Trials, Tribulation and Termination: Football Coach Employment Contracts and How Sacking Has Become the Norm
Chants of “you don’t know what you’re doing”, “you’re getting sacked in the morning” or banners inscripted with “*insert boss’ name* out” are non-existent in everyday industries and offices. It is unheard of for people to take such an aggressive and undermining approach towards the individual who is in charge of their team. However, in the football industry, the sacking of coaches, and the outspoken displeasure expressed towards the job they are doing or have done is commonplace. Consequently, employment contracts are often unfulfilled and the sacking of coaches in the football world year upon year is almost inevitable.
In this blog, I will outline the modern approach to coaches, otherwise known as managers in the UK particularly, the structure of modern managerial employment contracts and assess the inclusion of clauses that are known as ‘ejector seat clauses’. I will also attempt to explain the legalities and intricacies that may justify the termination of a coach’s contract and the impact of managerial dismissals upon commercial and financial sustainability.
The ‘sacking’ of coaches has become a regular and accepted occurrence in the modern game. This is epitomised in the UK where clubs in the top four divisions have spent upwards of half a billion pounds sterling on dismissing nearly 1000 coaches since the appointment of Arsene Wenger in 1996. A club enduring a single coach for a significant duration of time has become unheard of. The days of Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson serving for almost a quarter of a century have disappeared. Instead, clubs seem to be demanding almost immediate success and if this is not achieved, they simply move on to the next coach in the hope that they can deliver. Some clubs are more prone to a change than others. Since 2000, Crystal Palace have accumulated the most coaches with 28 different appointments, closely followed by Leicester (27) and Southampton (24). It is not uncommon for over 100 coaches to be sacked in a single season across the four English Football League divisions.
The longest serving coaches in the Premier League at the moment; Jurgen Klopp, who is about to serve his eighth year at the helm of Liverpool since 2015 and Pep Guardiola entering his seventh year at Manchester City, have gone well beyond the expected lifespan of a modern day Premier League coach. Whilst this is, of course, due to some incredible feats, successes and achievements, some are not so lucky to have been given the chance to enjoy such a lengthy tenure at a single club before they are passed on.
In 2012, the average ‘sell-by date’ of a Premier League coach was over two and a half years. Now, a decade later in 2022, achieving two seasons at one club is an impressive accolade with the average stay now less than a measly one and a quarter seasons. This is despite the traditional managerial contracts that are signed being multi-year fixed contracts. For example, Alan Pardew signed an eight year contract with Newcastle in 2012 after a couple of seasons of considerable success although he failed to serve more than two years of this extension before he was sacked. Similarly, David Moyes signed a lengthy 6-year contract in 2013 with Manchester United after leaving his decade-long tenure at Everton. His contract at Everton had expired and as a rarity for coaches in modern football, Moyes made the personal decision to explore a different venture. This time round, Moyes was sacked after the first year for reasons that I will explain later. It seems peculiar that coaches might sign such lengthy contracts despite the high possibility and likelihood that they will fail to keep their job for this period of time.
The Causes and the Legalities
As mentioned, coaches are often moved on after failing to appease the owners and decision makers within their club. These sackings have become more regular than coaches retiring or freely choosing to take on new opportunities. Owners and fans have varying amounts of patience and a prolonged period of drought of wins or successes will ultimately lead to the coaches being widely condemned by the fan base and shown the door by the owners. Often, teams that are teetering on the edge of relegation battles have new coaches introduced due to the historic reputation of some kind of ’new coach syndrome’ that causes a short term but relegation-avoiding boost to the team. Whilst there is no exact or obvious explanation for this, psychologists have pointed towards the intrinsic human nature of trying to create good first impressions and players outperforming their average displays in front of a new audience. Those that bring in a fresh change in coach whilst in a dismal spell of form will often observe a dramatic improvement in performance.
The dismissal of any individual under contract will be scrutinised legally and ethically in any industry. This is the same in football and is more regularly considered due to the normality and regularity of sackings. Football legislations and the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) analyse the proportionality and enforceability of dismissing a coach under contract which are encouraged as imperative elements. The sacking is supposed to be a last resort option rather than a compulsory response to losing several matches. However, the routes around these regulations are to include clauses within coach contracts that allow for early dismissal and termination.
