Meulensteen with Sir Alex Ferguson
Few things are constant and guaranteed in the volatile world of football management—Tony Pulis donning a tracksuit, Harry Redknapp delivering a sermon from his car window on deadline day and Arsène Wenger insisting, “Sorry, I didn’t see it” are some of the exceptions.
It therefore came as little shock when René Meulensteen, the technical coach instrumental behind the development of Cristiano Ronaldo at Manchester Utd, was relieved of his duties at Anzhi Makhachkala after just four games.
His tenure lasted 16 days before owner Suleiman Kerimov, supposedly tired of his overpaid and underachieving team, hit the eject button. It was another ugly stunt in football’s managerial circus.
Despite the job’s precarious nature, the employment ethics surrounding football management tend to escape serious scrutiny. The handsome pay and prestige attached to managing global superstars help sugarcoat the poisoned chalice.
Empirical studies confirm job instability. Dr. Susan Bridgewater from Warwick Business School made a forecast based on her 1992-2005 study of English football management trends. She predicted that average management tenure across the four leagues—17 months in 2005—would drop below 12 months by 2023.
Her prophecy is coming to fruition, with the English Championship proving to be an especially cruel mistress.
The League Managers’ Association places average tenure in the Championship at 1.14 seasons after a 2012-2013 campaign that saw 13 sackings and 6 resignations. The Venky’s turned Ewood Park into a farcical, managerial merry-go-round, firing two managers in the space of four months.
Volatility is a problem endemic on the continent as well.
Of Europe’s elite, Real Madrid (who parted ways with Vicente Del Bosque on the back of a Champions League triumph) and Inter Milan (6 managers since Mourinho’s departure in 2010) are the two worst offenders. Presidential politics in Spain and Italy, and oligarch influence in France and Russia can make a position untenable from the onset.
Today’s managers face a triple threat of player power, uncompromising ownership and media contempt conspiring to undermine their positions.
At Anzhi, Meulensteen was up against it from the start: A quarreling squad on exorbitant salaries and a fickle owner whose plans for the club were inextricably tied to his personal business dealings.
Media contempt is most prominent in England, where job security is unceremoniously parodied in the form of the “sack-race.” It’s a phenomenon started by the bookies and hijacked by the press. The media treatment of Blackburn’s Steve Kean in the months leading up to his forced resignation bordered on the sadistic—every week he was forced to quash rumours of his impending dismissal.
Is there any respite for the ailing role of gaffer?
Like all employees, they retain statutory employment rights, and are afforded protection in the form of tribunals and civil courts. Henning Berg was awarded £2.25 million by the Venky’s for a breach of contract.
This does little, however, to deter wealthy owners from arbitrary dismissals or to prevent the surreal scenario of a sacking on live television. Moreover, Bridgewater’s revelation that 49 percent of first-time managers in England only ever get that once chance in the professional game proves that financial compensation—which is capped at £74,200 for unfair dismissal through the Employment Tribunal—can be of scant consolation.
A more sustainable solution to upholding job security and integrity might be a managerial transfer window. It’s a view shared by Blackpool boss Paul Ince, who in reference to Michael Appleton’s short stint at Blackburn told BBC Lancashire, “Where's the protection if they're getting sacked after 67 days…it's OK that we can protect players because they're on contracts. We can sell them in January, and if they don't want to go, they stay. It should be exactly the same as a manager. It stops all the commotion and it makes sense.”
Aside from calls for a managerial transfer window, tentative attempts have been made to devise managerial performance analysis models to offer guidance for club owners.
Tom Markham from Sporting Intelligence is an advocate, claiming the likes of Martin Jol (Spurs) and Avram Grant (Chelsea) would have enjoyed a reprieve. But he accepts the model’s limitations when it comes to processing disruptive influences such as long-term injury to a key player or club administration, and adjusting to different expectation levels.
Regardless of the solution, we shouldn’t let the lucrative severance packages received by the likes of Mancini (Man City) and André Villas-Boas (Chelsea) obscure or diminish the volatile reality.
This is a reality in which the unsung hero—the René Meulensteen—is also a victim.