Decisions, decisions. Haaland or Bellingham? Conte or Rodgers? Most importantly of all, perhaps, Wilcox or Rangnick?

Most speculation has understandably centred on the players who might be recruited, from the sensible – Dunk and Tarkowski (check out Craig Shaw’s January shopping list here!) – to the pure fantasy – Mbappé and Kane. And, of course, on the identity of the successor to the longest-serving caretaker manager in football history. But the most significant decision the new regime faces is the choice of a director of football (or sporting director, or “whatever you want to call it”, as our soon-to-be dear departed master of mediocrity might have put it).

In fact, the uncertainty about terminology is telling. While the role has increasingly become the norm in English football (as we slowly catch up with continental Europe), it exists in a curious in-between space: a technical footballing role that is simultaneously a senior executive and strategic role. At its worst, it can generate a confusing overlap of responsibilities with the head coach that leads to contradictions and tensions. At its best, it sets an identity and philosophy that permeates the entire club from first team to youth team, a continuity in culture that transcends individual players and managers.

For a football club that has been leaderless and rudderless for so long, that has stumbled from one formation to another as if by chance, where players have been recruited with no sense of how they fit an overall plan and played in positions entirely at random, that strategic direction is essential. A strong, experienced, well-connected, and astute director of football should be our first appointment. Manager and players should only follow after that overall framework has been established.

As we might expect, the media rumour mill has been in overdrive, homing in on candidates with any kind of connection to the club and the city. That includes the Brentford director of football, Phil Giles, who was a student in Newcastle and had a season ticket for St. James’. More enticingly, especially for the sentimental among us, Sir Les of Ferdinand has occupied the equivalent role at Queen’s Park Rangers since 2015. A homecoming for – say it quietly – the best centre forward I’ve ever seen in black and white (41 goals in 68 games) and the only black director of football in the country would make a most welcome statement about both the club’s reconnection with its own traditions and also its position on inclusion and diversity.

Elsewhere, Jason Wilcox also emerged as an early frontrunner, apparently ready to be headhunted from his role as Academy Director at Manchester City. That would be a significant step-up in terms of responsibility, but, unlike the two candidates above, not in terms of the stature of the club and the calibre of players and expectations involved. A director of football who has worked directly with the best young players in the country and who has connections to what is (for the time being at least!) the best coached, most talented, and most aesthetically pleasing team in Europe has to merit serious consideration.

But the most intriguing name to circulate is that of Ralf Rangnick. After an undistinguished playing career as a defensive midfielder in the German lower leagues, Rangnick took his first coaching role at the age of 25 in 1983. Twenty years later, the Intertoto Cup with Stuttgart and promotion from the 2. Bundesliga with Hannover were the sole marks of distinction on his managerial CV. That would change following his appointment at Hoffenheim in 2006, the first example of his very appealing capacity to develop a project at an ambitious and upwardly mobile club.

At the time of his appointment, Hoffenheim were in the Regionaliga Sud, the third (semi-professional) tier of the German football pyramid, where they had been stuck despite the investment of software mogul Dietmar Hopp. Two successive promotions followed Rangnick’s appointment and then consolidation in the top half of the top flight. Most importantly, Rangnick laid the foundations that would be built on by Julian Nagelsmann, not only subsequently securing Champions League football but establishing a system that recruited players such as Demba Ba and Roberto Firmino.

Rangnick moved on to Schalke in 2011, winning the German Cup and reaching the semi-finals of the Champions League, before taking on the role of director of football for the two Red Bull teams, Leipzig and Salzburg. By the time he left in 2019, both teams were Champions League regulars and had undergone astonishing growth, underpinned by youth development, excellent scouting, and a distinctive attacking football philosophy. In the case of Leipzig, that transformation was particularly striking – from the fourth tier of German football to the semi-finals of the Champions League in eight years.

Most impressive about Rangnick’s career is the legacy he has created, not only in German football but across the globe. The current wave of inspirational, technically minded, and strategically outstanding German managers – Klopp, Tuchel, Naglesmann, and Hasenhüttl – count Rangnick as their major influence. Indeed it’s Rangnick who is credited as the inventor of “Gegenpressing”, the tactical approach that has done more than anything to revolutionise football in the last decade. As far as I’m aware, the same distinction has evaded Stephen Roger Bruce.

At 63 years of age and currently lining his retirement fund as Head of Sports and Development at Lokomotiv Moscow, Rangnick might not seem a forward-thinking appointment. And his greatest success has come developing clubs far below our current status. But for all the lavish riches of PIF, we are a club crying out for a total re-conception, from top to bottom, a rebuild that will encompass every aspect of our footballing operations and that must be driven by a strong and compelling vision.

Goodbye, Steve Bruce. Hello, brave and wonderful new world.

Matthew Philpotts @mjp19731