Sacking football managers: Be damned, if you just want to throw the boot!

ENGLISH PREMIER LEAGUE

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Suresh Nair

SACK is probably the most dreaded four-letter word in the lips of every football manager or coach anywhere in the world.

Some may be the highest paid, even more than Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, but they know they have to bite the bullet and be the sacrificial lamb if they don’t get the points. Bottom line: Deliver the goods or be damned.

Just look at what Singaporeans adore: The English Premier League (EPL).

With only 11 League matches gone, West Ham’s Croatian manager Slaven Bilic, on Monday, became the fourth EPL manager to leave his job this season following Frank de Boer (Crystal Palace), Ronald Koeman (Everton) and Craig Shakespeare (Leicester).

Pure muppetry. A real farce, I say.

Sacking managers is usually rife in professional football (perhaps not in Singapore!) but one day, by continually sacking managers, the standard of other top-class bosses you attract is going to drop considerably.

I reckon the most incredible world-class sack was to Claudio Ranieri at Leicester City last season. His, in my opinion, was the greatest football story that had the most remarkable twist.

Nine months after engineering the most incredible league triumph in living memory, FIFA’s ‘World Coach of the Year’ was dismissed. To put that into even sharper focus, the sacking came just 16 days after the Foxes (Leicester’s nickname), under traditional Thailand owners, publicly pledged their “unwavering support” for Ranieri.

STATUE FOR RANEIRI?

How cruel can football be? Some even suggested that Ranieri might have a statue erected for him, yet he was sacked in the same season.

I was surprised because Asians usually have that paramount trademark of loyalty and Leicester’s Thailand billionaire Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha would’ve kept faith in the 65-year-old  “Miracle Man”, who had won the unbelievable EPL title for them.

Raneiri deserved that for winning the 2016-2016 EPL as a 5,000/1 underdog. Sacking him was simply not honourable. It is unromantic and can also be seen as brutal as hitting him below the belt.

Sadly not. Football is a merciless hire-and-fire game. As fans of football cliches will be all too aware, the classic “vote of confidence” is often the precursor to a manager getting the sack – and so it has proved many times.

Ranieri isn’t the only victim. As these examples clearly demonstrate, the gap between public backing and the axe falling can be pretty short. Probably the fastest was Aston Villa’s Tim Sherwood in 10 days.

On October 2015, Aston Villa director General Charles Krulak said: “To say Tim Sherwood has to win those games to survive is pure speculation. We have always wanted continuity and someone there for the long term.” Barely a week later, he was fired!

SIR ALEX FERGUSON

Yes, people usually talk about the necessity of stability for managers if a club wants to succeed, and cite the example of Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United, who stood down in 2013, having won 49 trophies in the most successful managerial career Britain has ever known.

But Ferguson, who won 13 league titles at United, sickeningly endured a poor trophy-less spell for the first few years. He also had a number of high-profile bust-ups with some of the best players in the world during his 27-year tenure at Old Trafford. David Beckham, Roy Keane, Jaap Stam and Ruud Van Nistelrooy among others incurred the Scot’s wrath during his trophy-laden spell at the club.

The big question: Sacking managers is sometimes necessary, but pray tell me, when is the right time to part company?

Many in Europe, Asia, Americas and Oceania, seem to be of the opinion that a new manager will bring greatness.

Mind you, it is proven that is not a fact. More of a dream.

Yes, Chelsea and Antonio Conte appear to be a role-model success example. But Chelsea was not a poor team last season based on an inability to play football of gel as a team. They were a poor team because they literally stopped playing for the manager – Jose Mourinho.

It is funny that as soon as the Portuguese manager was sacked, results started to come through, a little too late with all respect to the club achieving a place in a European competition this season. Conte merely restructured the team, made a few signings – one very important one – N’Golo Kante, who has been one of their best players this season.

MONEY, MONEY, MONEY

End of the day, it’s money, money, money that matters. More financial support often heralds better players that you’re able to pay for.

