Why do football clubs sack their managers?
Eni Aluko has written a post in The Guardian about sacking football managers (link). In it she proposes that sacking managers does not work. She points out that in 2019-2020 “a lot of clubs have spent the season yo-yoing around the Premier League”.
The yo-yo teams are particularly affected by results. A heavy home defeat often raises questions about a manager. Home games are very important as determined supporters attend these games. Southampton lost at home 0v9 to Leicester in October (link) (it was 0v5 at half time) in front of a home crowd of 28,762. It was fascinating to see that Southampton believed politically in what Ralph Hasenhüttl was doing as a manager. In doing so, the club supported their choice of him as manager. When he was appointed he was given a two-and-a-half-year contract. The club hoped “the appointment will enable them to recover the identity they have lost” (link).
Ralph Krueger, the chair of the club, said in the announcement: “Southampton football club’s past success was built on a clear identity. The foundation of this identity was a focus on developing players, whether from within our academy or after joining from other clubs. Ralph’s ability to teach the game and to develop talent is evident in his past and is a centre piece of why he is the perfect choice to be the new Saints manager” (link) (emphasis added in bold).
Southampton are currently 12th in the Premier League 7 points clear of the relegation position (held by West Ham United). 26,302 spectators watched Southampton’s last home game against Burnley (link).
Other teams chose to change their managers. This season there have been four changes: Watford, Tottenham, West Ham United and Arsenal. Two clubs (Chelsea (link) and West Ham United (link)) have had to meet significant compensation claims for a replaced manager. It is reported that since 2003, Chelsea has paid out more than £90 million in compensation for managerial sackings (link).
The changes to managers in the EPL this season demonstrate the nervousness of clubs about losing EPL status or not meeting European aspirations.
This graphic illustrates just how difficult it is to change league position and the time each manager might have to bring about change. There is a similar trend in Australia too. There have been three changes of manager this season. In the W League in Australia one of the few female coaches has not had her contract renewed (link).
Eni’s Guardian post makes for fascinating reading in the context of managerial change. She concludes her discussion with an observation about the game at St Mary’s Southampton against Burnley. Eni says of that encounter “I am sure fans of both sides will feel some pride in supporting clubs that have achieved success despite refusing to change managers when many others would”. It is this refusal “to change managers” that seems so critical in the politics of appointment.
When managers are appointed they are spoken of in the most glowing of terms. I have always been of the view that an interview of a manager should take a very disciplined and expansive view of performance. Many years ago, I was asked to advise a national governing body about the appointment of a head coach. I took their brief very seriously and set about analysing the relative merits of the coaches and their historical performances. This involved a detailed examination of each coach’s record and a careful look at the media surrounding the coach (long before the arrival of social media and network analysis). In the end, I managed to persuade decision-makers to go beyond friendship with one of the candidates and I was able to exemplify my analysis with some linear video examples of the performances that I thought were relevant to the performance profiles of the coaches. We almost agreed that each coach should run a coaching session with invited players. This did not happen but I do see such a session as integral to the coach’s appointment. This has become conventional behaviour in a number of professions. The amount of data available now also raises the question of pre-selection investigation (link) and the role a Director of Strategy and Analytics might play in an appointment or dismissal (link).
The coach who has not had her contract renewed, at the time of her appointment “was selected from a huge pool of talented candidates for the role”. News of her appointment reported that she was “vastly qualified in all areas of Football”. She had been an Assistant Coach for the Young Matildas and the Matildas national team” and had worked with “elite players at the highest level of the game” (link). This raises for me the political nature of coaches’ appointments and the investment made in their long-term vision. Eni wrote of Southampton “most teams would have capitulated after that Leicester defeat but this one rolled up their sleeves. They have also shown the rest of the league that sometimes teams can change without sacking a manager”.
I do think this retention of a manager requires a comprehensive structural analysis. Results do matter to Boards. Many of them have unrealistic expectations of success. It takes a long time to be successful and often in a time scale that is overtaken by survival in a Division.The availability of eternal funds minimises the potential losses individuals make in support of football. The combination of status and funds makes it easy for Boards to withdraw their support and to use results as the reason for changes in appointment, that dreadful word ‘sacking”.
Nick Harris (link) has made these estimates of funds in 2018-2019.
The etymology of to be sacked appears to come from France (1750 example ‘On luy a donné son sac’) (link). Tradesmen, craftsmen and labourers moved around on their own, carrying their own tools and supplies, and find work where they could get it. The easiest way to carry their tools around was in a sack, which they would then leave with their employer for safe keeping. Once their services were no longer required, they were given their sack, before being ordered to pack it up and leave (link).
Many coaches accept that “sacking” is a fundamental part of their chosen career path. On their journey to re-employment they meet other coaches who have been sacked. There are very few opportunities for such managers and all of them compete to place their sack at a welcoming club prepared to manage the risk of their appointment..