The term ‘Director of Football’ is very much in vogue in today’s football; bringing to mind shady figures who work in the backgrounds of clubs ensuring that all is ticking over, while seldom coming into the light to receive either plaudits or critique. It is a different story on the continent, where the men in that role are held accountable for the dealings they do and the players they trade – see the disarray Bologna found themselves in last season if you don’t believe me.
Huddersfield Town have a man, in Ross Wilson, who fills the job title of ‘Director of Football Operations’. By the construct of the day, that’s exactly what he does. He identifies players – often young players – that are either recommended to him, or spotted some other way, and tries to bring them to Huddersfield to play for the Terriers. The most obvious case in point here is Joe Lolley, but Nahki Wells fits the bill.
The club have been refreshingly open about Wilson’s victories, and he is an engaging character on social media even though he has to bear the brunt of the fans’ frustrations should his signings underperform – a task he shares with Nigel Clibbens; the two perform their role as heads over the parapet gamely, especially given some of the finger-lashings they take.
However, you could easily understand the words ‘Director of Football’ slightly differently; thinking that it might be the man who points the way the club is moving from the back of the boat, a man who has been known to take the wheel to guide the first team through choppy waters; the man under the deck with the star chart, plotting a course on which to sail despite a raging tempest overhead.
Mark Lillis is, by reputation, Huddersfield Town to the core. He made his debut for the club as long ago as 1978, going on to a further 233 appearances for the club and since he finished playing in the mid-late 1990s, has seemingly always been around the John Smith’s Stadium.
His current job sees him in charge of the club’s well-established academy, and he has overseen the development of a number of the prospects that look set for a leap into the first team this season; the likes of Jake Charles, Phillip Billing and even Duane Holmes, who has been gnawing at the apple of selection for a little while now (though to give lie to that analogy, he did not enjoy his time on loan in the apple-rich West Country with Yeovil).
The Under 21 and Under 18 squads at Huddersfield have been getting better and better within their age group over the last few years. Indeed, last season the Under 18s enjoyed their best season to date, pipping Crewe to the national title.
While it would be naïve to suggest Lillis was the sole reason for their progress, in the praise that rains down he inevitably gets his hair wet. With the quality of the youngsters coming through at a (reported) all-time high, the former Manchester City man has clearly found something he excels at.
Yet, after the departure of Mark Robins, Lillis has taken over first team responsibilities – for the third time – while the search for a manager goes on. Each time he has come into the fold, the team have performed better than under the out-going manager, and each time there has been a clamber for him to be offered (and take) the job permanently. Each time, he has gone back to the job we know he can do so well.
"Men like Lillis are both invaluable and impossible to create – Huddersfield Town should hold on to him as long as they can, and Huddersfield Town fans should thank him – 31 years on from his Player of the Year triumph, his importance is greater than ever."
This time around the clamber is lesser; perhaps the fact that so many talented players are being brought forward has pressed the value of a talented coach overseeing development into sharp focus. Perhaps the fact that, should he take the job and fail (as he undoubtedly would – all managers eventually do) he would likely be cast out of a club that not only does he love, but that loves him – hear the reverence his name generates on the terraces, and read the same on the message boards.
Mark Lillis embodies the best of Huddersfield Town, though he would surely be too polite to say so. That is important; in these times of footballing flux, continuity is difficult to attain.
It might be that Mark Lillis is simply a recognisable member of backroom staff; those fans that don’t know him from his playing days with the club know him from his longevity behind the scenes – not only is he a reliable pair of hands in the dugout, the amount of supporters who know Lillis, or have had contact with him, mean that while he is a noticeable figurehead at the club, he carries an air of reassurance.
Following the prolonged demise of Mark Robins who, in all honesty, had presided over the end of a campaign that sealed his fate last season, there were blemishes appearing on the surface of Huddersfield Town – the summer, and the delay over any new arrivals, particularly those that addressed long-established weaknesses in the side, caused further consternation. With Mark Lillis coming to the forefront, the club have inadvertently shown the best of themselves, producing stronger displays against both Chesterfield and Cardiff and then winning an unexpected three points at Reading.
The Yorkshire psyche does not lend itself to ungrounded optimism, but there is a definite improvement from the abysmal performance against Bournemouth that sealed Robins’ departure. Mark Lillis is perhaps responsible for that from two angles – not just for his capable and seamless handling of the first team, but also from his work in the development of the likes of Harry Bunn (goalscorer at Reading). He is proving himself, once again, to be an invaluable asset.
The course Huddersfield Town are set on may be set from above, but on the ground, Mark Lillis carries a lot of responsibility for ensuring they are heading in the right direction. The players he usually coaches will be expected to swell the first team, or swell the coffers (or ideally, both) – there is evidence to prove that the future is bright in that respect - while the players he had led into first team games, for a third spell in that role, are bought in line with the ethos with which he works.
In that respect at least, Lillis is already the ‘director’ of football; the man who oversees the talent the fans can get excited about and, in bad times, has proved a steady pair of hands to steer the ship on – keeping the club on the straight and narrow no matter what is happening on the surface.
Men like Lillis are both invaluable and impossible to create – Huddersfield Town should hold on to him as long as they can, and Huddersfield Town fans should thank him – 31 years on from his Player of the Year triumph, his importance is greater than ever.
In other words – keep going in Lillis’ direction, and things will be just fine.
By Marco Jackson