I remember Trevor Hartley (former Singapore coach in the late 1970s) reminding me about the best supported club in England. No, it’s not any of your urban big-city clubs like Chelsea, Liverpool, Tottenham or the famed Manchester clubs.

He pointed to the size of a north-eastern club like Newcastle United, and the fact is that even in the Championship (second tier of English football) last season, they were pulling in the sixth biggest average attendance in England. “The demands and expectations are going to be greater at a club that has such a big following,” says Hartley.

I’m also reminded that how much money a manager has to play with can sometimes set the expectations. If billionaire owners like Sheikh Mansour (Manchester City), Roman Abramovich (Chelsea), the Glazer family (Manchester United) or Stan Kroenke (Arsenal) are investing large sums of cash, then should a team be underperforming, it’s probably not due to a lack of available funds.

London-based journalist Steven Marcus says: “The problem is likely to be that of the manager. It’s probably easier to dispose of than a squad of players. Even if a club doesn’t spend huge amounts in transfer fees (as United sometimes didn’t do under Ferguson), the high expectations are still there, since the money is still in the club to pay the highest wages, to employ the best youth team coaches and to have the best scouting network which can find the next bargain deal.”

Yes, I agree, some managers complain that they are not given enough time these days in a job, even in Singapore with top local bosses like V. Sundramoorthy and Fandi Ahmad.

THE S-LEAGUE TALE

Thankfully in the S-League, it’s a very different tale. During these challenging and austere economic times, with government funds likely to be severely trimmed next season, many clubs can ill afford the financial costs of moving on a failing coach or manager.

So how can this be explained? It’s probably an age-old statistical phenomenon known as regression to the mean.

“In the same way that water seeks its own level, numbers and series of numbers will move towards the average, move towards the ordinary,” David Sally, co-author of the football statistics book ‘The Numbers Game’, explains.

“The extraordinary, numbers-wise, is followed by the ordinary; the ordinary is followed by the ordinary; the ordinary is what happens. The average is what happens more often than not,” he writes.

According to Sally, football clubs can be seen as any other business or company. Business research suggests that structural factors – such as how long it has been operating and which industry it is part of – are much more important than who the chief executive is. In money terms, around 15 per cent profitability can be determined by the quality of the man or woman in charge and the same can be said for football managers.

Yet managerial sackings are not easy, be it at Arsenal or Albirex Niigata or Tottenham or Tampines Rovers. The aforementioned debate, speculation, rumour and recriminations carry with them both an opportunity cost and a financial cost.

Reminds award-winning Malaysia Cup coach Jita Singh: “Sacked managers, especially in the big European clubs, typically take a severance package with them, and there will be considerable costs associated with recruiting and selecting a replacement manager.

“There must be caution. Sackings can disrupt workplace groups, undermine or threaten other managers, even evoke a sense of labour insecurity, challenge established processes and possibly even transform the culture of an organisation forever. I believe managerial sackings must to be the last resort in many cases, not the immediate reaction to a challenging situation or problem.”

TRUST IN MANAGERS

In ending, let me ask this thought-provoking question: How would you feel if you had a job where results were required, you were not getting those results and colleagues, customers and members of the public were calling for you to be sacked, bringing in someone they feel can do the job better?

Bottom line is, if time is not afforded, you cannot really expect to get anything good out it all.

My pertinent message: Let the manager do his job, see what happens and most importantly, stop judging everything on results. Watch a game of football, see the differences from the past three years and use those to form an opinion of your own.

Maybe then you will see things how I and many others see things. Differently.  Less reactionary and in a way, looking at the various options before coming up with a rash idea. In my opinion, a healthy mind leads to healthy solutions.

Don’t be ultra-hasty to use the most dreaded four-letter word ‘sack’. Never simply make sacrificial lambs of managers and coaches if they simply don’t get the points.

Football is a game of winners and losers. There must be the sense of moral gamesmanship. Be damned, if you just want to recklessly throw the boot!

Suresh Nair has been in the thick of regional football reporting for over three decades. He is an (Asian Football Confederation) AFC-Licenced coach and a AFC Referee Instructor.