Any coach that has a contract that is prematurely terminated will be entitled to compensation. However, if their contract contained details that are termed ‘ejector seat clauses’ or underperformance criteria, the remuneration they are entitled to is mitigated and may not be as high as a coach that is unfairly dismissed out of accordance with their contract would be eligible to receive. For example, David Moyes was able to be dismissed by Manchester United after a single season due to his failure to obtain a UEFA Champions League place which his contract clearly stipulated was a just reason for dismissal before the end of his five-year contract. Rather than the rest of his contract being paid out as compensation, the clause allowed United to legally give Moyes a single payout of just £5million; a single year’s salary.
Some clubs do not include such clauses and consequently, as well as opportunity costs, sacking coaches can accumulate extortionate financial costs. Chelsea have a history of large compensation payouts to coaches such as Luis Felipe Scolari in 2009 (£12.6million) and a further £12million to Andre Villas Boas in 2012. This demonstrated Roman Abramovic’s reign of Chelsea in which he happily dismissed coaches that didn’t meet his extraordinarily high expectations and standards. The questions over the commercial and financial sustainability of such a relaxed approach to sackings are considerable. Under financial fair play rules and unstable economic circumstances in football, splashing millions just to sack a coach and bring in a new one can lead to financial trouble. This is compiled and accentuated, for example, if a club brings in a coach to try and save them from relegation and they then fail to do so. This was the case for Wolverhampton Wanderers who brought in five different coaches in 13 months and slid from the Premier League into League One; the English third tier.
There can be many reasons for a coach being sacked by a club’s board. Owners have given causes that have spanned across ‘losing the dressing room’, an inappropriate embedded culture, overwhelming fan disapproval and questionable strategies as well as the obvious shortfalls such as winless campaigns and relegation scares. Clubs may still aim to adopt a policy of planning and building for the long term although this may no longer be the reality with the seemingly revolving door of coaches that come into and out of the club.
In the press and amongst fanbases, it only takes a small series of losses or an unattractive style of play for debate, speculation and rumours begin to circulate that question and undermine the respectability of the coach. However, legally there must be a proportionate and enforceable reason to be a final straw for the coach to be sacked. The legal issues that might arise include restraint of trade and unfair dismissal or breaches of contracts which have to be addressed and suitably compensated. Release and underperformance clauses may well be the best way of overcoming such possibilities although clubs and owners must tread carefully and ensure that coaches are suitably remunerated once they are moved on.
This blog has outlined much of what avid football fans will already know; that coaches are readily sacked more often than ever and that some clubs are more than prepared to dismiss numerous coaches over short periods of time in the hope of finding the perfect match to achieve success. Fans, owners, the board and the press play significant roles in the dismissal of a coach. However, losses and underperforming along with other factors mentioned in this blog are often to blame for a premature termination of a coach’s contract.
I have also shown within this blog that there is a significant financial impact and consequence that results from a club sacking a coach. Clubs have begun to include ejector seat clauses in order to legally and contractually justify early dismissals. However, ultimately there is compensation that is due to be paid out to departing coaches. It is far less taboo to sack coaches in the football industry than in other areas of employment; it is a well documented and accepted factor of football but it often comes under scrutiny and club and ownership policies are questioned by fans and the press. This was epitomised in the backlash to Marcelo Bielsa’s departure from Leeds this year and Rafa Benitez’s drawn out exit from Everton.
It is apparent that the ever changing list of coaches of football clubs globally is likely to continue. Clauses that avoid extortionate compensation are now commonplace and coaches seem prepared to take on jobs that may possibly not last more than a season. It is a part of the modern game and as long as legal legislation is adhered to, it will continue to be regularly practised.
A final point to note, after the new FIFA agent regulations are implemented, for the first time, agents will be able to represent coaches as long as they are licensed. This will alter how coaches operate within football and it will be interesting to see the impact this has on the stability of their careers. Perhaps this might be a significant level of power to the coaches. However, there must also be concerns over an agent managing both players and the coach in a single team. This would create a conflict of interest although FIFA has not stipulated that this is disallowed.