Imagine a world where anytime you didn’t hit your target at a job, you got an immediate sacking — with no forewarning.
To the outside eye, that’s the life of a football manager… but it’s more complex than that.
Gone are the days of extended managerial reigns, including Arsene Wenger’s 22 years at Arsenal and Sir Alex Ferguson’s 25 years with Manchester United.
Now it seems a miracle to get more than two seasons to prove your capabilities. And with the quick-moving pace of football – and the mammoth egos that fill the sport – it’s impractical to think that a manager would get called in for a performance evaluation to set new goals.
Can a manager sue a club for unfair dismissal?
On Monday (January 25) Chelsea FC manager Frank Lampard, beloved amongst many Chelsea fans who still remember the days when he played for the club, was sacked after a run of five losses across eight league games which left the North London club in 9th place.
This came a day after his team’s 3-1 FA Cup victory against Luton Town.
Lampard had been appointed manager on July 4, 2019, meaning he served less than two years as head coach.
Interestingly, in order to raise a claim of unfair dismissal, a football manager in the UK would typically have to have finished two years of continuous service; most managers today average less than two years at any given club, perhaps to avoid such chaos. But there’s a lot more money to be gained from severance clauses and compensation than there is in court, which makes it unlikely for any major manager to seek such a solution.
However, it’s not unheard of. Seven years ago, Henning Berg took the Blackburn Rovers to court after he was sacked within less than two months of his appointment, and he was awarded £2.25m in unpaid wages.
Getting sacked is a lucrative business for some
Jose Mourinho has made more than £60 million simply from getting sacked from various managerial posts throughout his career. His latest payout was a staggering £15 million from Manchester United in 2019, paid in full, after which he was free to pick up another job at any other club. This, after two-and-a-half seasons with the Red Devils.
In a weird way, if managers play it smartly, even sackings can be lucrative prospects in football.
Unlike player contracts in the Premier League, there is no standardised managerial contracts. That means that, other than fulfilling some standard bits and bobs, any number of clauses can be inserted into a mangerial contract — for example, a team must finish in the top four, or make it into the Europa or Champions league, etc., in order for a manager to keep his job secure at a particular club.
You’ll often find that clubs will wait until a team loses any chance of making it to the top of the table, and goes beyond a point of being able to qualify for the European championships, before the club cuts ties with the manager. The earlier a club sacks the boss, the more costly said boss’ compensation package will be.
Is emotional investment key to success?
Football gets quite depressing once it’s reduced to a money game.
Why would fans (or even a team) emotionally invest in a manager when they know that that manager himself knows his job is on the chopping board?
What about players? If the players feel that their jobs are more secure, because all blame will be laid at a manager’s feet, then will they become complacent, too?
Will that misdirected culpability make them less likely to perform at their fullest potential? Because if they lose, or if they fail to qualify for a championship, it will be the manager’s head on a stake first and foremost.
It cannot be understated that a rotating door of managers will undoubtedly have an impact on how a team performs, and how secure they feel in their position for the club.
If there’s a culture of rampant dispensability, like at any job, a team can become demotivated and demoralised.
Is football a different game today?
For those who grew up watching Wenger lead Arsenal for more than two decades, football becomes a different animal.
From the age of 47 when he joined, to nearly 70 when he left, viewers would have witnessed the shape of his face change, the crow’s feet at his eyes grow deeper, and seen the ageless build-up of passion and persistence that can only grow when given time.
Alas, let’s not romanticise it too much: Towards the end of his tenure, Le Proffeseur Wenger faced punishing hostility from some fans of the club who wanted fresh blood. Nonetheless, Wenger had formed an attachment to the club that can’t be achieved in a season or two.
“I was more mentally sick [whenever we lost]. I made 1,235 games for Arsenal and didn’t miss one. I can’t remember when I stayed in bed to miss training in 22 years. But, after defeat, you never sleep. You have an internal film that goes through your mind. It’s a sense of anger, humiliation, hate. The next day you have to put that into perspective but every defeat is still a scar on my heart,” said Wenger, in an interview with the Guardian.
So perhaps, between Lampard’s two years at Chelsea and Wenger’s 22 at Arsenal, there’s a middle ground.
Jurgen Klopp, head coach of Liverpool, is a great modern example of this — arguably the best example of it in the Premier League today.
He’s been with the Reds going on six years now (second-longest serving active manager in the Premier League, after Burnley’s Sean Dyche), and it’s taken him the majority of that time to get his team both a Prem title and a Champions League title.
The love that his players have for him is apparent, and the protectiveness and pride with which Klopp speaks about his team in post-match conferences is just as obvious.
It’s not just a business transaction — but an excercise in trust and patience.
Stability is underrated — and experts urge more loyalty
This environment of precarious employment for managers, which has prevailed in modern football, is ‘severely damaging’ says the chief executive of the League Managers’ Association Richard Bevan.
“Consistently dismissing managers can create an environment of instability within the club. It causes a series of negative consequences,” said Bevan in 2017.
“While it is often well publicised when an under-performing side regain form under new management, this is rarely sustained over long periods and quite often results revert to type within a few games,” he added.
In a 2020 interview, Bevan doubled down on his comments, urging clubs to practice more loyalty.
“Loyalty is definitely the best recipe for success. Clear examples of that would be Chris Wilder taking Sheffield United from League One to challenging for Europe places in five seasons,” Bevan said.
“The great job Sean Dyche has done at Burnley. [Wycombe manager] Gareth Ainsworth is the longest-serving manager, eight years and promoted to the Championship for the first time in their 137-year history,” he continued.
Bevan stated: “I’d urge owners to take a step back when they’re assessing their club carefully... Don’t leave the manager with a feeling of being in isolation. He needs to create that environment so that all of the club can be the best they can be.”
It’s not as black and white as simply being loyal to a manager or sacking them.
It’s tougher than ever now for clubs, who have to contend with things like sponsorship TV broadcast deals.
The financial losses a club can incur for relegation can be daunting, and the pressure for promotion even more great. There’s also the catch-22 of how you will convince top players to join your team in order to rebuild, if your team doesn’t seem to be climbing up the ladder… and how you will climb up the ladder, if you aren’t able to build a solid team.
No one-size-fits-all solution
Arsenal, for one, is in a dire place; down to 11th place and edging closer to the possibility of Mikel Arteta being sacked, which means that any day now, they could getting their third manager in just as many years.
There’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Sometimes a manager is just not the right fit, but sometimes they become the scapegoat for bigger problems that are hard to address and harder to solve.
The quicker we can admit that, perhaps, the quicker we can get real results.