to join them? Is he simply a man with a laptop full of Excel spreadsheets, or is there more to the role of sporting director in football than meets the eye?

What Does a Sporting Director Do?

Businessman with football

A sporting director is actually becoming an increasingly important person within a football club’s hierarchy – putting into place the entire infrastructure of an outfit from top to bottom. The term ‘sporting director’ is sometimes transposed with that of ‘technical director’, and this latter job title is perhaps more revealing of what a sporting director does.

They are tasked with implementing a philosophy that is imparted on them by a club’s owners or directors, putting into place the framework for which that can be achieved. For example, a sporting director might be tasked with ensuring a certain style of play is put into place in the first team right through to the club’s junior section – ensuring that players can climb the ranks and transition seamlessly from youth football into the big time.

Not only that, the sporting director will help guide the club’s recruitment team, identifying potential new signings and also succession planning should an existing player move on to pastures new. Interestingly, many sporting directors are from a business background – rather than being retired players. That offers an insight into the demands of the role and the expectations; a sporting director may also be involved in transfer and contract negotiations, seeking out new sponsors and commercial partners and other activities that help the club to grow as a business.

The sporting director acts a key link in the chain of hierarchy at a football club, positioned somewhere between the manager and the owner/directors as a sort of middle-man or woman. That positioning also reveals why they must be adept from both a football and a business perspective. In English football, the sporting director is rarely seen on matchday – or if they are, they’ll be in the VIP seats alongside other senior members of staff. But in the German Bundesliga, as one example, they often take their seat in the dugout next to the manager; confirming their influence on football operations.

Former Borussia Dortmund sporting director, Michael Zorc, is a shining example of the role. He appointed Jürgen Klopp as the team’s manager, overseeing one of the most successful periods in the club’s history, and identified the likes of Robert Lewandowski and Jadon Sancho as signings. During his time in the role, Zorc said:

I’m responsible for the philosophy at the club, from the youth to the first team. I discuss the style of play with the coach, and the youth teams will follow that.

As well as buying, selling and extending players’ contracts, I’m also someone they [the players] can talk to besides the coach.

Tim Howard, the former Everton goalkeeper, is the sporting director of American club Memphis 901. He told the Daily Mail: “The sporting director is the epicentre of a club. They are trusted by billionaire owners to bridge the gap between what happens in the boardroom and what happens on the field.”

Is a Sporting Director Different from a Director of Football?

Generally speaking, a Director of Football is the focal point for a club’s transfers – they negotiate with selling clubs to help make signings, while talking with interested suitors when a current player is put up for sale. They aren’t usually involved in identifying players to sign – they are more of a figurehead, which explains why the role is often fulfilled by former players of the club in a sort of ceremonial capacity.

The sporting director has a much more varied remit, from implementing technical and philosophical ideals to working alongside recruitment and analysis staff to identify new talents to sign. Sporting directors are often just as comfortable in the business world as they are within football, while the director of football is typically a role focused on the football side of things, as the name implies.

How Do You Become a Sporting Director?

Business finance concept

For what it’s worth, Dan Ashworth actually has a LinkedIn profile – albeit not one that has been updated for a while. It’s interesting to read, because it confirms that you don’t need to have been a player of great standing to become a sporting director.

Ashworth played at non-league level, but it’s his educational background and coaching experience that has enabled him to climb the ranks from academy director at Peterborough United to sporting director at Newcastle. The German Bundesliga trophy has been dominated by Bayern Munich and Dortmund in the modern era, but one anomaly came in 2007 when Stuttgart surprisingly won the title. Their sporting director at the time, Jochen Schneider, had no background in football at all – he was from the business and finance world.

The point is that you don’t need to have been a professional footballer in order to become a sporting director, although some experience in a behind the scenes role – think scouting, analysis or coaching – is useful, as is a background in some kind of business field; be it through work or education.

The Professional Football Scouts Association has a sort of job specification on their website, and it’s clear the sporting directors need to know football inside and out – developing philosophies and cultures at football clubs, knowledge of patterns of play and tactics and experience working with players, coaches and support staff are just some of the requisites. If you tick the boxes, you could command the average sporting director’s salary of between £70,000 and £200,000!