After 20 games, Spurs sit third on the table with 45 points and contending for the Premier League title for the first time in their history. This is largely due to the form of a few players, the core of this Tottenham team. Luka Modric, Gareth Bale, Younes Kaboul and Benoit Assou-Ekotto have been integral to this team. Credit for the success of this team can also go to factors off the field, including manager Harry Redknapp and Daniel Levy.
I find a bit of falsehood in attributing complete credit to Redknapp and Levy. While we often champion the simple genius of Redknapp's managing, and the hard ball negotiating done by Daniel Levy that has brought in players like Rafael van der Vaart and Scott Parker to the club, I feel that these two, Redknapp less so, are not the people who should be getting primary credit for where Spurs are today. The person I believe deserves our biggest gratitude for putting us in the position we are in today would have to be Liverpool Director of Football, Damien Comolli.
Comolli has not exactly given Liverpool fans much of a reason to love him during his stint at the club. A little over a year into his time at the post, the biggest moves he has made have not worked out well for the club, as Andy Carroll has yet to find form at the club and Jordan Henderson has not lived up to his promise yet. Tottenham supporters also do not exactly remember Comolli fondly, as he was essentially vilified along with Juande Ramos and others when Levy cleaned house back in October 2008. It was considered a change of pace for Spurs, as the BBC notes, Levy made it clear the departure of sporting director Comolli signalled a return to a "more traditional style of football management". I think it's time to go back and reexamine the reign of Damien Comolli as Director of Football at Spurs. First, I think we should delve into the history of the position itself.
The Director of Football position has been a unique position in the English game, looked at by some as an aspect of the continental style of football. Similar to the American role of general manager (thought at times different) the term didn't surface in the English game until Lawrie McMenemy took the position for Southampton in 1993. McMenemy said, "I think I was the first to have that title... [Southampton] asked me to take over as manager but I didn't want to." He added, "We decided to bring in a younger person on the provision I would work with them . . . they invented the name director of football."
Director of Football has often been found to be a somewhat controversial role and idea. Traditionalists paint the picture of, essentially, a nerd, someone who never played football at a very high level but is there to represent the Board during player negotiations. This is often coupled with the accusation that all the Director of Football does is undermine the ability of the manager of the club to both assemble and manage his team, taking power away from him. The other side champions the idea of the position, seeing it as divorcing the manager from having to deal with player woes about wages, allowing the manager to focus on football and running the team rather than worrying about transfer negotiations and player scouting.
While initially divisive, the position is now more accepted in English football. Interestingly enough for our purposes, Spurs have gone from both sides of the coin, having a Director of Football for most of the past decade until the arrival of Redknapp in 2008, who took the more traditional role of a manager who was involved and responsible for player moves as well, though it appears Levy has taken a more direct role in that aspect now. Of note, Redknapp was originally a Director of Football with Portsmouth when he first joined the club, only becoming manager as well after the failure of Graham Rix.
Back to the issue at hand though, Damien Comolli. Comolli took over the position of Director of Football with Tottenham in 2005, replacing Frank Arnesen. Arnesen is also a rather famous Sporting Director, during his stint with PSV Eindhoven before joining Spurs he brought in players such as Ronaldo, Ruud van Nistlerooy, and Arjen Robben. Arnesen did not have much of an effect at Tottenham though, being sacked after a year due to expressing desire for a Chelsea move. From this, Comolli came in. Comolli took over responsibilities for the medical, academy, and scouting departments. Before this, Comolli had been a scout for Arsenal, discovering players like Kolo Toure, Emmanuel Eboue, and Gael Clichy.
