I suppose you could read it that way; my take was more that the prima donnas around him interfere to an unprofessional level and that his work in progress is to provide a structure to make that interference unnecessary
...which try and depict him as unbending and stoical, the rest of it tends to underline what many are feeling: he's too weak to impose himself on the club and cant get control of it.
After years of lavish spending with little yield, Marcel Brands’ arrival in summer 2018 was designed to instill a new-found discipline and coherence to Farhad Moshiri’s ambitious Everton project.
Tasked with restoring order to a club drifting off course, this was meant to be the moment Everton finally took off under Moshiri. Or so it was thought.
Three years later, that vision is still to be realised. Aspiration has not yet been matched by tangible progress. Everton have struggled to make ground on the Premier League’s elite. Financial Fair Play regulations hang like a noose around the club’s neck.
The spotlight has often fallen on Brands, prompting speculation over his future. In April, though, he signed a new three-year contract, strengthening his status as one of English football’s best-paid directors of football.
For some, it was a show of faith; an indication the Goodison hierarchy felt that he was steering the ship in the right direction. Yet for others, elements of his role and indeed his very future remain shrouded in doubt.
How much say does he have when big decisions are made? What does the appointment of Rafa Benitez as manager mean? Is this the Everton he envisaged when he arrived in 2018?
Arguably the watershed moment of Brands’ tenure so far came in December 2019. Despite initial spells of promise, Marco Silva was floundering. It was felt — somewhat reluctantly — that a change in approach was needed.
Although the Portuguese was subsequently axed, those close to him maintain that Brands was an ally until the end and argued for more time.
Brands argued that Marco Silva deserved more time as Everton manager (Photo: Everton FC/Everton FC via Getty Images)
Despite Silva’s flaws, he conformed to Brands’ desire to build a project from the ground up. While not always on the same page over targets, the pair had collaborated successfully to recruit Lucas Digne and Richarlison. They were both also sold on Watford’s Abdoulaye Doucoure.
Moshiri’s response to Silva’s failure, though, was to change tack completely. Youth was replaced by the experience of Carlo Ancelotti. When Ancelotti dramatically left for Real Madrid over summer, Moshiri plumped for another household name in Benitez.
Those appointments represented a U-turn in the overall direction of travel. The Everton of 2021, steered by Benitez, is now markedly different to the one seen under Silva.
The summer was challenging for Everton. A squad that finished tenth was in dire need of reinforcement but, keen to adhere to FFP regulations, finances were as tight as they’d ever been under Moshiri.
One of Brands’ main roles is to liaise with other members of the board over budget. Recruitment needs are then assessed and target positions identified. His scouting team, led by head of recruitment and development Gretar Steinsson, works to find targets to propose to the manager. Those that work within the network Brands has constructed report to head of scouting Dan Purdy, with names filtered up the chain of command. Representatives of key targets are often sounded out as early as February with a view to potential summer deals.
Internally, it was difficult to agree on targets. Finding a successor for Seamus Coleman has long been a preoccupation. Once again, they were thwarted.
Brands chatting to Bill Kenwright, Everton’s chairman, at Goodison Park (Photo: Nathan Stirk/Getty Images)
Denzel Dumfries, a favoured option of the recruitment team, was not unanimously popular. Benitez wanted someone who could add balance in attack and defence, and was careful with his budget. The involvement of agent Mino Raiola, a close friend of Brands’, prompted further cause for thought. Only a loan move was sanctioned and Everton missed out. The players Benitez suggested could not always be delivered and the ones put forward by the recruitment team were felt to not quite fit. The result was stasis and ultimately disappointment as late moves for Nathan Patterson and Ainsley Maitland-Niles were rebuffed.
Late in the window, Brands was alerted to the potential availability of Manchester United’s Donny van de Beek through a Dutch intermediary. It is understood Benitez was considerably less keen on bringing in the midfielder.
Instead, most of the major business came through the Everton manager. Andros Townsend and Salmon Rondon were recruited on free transfers. Benitez also asked the recruitment team to do due diligence on Demarai Gray.
Recruitment is just one part of Brands’ remit, and is often impacted by the whims of others. Ancelotti requested the signings of James Rodriguez and Allan. Benitez has always wanted a large say on transfers.
Recruitment remains a collaborative process. While progress has been made since the pre-Brands days when five or six figures behind the scenes are said to have recruited players, Moshiri and Kenwright are still known to involve themselves in deals.
“The chairman has still got a big influence,” says one source. “When it comes to deals for English players as well, he is heavily involved. Now it’ll be him and Rafa. Bill has long-standing contacts.
“Marcel will deal more with some of the overseas players; say they are trying to get someone on loan from Barcelona, or they’re negotiating with Richarlison’s people.
“Then when it comes to the things that Moshiri is involved in then you have Kia Joorabchian as well. He will negotiate.”
When Mason Holgate suffered a toe injury before the start of last season, a new centre-back became a priority. Kenwright’s contacts proved invaluable as they snared Ben Godfrey from Norwich.
Brands and his team also scout younger players with first-team potential. He is said to have been “very involved” in the deal to sign sought-after Sunderland teenager Francis Okoronkwo earlier this year, highlighting the rise of Dominic Calvert-Lewin during talks.
