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On The Director Of Football Role And Michael Emenalo

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WOLVERHAMPTON, UNITED KINGDOM - JANUARY 05:  Chelsea assistant first team coach Michael Emenalo before the Barclays Premier League match between Wolverhampton Wanderers and Chelsea at Molineux. (Photo by Scott Heavey/Getty Images)
WOLVERHAMPTON, UNITED KINGDOM - JANUARY 05: Chelsea assistant first team coach Michael Emenalo before the Barclays Premier League match between Wolverhampton Wanderers and Chelsea at Molineux. (Photo by Scott Heavey/Getty Images)

If you're a traditional English fan, the words 'director of football' are sure to send a chill down your spine. There's no room, the argument goes, for someone whose decisions are to shape the roster when you already have a manager. 'Undermining' is a word that, apparently (and who am I to resist the unwritten rules of football writing?), must appear in every paragraph that mentions a potential new director of football - but it's not just the manager whose being undermined in some eyes.

No, it's the very structure of football which is at stake. The glory days of a former club legend guiding the team via instinct and very loud shouting are falling away to reveal a new, dizzying world - one in which a mediocre French defender revolutionises (and de-Britishises) things at Arsenal and an arrogant Portuguese with no footballing ability to speak of is regarded as one of the world's best managers.

It's a far cry from Kenny Dalglish at Anfield, who runs his team via inspiration, passion, drive... and more than a little input from director of football, Damien Comolli, who achieved the lofty heights of being a youth team player at Monaco in his less-than-illustrious playing career. Oh.

It's tempting to paint opposition to the director of football role, then, as a simple case of reactionary anti-intellectualism, and in some cases that may well be true. Certainly, to avoid the director of football is to retard the progress of the game down sleeker, more continental lines. It's a more efficient way of getting the job done, allowing the manager to focus on the first team but not having to worry about the rest of the squad, international operations, the youth setup, etc.

The problem for many is that those sleek, efficient lines are also sterile beyond belief. Going to a continental (and really, that should read 'American') system implies going to a massively corporate system, and in doing so inching away just a little bit further from football as a community affair and a little closer to football as big business. It's no surprise that many would resist the continued destruction of a once-idyllic* world, and while I don't agree with that point of view it's hardly difficult to understand why directors of football are viewed with such suspicion.

*No matter how un-idyllic the past actually was, of course.

This all brings us back rather neatly to Chelsea and Michael Emenalo, who is widely expected to be promoted to director of football (or sporting director, an equivalent role) at Stamford Bridge within the next couple of days. If directors of football as a concept are to be condemned, directors of football as Michael Emenaloes are even worse. The Telegraph has taken great delight in describing his pre-Blues career as follows:

[H]e was recruited to Chelsea by Avram Grant in 2007 from the Tucson Soccer Academy in Arizona, where he had been in charge of the under-12s girls’ team for little more than a year.

Never mind, really, that Emenalo had a long and varied playing career, with experiences in four continents and several national caps for Nigeria in the 1990s. He coached the u-12 girls, he replaced Ray Wilkins, he wears glasses. The man can't possibly be suited for the job, right?

Wrong.

Strip the prejudices away and you're left with a man who we know essentially nothing about but is highly regarded in the Chelsea hierarchy. Could he be incompetent? Sure. Has he coached on a high level? Nope. Is he well-known? Of course not. But none of that precludes success with the Blues as a director of football. None of the skills he'd need to thrive in such a position are evident to the world outside (i.e. us). So we don't really know anything.

Essentially, the backlash against Emenalo comes from generic distrust of the industrialisation of football (and fair enough) or from tabloid-fueled anger driven from a position of total ignorance (less fair). The truth of the matter is this: Nothing on Emenalo's resume suggests that he'd be a great director of football because the requisite skills for being a great director of football don't show up on a former footballer's resume. His ability is, essentially, completely unknown to us. He's a black box.

But Emenalo's skills aren't unknown to Chelsea, which means that they're in a position to make an informed decision about him and we are not. I'm not one to defer blindly to authority, but doesn't it make some sense to accept that the team knows something that we don't when we don't know anything at all?

I get the fear, and to a certain extent I get the anger too. But nothing about Emenalo says he shouldn't be given a chance, and the club's endorsement is meaningful enough that I'm happy giving him one. As Arrigo Sacchi once said, you don't need to have been a horse to be a jockey - and if you must have a director of football, there's nothing inherently wrong with giving a former under12 girls' coach the position.