Despite constantly clashing with Martin Jol, who claimed that Comolli signed many players without his consent, Comolli lasted for three seasons as Director of Football. During this time, he brought a wealth of players into the club, with hits and misses. Going over the list:
- Hossam Ghaly - 3.25 Million Pounds from Feyenoord
- Danny Murphy - 2 Million from Charlton
- Benoit Assou-Ekotto - 3.5 Million from RC Lens
- Didier Zokora - 8.6 Million from Saint-Etienne
- Dimitar Berbatov - 10.9 Million from Bayer Leverkusen
- Steed Malbranque - 2 Million from Fulham
- Pascal Chimbonda - 4.5 Million from Wigan
- Adel Taarabt - 2.7 Million from RC Lens
- Ricardo Rocha - 3.2 Million from Benfica
- Gareth Bale - 5 Million from Southampton
- Darren Bent - 16.5 Million from Charlton
- Younes Kaboul - 8 Million from Auxerre
- Danny Rose - 1 Million from Leeds
- Kevin-Prince Boateng - 5.4 Million from Hertha Berlin
- Jonathan Woodgate - 8 Million from Middlesbrough
- Alan Hutton - 9 Million from Rangers
- Gilberto - 1.9 Million from Hertha Berlin
- John Bostock - 700,000 from Crystal Palace
- Luke Modric - 16 Million from Dinamo Zagreb
- Giovani Dos Santos - 5 Million from Barcelona
- Gomes - 7.8 Million from Eindhoven
- David Bentley - 15 Million from Blackburn
- Roman Pavlyuchenko - 14 Million from Spartak Moscow
- Vedran Corluka - 8.5 Million from Manchester City
All in all, 4 of his choices are first choice for Tottenham right now, all fairly key players. Bale and Modric go without question, BAE has proven a stalwart at left back, and Younes Kaboul has been the one consistent presence for the back line this season, though he was sold and bought back since Comolli's departure. Beyond that, even more quality comes in. Berbatov was, until his departure, the best player on the team, and Rose, Pav, and Gomes are first choice cover at the moment. I would add Corluka but Scotland Yard have yet to find his body. While there are some very big misses on the list, Bentley and Hutton chief among them, there are very few players who aren't quality on that list. The saga of Giovani Dos Santos is well known to those around here, and the success of Boateng and Taarabt after leaving the club changed perception of the moves.
In the end though, I think Comolli's feelings sum up well what he meant to the club. From an interview with the BBC after Bale's Inter Milan game:
"When I watched him for the first time I was gobsmacked.
"He was already showing the strength, the technical ability, the confidence to take people on, the pace, the quality left foot, the work-rate. He had it all."
"I remember coming back from scouting him and thinking 'I've seen the new Paolo Maldini'. I watched him a couple more times but the game that did it for me was Southampton's 2-0 victory over QPR at Loftus Road in 2007."
"He was the best player on the pitch by a mile. I knew he was going to be world class, I knew we had to get him. I went back to Spurs and told [chairman] Daniel Levy we had to buy him."
"He was getting a lot of phone calls from Ryan Giggs urging him to join Manchester United," recalled Comolli. "But we were the first club to show a really strong interest and he saw our motivation in trying to get him. That proved decisive."
"The policy we had at Spurs then was to try and get young British players into the team - we had Tom Huddlestone, Michael Dawson, Aaron Lennon, Jermain Defoe and Jermaine Jenas."
No matter what, when all is said and done, this will be Levy and Redknapp's team. Redknapp is the one coaching the players and leading them to heights Spurs has not seen in a very, very long time. However, the heart and soul of this team was collected through the work of Damien Comolli, and he knows this fact.
Comolli believes his time with Spurs can be measured as a success because of the emergence of players like Bale.
"I still find Tottenham's decision to sack me unfair and difficult to accept because when I signed players like Gareth I was 100% convinced they would turn out to be a success and now we're seeing that," he reasons."
"When you sign young players you can't expect them to deliver immediately, good management is about not panicking - but that's football, you just have to move on and quite often other people benefit from your work."
"So many people from the world of football - coaches, agents, press, fans etc - sent text messages after the Inter match congratulating and thanking me on bringing through Bale. But I'm not happy for myself, I'm happy for him."
So what's the verdict? I think I agree with Comolli, that he was treated unfairly by the club and in hindsight, seeing the success that his players have brought the club to, he didn't deserve to be sacked that October in the Saturday Night Massacre. However, I highly doubt that he and Harry Redknapp would have worked well together without clashing, probably more severely than Comolli clashed with Jol. The fact remains though, Comolli had an eye for talent, and brought in talent both young and old to the club, talent that may not have totally panned out (Giovani Dos Santos chief among them) but talent that we know was there. I wouldn't be surprised if Giovani pulls a Boateng and has ten times the footballing output he had for us at his next club. Couple his signings, many of them done cheaply for the amount of talent (Gareth Bale for 5 million, Benoit Assou-Ekotto for 3.5); with his amazing ability to get a good price for stars (18.6 Million for Michael Carrick, 6 Million for a fat Mido, 19 Million for Robbie Keane, 31 Million for Dimitar Berbatov) and I believe Comolli may have a talent for player negotiation better than what Daniel Levy and Harry Redknapp bring to the table. Here's hoping there are no hard feelings, and perhaps we can work together again someday under better circumstances.