Although Brands usually leads negotiations over new contracts, Kenwright often greases the wheels with a personal touch. Particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic, some negotiations led by Brands were conducted over email.
Kenwright’s interventions have been decisive in securing first-team stars to new contracts. Brands is currently engaged in talks over the future of highly-rated forward Lewis Dobbin, and makes decisions on extensions for those just under the first-team set-up.
It is not unusual in football for multiple figures from the same club to get involved in negotiations, but some in the game feel the process at Everton can be particularly convoluted.
As one representative notes: “Everton are the only club where you have to ring three people to get an answer on a player. I don’t know anywhere else like that.”
“We had some players we needed to offload and find solutions for them” was just one remark among many from Brands as he gave a detailed presentation to shareholders at the club’s annual meeting in January 2020.
Now it could read like his job description.
His role has come to focus on that task, shrunk to it even, as he strives to mitigate recruitment errors of the past by moving on highly-paid underperformers to free up funds. It is certainly not easy.
When it became clear Moise Kean’s time at Everton was over, despite an impressive spell on loan at Paris Saint-Germain, Brands had to somehow find a solution that didn’t leave the club at a major loss. In the end, he may succeed — a two-year loan back to Juventus could lead to Everton making a small profit if clauses are met.
In truth, he harboured concerns over excessive spending from the moment he arrived.
Surveying the books, he was surprised by the salaries earned by under-23 players; especially those he quickly assessed were unlikely to have a future in the first team. Brands saved millions by offloading some of that overpaid group, “probably the equivalent of a Championship squad in terms of numbers and economics” according to one source.
There is some confusion over Brands’ role at Everton (Photo: Tony McArdle/Everton FC via Getty Images)
He took a firmer hand in negotiations for wages with players below the senior squad from then on, and tried to limit losses on those who still needed to be moved on. Offers are often presented in take-it-or-leave-it terms, affording little wiggle room for negotiation. Brands’ uncompromising stance on one player’s departure this summer is understood to have saved the club around half a million in potential pay-off money. There are other such examples, even if the money recouped in transfer fees has sometimes been minimal.
Brands has tried, with varying degrees of success, to create a “one club” ethos at Everton; bringing the under-23s and under-18s more in line by connecting respective sporting, medical and sports science departments. Leighton Baines’ role moving between squads, working with young players, is seen as one such example.
Brands did win a crucial internal debate over the new head of academy recruitment. After the exit of former incumbent, Chris Perkins, his pick for the replacement, Joel Waldron, got the job ahead of others pushed by key academy figures.
He is largely a popular figure at Finch Farm although more respected than held in great affection.
“There’s no flowering it up with Marcel,” says one insider. “For many that’s a positive. ‘He’s straight’ is a compliment. But he’s also blunt and for some staff that can grate.”
His honesty and reluctance to soften his opinions is something that agents are familiar with too — again most appreciate his typically Dutch directness.
Many admire Brands’ ability to plough on an even keel despite the ambiguity of his role and the constant changes he has endured along the way.
It’s perhaps not a difficulty unique to Goodison.
Dan Parnell is CEO of the Association of Sporting Directors (ASD), which counts Brands and Steinsson among its members. Parnell believes that “the lack of clarity associated with the role has created issues within football clubs for managers, CEOs and owners and extends to fans and media”.
“Broadly, the sporting director can be a senior executive with a sports specific management remit,” he says. “They are the custodian of the club’s performance and the person employed to be the guardian of the club’s future.”
It is a role that can differ from club to club, but Parnell describes usual functions as supporting the first team and head coach, maintaining a working relationship with the owner, employing the best people within budget as department heads, and implementing a suitable playing philosophy across all levels, from first team to academy.
Then there is managing a strong global scouting network, movement of players in and out of the club, overseeing the academy teams along with the performance of different departments including medical and sport science.
It is debatable just how much of that logistical empire Brands still oversees at Everton. Such a relatively brief history of the director of football role at Everton means there is little tradition to adhere to the job specification.
“There is a feeling from the very top that there should be a director of football,” says one source close to the board. “But there’s significantly less willingness to let Brands do it all.
“In reality, a part of the club feels instinctively that he is a glorified chief scout. He has never had a free hand.”
Brands has made his mistakes along the way; his reputation at present stands compromised. But the 59-year-old is still trying to make it work.
Brands in conversation with new Everton manager Benitez (Photo: Tony McArdle/Everton FC via Getty Images)
The star factor and admiration that greeted his arrival has faded fast but there is an understanding that he has always faced a mammoth task.
“He can be incisive and impressive. He can be naive,” says the source. “There’s partly a warm and comfortable culture at Everton. He isn’t enamoured by that.
“He wants the club to be efficient but we get confusion as to his role, structural barriers to him getting in his way and, at core, his refusal to simply bend the knee to the culture. A clash.”
With a singular manager in Benitez, Brands must find another way to influence the players who arrive.
The pair share a postcode and the same route to work, but are still learning what else they have in common when it comes to Everton’s future.
In the meantime, Everton’s director of football strides on; compromised internally, reluctant to compromise personally, and fighting to retain his relevance in yet another new era.