What did Damien Comolli actually do for Liverpool?
There’s a story, perhaps apocryphal, of a young (and undoubtedly high) Ozzy Osbourne earning a living in Berlin in the 1970s by being on a call for an eccentric German aristocrat (if that is not itself tautologous) whose highly particular fetish involved lying beneath a glass coffee table while someone – Ozzy, in this instance – perched above it and – …well, there’s not a sufficiently delicate way to put it – defecated atop the hitherto transparent surface. Whatever turns you on, I guess.
For any workshy young deviant, one for whom the last vestiges of ‘self-esteem’ have long since flown the roost, that is truly a gig to inspire envy. Getting paid for dumping – unbelievable, Jeff! (Mind you, I’m not entirely sure one could get away with listing it as a legitimate ‘job goal’ when signing a Jobseeker’s Agreement.) It is not that I am workshy per se: much as with anyone else, footballers included, work is fine provided it is adequately recompensed and/or its ‘texture’ is not too onerous. I’m sure that for Ozzy, beyond having to work out which of his narcotic pharmacopeia affected his ability to ‘empty’, this wouldn’t exactly have been the most strenuous of jobs – no pun intended.
Of course, we don’t need Ozzy Osbourne or footballers’ wages to tell us that the entirety of late capitalism, and not just its peculiar forms of employment, is, strictly speaking, insane. Unhinged. Demented. One only need know, say, that orthodox (non-coprophile) pornography is an $8b industry in the United States, and that one of its many niches is the punting of latex moulds of the vaginas of your favourite actresses fitted inside what look like torches – all of which indicates not only that posh wanks have come a long way, and quickly, but that we have little chance of escaping a world in which people take steps to the detriment of their ‘subjective’ desire but for the furtherance of their/our ‘objective’ interests (it being in most of our interests that we not live in a world in which footballers earn £150k/week, for instance).
Anyway, I mention Ozzy only to illustrate the fact that the modern world is full of cushty sinecures and chancers blagging it in easy billets, all of which brings us to Damien Comolli and the fact that the equivalent position in football to Ozzy’s Berlin gig, erm, attending to tables is undoubtedly that of ‘Director of Football Strategy’, from which he (Damien, not Ozzy) was promoted to Director of Football in March 2011, a post he vacated this week having done about fuck all for approximately a while.
But seriously – what did he do, exactly?
His remit was everything on the football side excepting first team training and selection. At the time of his promotion, he summarised this as “a day-to-day relationship with the manager and his coaching staff. It’s also medical and sports science, performance analysis, player liaison, team travel, scouting and negotiating transfer contracts. A big part of it is the academy.” Less an executive role, then, than a factotum who takes the strain off the manager.
However, I’ve studied all this at length and it seems to me that he was, in essence, a glorified professional shopper. A money spunker. For his job. He looked at half-baked stats, extrapolated from context with all the dexterity of a man playing Jenga in oven gloves, then went online and, when not looking at funny shit on YouTube, purchased footballers. The key institutional problem with all that is there has been no real responsibility or accountability over signings (a point made by Liverpool’s lay ideologue and managerial apologist-in-chief, Paul Tomkins), a situation in which, should a player fail to have much of an impact, each could in theory blame the other. Of course, for football managers, ‘failure’, such as it can be properly quantified beyond points, is usually rewarded with a multi-million payoff…
Anyway, whether or not he was given a shopping list by the manager (who would probably only stonewall the fact, anyway, since he appears to have sailed past self-parodic cantankerousness to the point of denying his own name: “Kenny–” “No I’m not”), liaises with the finance department, then nips out to get the appropriate player is neither here nor there. It patently hasn’t worked, as anyone reading between the lines (not a place habitually occupied by Damien’s signings) of Tom Werner’s PR blancmange-sprach will have deduced: “We have a strategy that needs implementing and we felt Damien was not the right person to implement that strategy”. Translation: we need to win matches and that guy is buying not very pretty players for a not very pretty penny.
Ought they not have seen the signs when they brought him to the club in November 2010? At the time, it was widely reported that taking this path derived from John Henry and Fenway Sports Group’s desire to employ the same Moneyball-inspired principles that had succeeded so spectacularly at their sleeping giant Boston Red Sox baseball franchise, copying Billy Beane’s trailblazing savvy thrift with Oakland A’s. In essence, this approach (sometimes called ‘Soccernomics’ in a football context) involved picking up undervalued players at cheap rates about whom statistics reveal hidden qualities. (Also, players that can be sold on at profit.)
Why Damien? Well, before becoming a high-level networker and mediocre talent-spotting talent, he played some (not much) youth football at AS Monaco – as Sacchi said, no need to be a horse before becoming a jockey – then got a law degree and coaching licence, at which point Arsène Wenger employed him at Arsenal for 7 years. In 2005, after a stint at Saint-Etienne as Technical Director, he went to Spurs, replacing Frank Arnesen. His work here was often at odds with the vision of coach Martin Jol, who, when sacked in October 2007, complained of the Frenchman’s “profit-driven” signings (Bent, Kaboul and Boateng for £30m) and that the short-term was being sacrificed – ironic, then, that he should wind up at Anfield, as Liverpool have recent experience of this, when the second-place finish of 2009 was followed by a failure to supplement Alonso, Mascherano, Torres, Reina and Gerrard, the lost momentum still a long way from being recovered.
In September 2008 he blames “agent activity” for failing to land the experienced striker required by Juande Ramos – it was the usual last-minute brinkmanship from Levy – and both were sacked the following month, Comolli returning to Les Anges Verts in November that year, leading to the departure of coach. Consecutive seventeenth-place finishes, one spot above the trapdoor, ensued. They have improved dramatically since he left. In November 2010 he was at Liverpool, FSG having failed to heed the Damien omens…
His first spree at Liverpool was the double purchase of Luis Suárez and Andy Carroll for a net spend of around £1.5m once the sale of Torres and Babel had been taken into account, a much-parroted datum that construes this as a self-contained transaction, missing the crucial point that it sent a message to the market about Liverpool’s behaviour – essentially that of a gullible, amiable fiftysomething couple from Towcester (him in biscuits, her a legal secretary) accidentally separated from their tour group deep in the Rabat souk. In the summer they picked up Bellamy, José Enrique, Charlie Adam, Doni, Sebastian Coates, Jordan Henderson and Stuart Downing – the latter two, perhaps sabermetricked by some hidden statistical indicators, especially pricey – the whole lot on his watch costing £113m.
What perhaps brought home the profligacy to FSG and set off all their Sound Businessman Alarms was the game at Newcastle a couple of weeks ago. Take the £41m Toon received from Liverpool for Wor Andy and Enrique, then go and buy Ben Arfa, Tioté, Obertan, Cabaye, Santon and Cissé (with Ba, Marveaux and Abeid all freebies), and you’ve still got £8m in the kitty to pump into sports leisurewear (not a situation at which many Scousers would complain) – that is, slightly less than the cost of the Cabaye-Tioté axis; £30m less than Henderson and Downing. And all that done with just contacts, scouts, and the cutting-edge notion of fitting parts together sympathetically in a team-building project, rather than pseudoscientific method punted as expertise to justify a salary.
We shouldn’t be surprised at Comolli’s presence in the oak-panelled upper echelons of European football. History is full of its overreaching courtesans, after all. But with Liverpool’s signings misfiring, with just 5 of 16 games at Anfield won, 2012 a car crash and the whole season a huge missed opportunity given the outlay and lack of European football, perhaps it’s time, finally, to ditch Moneyball and Soccernomics and to seek out some new reading material. A coffee table book, maybe. Although, on second thoughts…
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