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Jacob Sweetman: Managing the managers

The role of general manager, director of football – whatever you want to call him – has been a recurring conversation in Berlin, and in England, too.

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Michael Preetz. Photo by Steindy (Wikimedia Commons)

Maybe it’s fitting that on Oscar Wilde’s birthday Michael Meier was looking as cracked and tired as the picture of Dorian Gray a couple of days ago. Sacked as FC Koln’s general manager, he was the man to carry the can for the Geisbock’s horrible season. The man who hired Christian Gross. The man that brought Prince Poldi home for enormous sums only to find out that he was, like the US had sniped about Nicolas Sarkozy (though I’d have been much ruder, myself), just royalty without clothes. Well, goals.

The general manager, director of football – whatever you want to call him – has been a recurring conversation here in Berlin, where Hertha’s Michael Preetz (who with his opposite number at FC Union, Christian Beeck, have got more “e” between them than the Happy Mondays), is facing all kinds of pressures. He is loved at the club for his relentless drive up front but may well carry the can if they don’t get promoted this season. But then that is what happens to figureheads. To men of curiously unspecified job descriptions. Being English, it’s hard for me to understand the role at all, but then it’s being increasingly discussed there too, of late.

Whether it is at Chelsea where they desperately want a new one, or at Liverpool where they have just got one. Halfheartedly trying the European model of management is the recurring Premier League ruse for trying to catch up with the biggest clubs in the world, but it seems incongruous at best. Years ago when Liverpool first signed Gerard Houllier it was nominally as co-manager with Roy Evans, and was supposed to spark a revolution in the running of the club. Roy would look after the squad and Houllier would look after the rest with the same attention to detail that had made his time with the French national setup at Clairfontaine such a success. Evans put out the cones for training and that was about it. Like Ray Wilkins (sacked a couple of weeks ago by Chelsea) he was mostly retained as a link to the past, to the fabled boot room that had brought the scousers’ greatest successes, while Houllier would revamp the place from the bottom up. Well, that worked.

 It is the impending departure of Wilkins’ former director of football, Frank Arnesen, which is making ripples at Chelsea. He was signed for the equivalent of a strikers transfer fee from Tottenham to revolutionise the youth set up but has mostly failed. His successor at White Hart Lane, Damian Commoli has now joined another Roy – Hodgson, this time – at Liverpool for another attempt, another desperate throw of the dice. At least Hodgson knows what it is all about though having worked around Europe for years. The idea of one of his illustrious predecessors, the likes of Bob Paisley or Bill Shankly, accepting the views of a mere bloody foreigner on who to sign is as laughable as the idea of Schalke losing 5-0 to Kaiserslautern, though.

Oh yeah, Schalke. See this is where it gets strange. Felix Magath wields unprecedented power in Gelsenkirchen, a classic English manager set-up almost, but this year has basically made sure that nobody will ever get given the same in Germany again. The general manager, in European football, is still the power, despite the differing job descriptions depending on the club and the country. Names of the likes of Jorge Valdano or Adriano Galliani command attention the way Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger do in England. The name of Luciano Moggi could cause coaches (and referees for that matter) to sweat with a mere spitting of his name.

But as in the case of Meier they do get held responsible sometimes. Dieter Hoeness left Hertha in the flush of success, the victim of a power struggle and has now turned up at Wolfsburg, making his living translating for a mostly rubbish English coach. Hoeness has got a great address book but only his brother Uli – who for years held the same post at Bayern – could make him look like a sympathetic bloke. Uli’s mate, Karl-Heinz Rumenigge, is involved in a battle of wills with his coach Louis Van Gaal. It goes around and around.

So this leads us to Berlin. After dropping to third in the table however Preetz is starting to look older already – and you know there’s a photo in his loft of him, young and dashing in his trikot as Hertha’s top scorer in the Bundesliga. He has a lot invested in his policy of relying on a mixture of youth and a couple of stars to get back to the top flight and I doubt he would survive a second year in the second division, but what can he actually do to change performances now. This is what I don’t understand about the point of the role, but he will be one of the few actually sweating through the -10 degrees in the clubs’ fixtures up to the winter break.