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Behind the scenes but not pulling the strings

LIKE many job titles, the handle 'director of football' has become a lazy shorthand with little more than a passing resemblance to reality.

Ross Wilson's work interested West Brom but he is excited by the project at Huddersfield Town
Ross Wilson's work interested West Brom but he is excited by the project at Huddersfield Town

Ask most of those on the fringes of football what this poisoned position entails and they will talk scornfully of signing players without the manager's knowledge and interfering in team selections. What most supporters do not realise, though, is that there is probably someone filling the role at their own club.

Huddersfield Town's fans will be familiar with the man doing so at the John Smith's Stadium, even if Ross Wilson has refused to assume the maligned moniker. The 31-year-old Scot prefers instead to operate under the soubriquet of 'head of football operations' but still fulfils the same duties conferred upon those with the more disparaged denomination.

Duties such as overseeing contracts and scouting, setting and monitoring budgets, leading the development of the academy, sports science and medical departments and planning the club's overall off-field strategy. What he is not doing is picking the team.

"People in this country don't quite understand the job sometimes but it is done in every club in the country," says Wilson, who earlier this year accepted a seat on the board of the Sky Bet Championship outfit. "The manager doesn't have to deal with every aspect any more - he can't."

The football side, though, is something Mark Robins can deal with. "He takes training, picks the team, has final say on signings, coaching staff, all that kind of thing. It means he can focus on the areas where he is most comfortable."

Wilson, whose office is at Huddersfield's training ground, will chat with Robins over coffee every morning and the pair will reconvene after lunch, before exchanging thoughts over the phone most evenings. The Scot baulks at the use of the word "buffer" to describe his role but recognises that the relationship he has with the manager is that of a sounding board off whom ideas can be bounced with impunity.

"Things like can we get this player? Should we let this guy go? Does he deserve a new contract? If a manager did that with a chairman he might come across as indecisive."

It is a service Wilson has performed for John Hughes and Steven Pressley at Falkirk, then both Malky Mackay and Sean Dyche at Watford. Each valued his skills as a consigliere and held no quarrel with his involvement in the respective clubs' transfer activities, just as Robins now is content to devolve responsibility for overseeing the process at Huddersfield.

The manager is still expected to contribute transfer targets and make a final decision on who is signed, but the rest is Wilson's domain. He maps out the weekly scouting plan in consultation with Robins and directs Huddersfield's two senior scouts and, beneath them, the nine regional scouts, who are given quarterly updates on the kind of players the manager is keen to attract.

At any one time, dossiers are being continually updated on the 40 or 50 players on their immediate radar, while a couple of hundred more long-term targets are also monitored. "If Mark says he's looking for a striker, I present him with 'the No.9 list' and he tells me which one he wants," Wilson explains.

"It might be that the next he knows about it is when the negotiating process is near an end. But nobody will come in to play in the first team without the manager's say-so. Equally, no player comes in without sitting in front of the owner, chief executive, manager and myself and having a chat."

Sounds simple, sensible and reasonable. The problems start, Wilson suspects, when those in his position pose for pictures with said signing. "The bit that doesn't go down well is when you get directors of football appearing with new players, holding the scarf or the jersey," he says, suggesting the good work of some of his contemporaries at other clubs has been publicly undermined by their association with an unsuccessful transfer. "The director of football should be in the background."

How long Wilson remains in the shadows remains to be seen, though. He was reported to have spurned an approach from West Bromwich Albion last summer and Derby County while at Watford - having moved south in 2010 after rejecting John Park's invitation to swap Falkirk for Celtic and the chance to join Hughes at Hibernian - and it is clear the project at Huddersfield excites him. His arms windmill enthusiastically as he stands on the touchline discussing the club's impressive stadium and he talks excitedly about the youth team's cup success against Manchester United.

However, Wilson is an ambitious man with ambitious aims. "The potential is here to emulate the likes of Wigan," he says. "We've got a wealthy owner, Dean Hoyle, who is a lifelong fan of the club, but we want to do things sustainably. We don't want to be boom and bust and we're well on the way to achieving that."

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