There are few things in football that generate more excitement in the calendar than the two annual transfer windows. Even the most far-fetched rumours generate millions of views on websites, TV and social media, while confirmed deals can sometimes be celebrated like a trophy by a club’s fans.
For managers and head coaches, the January window often presents a valuable opportunity to upgrade, bolster or trim the squad for the second half of the season. But for owners and executives it can be a very long month, especially when they are pressured by their employees to make hefty investments.
In the weeks leading up to “Deadline Day” on Jan. 31 there will be some owners who actively avoid their managers, be it a casual encounter in the club canteen or in stadium corridors after a match, for fear of being bothered about new arrivals. Indeed, while small talk between boss and employee during the regular weeks of a season is usually cordial, conversations can take a different twist when the chance of doing transfer business looms.
Nowadays, the gradual implementation of revamped sporting structures — taking large parts of the squad planning away from a manager and putting it into the hands of a sporting director or suchlike — means managers don’t tend to pressure owners to spend as much as they used to. But sometimes that means their discontent is uttered in the media instead.
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In August, Scott Parker was reportedly sacked for going public with his concerns over the quality of his Bournemouth squad (though a 9-0 defeat to Liverpool at Anfield three days prior to his sacking wouldn’t have helped his cause). Tottenham Hotspur coach Antonio Conte, meanwhile, has repeatedly made thinly veiled remarks over the ability (or lack thereof) to achieve the club’s goals with the squad at his disposal. Similar dissatisfaction with Inter Milan’s transfer plans reportedly played a part in his departure from the Serie A champions in 2021.
There are few things that get on the nerves of owners more than allusions to a lack of transfer spending from those in charge of first-team affairs. While a manager’s reputation is on the line almost every game, they have usually joined a club on the back of intensive meetings in which transfer limitations and the set-up of the project — let alone the pros and cons of the existing squad — are generally established. So the public questioning of ambition leaves a sour taste at best, while at worst it can seem like there’s a lack of loyalty to the project and a potential breakdown in trust.
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The introduction of a sporting director can be a buffer between the manager and the board, with the role going some way towards easing tensions and taking responsibility for recruitment off a manager’s shoulders. As one would expect from an industry that has undergone major leaps in professionalism over the past decades, most top-end clubs now approach transfer windows on the basis of meticulously planned strategy meetings involving all the major stakeholders (including the manager) well in advance of the summer and winter transfer periods. But the nature of football — with a sudden streak of negative results frequently affecting long-term planning — has to allow for a certain flexibility.
Although club structures vary, the most common setup nowadays sees a head coach reporting to a sporting director on all matters related to squad planning and transfer business. Yet while some are happy to stick to the model (which would invariably be agreed upon before the appointment), others do not always stick to the script.
If explanations about the lack of arrivals produced by the sporting director aren’t satisfactory, the owner or chairperson is often the next port of call for a coach. On occasions in which transfer negotiations drag out (not uncommon given the figures involved), or when a prospective new signing previously unknown to the scouting process is flagged up directly by an agent, an independent-minded boss is not averse to demanding an update from the top, which doesn’t always work out well.
While some structures should theoretically prevent that kind of unplanned communication, a club — as with any other business — is made up of human beings, with strong personalities often feeling less inclined to follow the established chain of command.
Yet as much as conveniently ignoring management layers does create friction, one could argue that having a high-profile coach — with charisma, unwavering confidence and the experience of convincing wealthy owners to part with their cash — does create a certain dynamic which may lead to (albeit somewhat haphazardly) the arrival of signings that end up strengthening the team. From a pragmatic viewpoint, the key objective is accumulating a competitive squad. How one gets there is of less importance.
In the end, harmony benefits all parties. Not only does a club appear more coordinated and professional, but it’s also easier to work effectively to get deals done when there’s less stress. Happy owners can be more generous, while managers with a reputation for moaning and asking for the earth may find the job offers start to dry up as prospective future employers favour a less-demanding relationship.