Perform two miracles and the Catholic Church may make you a saint. Perform just one and Leicester City may make you unemployed.
It seems to me that the situation is pretty clear. Right now, Leicester are only a little bit worse off than they should be. If the board wanted to be higher, they should’ve given Ranieri more money to buy better players. And, of course, it was last season that was the aberration, not this one.
It’s when we get to discussing what to do about the situation that views diverge. Pretty clearly, sacking Ranieri means Leicester’s board don’t care for loyalty or decency. But, more than that, if they think it’ll help – that it’s a smart short- and medium-term solution – it makes me doubt their competence to run a football club.
I’m big on giving managers time. Even if Ranieri were to get the team relegated this season then, after last year, he deserved, at the very least, a chance to lead an attempt on promotion. More than that, though, after last year, if Ranieri had said he planned to sell everyone and just field 40-year-old Emile Heskey, I think the owners should’ve smiled and doubled his salary. And if Ranieri had then announced he planned to demolish the King Power, I say the owners should’ve bought him a shipload of dynamite and a detonator, and roped in Gary Lineker dressed as Fred Dibnah to emcee proceedings.
They didn’t of course. And none of Leicester’s utter disregard for the basics of human behaviour that make society possible hurt as much as why they didn’t – and the reminder that gives us about the state of English football.
They sacked him not because they feared relegation per se, but because they feared the cost of relegation. Feared it to the point where they could no longer make rational decisions.
Dropping out of the premier league is financially disastrous. That is completely true; an unavoidably factually correct claim. But nothing about that statement means that accepting it necessarily commits you to sacking your manager.
It’s like a pre-literate tribe gathering, mid-growing season, to discuss the on-going drought and, on agreeing the harvest is likely to be poor, proceeding to vote on whether or not to sacrifice the king to appease the rain gods. Club boards, then, are not without other options and not without evidence; this exact situation has been repeated literally thousands of times before. They are only sitting in the dark if they choose not to switch on the lights.
The studies that have been done on this subject show sacking a manager is not an effective tactic for improving short-term performance. ‘Successful firings’ are largely a product of regression to the mean. It’s the equivalent of tossing a coin hundreds of times and then, on encountering a suspicious cluster of heads, deciding the coin is dodgy. Most of the time, things will even themselves out; some tails will turn up and a club with Leicester’s talent will improve and start winning a few more games. Sacking a managers isn’t the cause of the upturn any more than decapitating the king brings the rain.
Whatever it takes
A common response to the suggestion that a sacked manager deserved more time is ‘we need to do whatever it takes to stay up’. Except clubs mostly don’t. They declare firing the manager a last resort, when it’s actually nothing like. Usually it’s a panicked and incompetent response to difficultly. The world is complicated but, in a crisis, we reach for simple, familiar answers and then seek to justify them.
It’s the politician’s syllogism. Something must be done. This is something. Therefore this must be done.
A skilled chairman would look for imaginative ways to support the manager and help him improve his and the team’s performance. The board might bring in a psychologist to work with the players or an analytics group to look at areas where the team is under-performing. They might look to see if the manager has the right psychological support to succeed or if there are any areas, any areas at all – from facilities and travel arrangements – where investment or focus could create a marginal uptick in performance. For a club like Leicester, don’t forget, even a few extra points – one goal, perhaps – might be enough. A dozen incremental improvements might be far more effective than tearing everything down.
But they don’t do that. That doesn’t feel like action. Instead they fire him.
Think for a moment how strange this is. In normal circumstance, most people would readily consent to the proposition that ‘it takes time for a manager to settle in’. And we’d all agree that ‘managers don’t get enough time, any more’.
If you believe these things when not in a difficult situation but advocate firing the manager in a crisis then you shouldn’t be running a football club. It’s a sign of poor leadership and mental weakness.
It means you are willing, rather than trying to improve all of the areas over which you can exert control, to flip a coin and hope it comes up heads. And that means you lack rigour, gumption and a cool head.
In the long run we are all relegated
We are inherently short-termist in how we judge snap firings. If the clubs stay up, it worked. If it doesn’t, it didn’t. But the long-term matters too. And sooner than chairmen think. No one expects loyalty in football, but there are consequences if you abandon basic standards of fairness at work.
Football clubs, despite their fame and income, are essentially only medium-sized businesses. A few hundred employees, one or two main locations. In such a situation, manifest unfairness can poison the culture of the organisation, unnerve staff, stifle risk-taking and innovation, and condemn the club to mediocrity.
Which manager will give a chance to a young player or experiment with his formation or do anything perceived as new or risky if he knows that nothing he can do will earn him any grace period? How is any manager to come to work every day and do his job knowing that if he doesn’t continually over-perform he will be sacked?
I remember when it used to be a popular pastime of British football fans to laugh at how often Spanish and Italian clubs would sack recently successful manager. It, as much as the belief in the genetic superiority of our players’ hearts and lungs, was a reason why British football was the best. Back in those day, Jesús Gil was an almost incomprehensible figure of fun. He changed managers annually for decades and seemed never to learn. Neither prison nor bankruptcy could teach him new ways. These days, if a brain haemorrhage hadn’t done for him, he’d fit in just fine with English football culture.
So, let Leicester’s owners take their faithless foolishness and sink back, unmissed, into the Championship. If nothing else, I now don’t feel quite so bad for having bet on them, before the season started, to get relegated this year. Fingers-crossed at 14 to 1.
Unhappy ever after
But there’s something else here, something that goes beyond the money-blinded stupidity of our national game: Leicester’s board have destroyed the wonder of last season’s accomplishment. They have deprived us of a story that was going to pass into legend alongside Clough’s Forest and the Busby’s Babes and Liverpool’s Istanbul.
Because there is a great deal more sporting poetry to Ranieri winning Leicester the title and then getting relegated. There’s a beautiful sadness to that, a recognition of what a remarkable thing they did. It’s a better story, even, than if they’d stayed up pretty comfortably this season.
It would mean they won together and they lost together. They stayed true to themselves and to each other. There’s greatness in that.
But now, in the new version of the story that’s unfolding, their success would become a parable of economic efficiency – an illustration of the need to put profit ruthlessly before people.
And, if they go down with the new manager, the fairytale becomes a morality play. We all know how it goes: plucky outsiders who achieved success against all the odds first have their heads turned by that success, before then turning on each other.
Both are lousy stories. The former teaches us that all the things we thought were shit about the world actually are – which is already pretty much the leitmotiv of modern football. With the latter, it might become a valuable cautionary tale if it ended with the club seeing the error of their ways and committing to do things right.
But they won’t. In a world where Leicester could win the title at 5,000 to 1, somethings are still impossible.
And so the dilly ding dilly dong we hear isn’t any longer the warming charm of Claudio Ranieri, it’s the discordant clanging of the alarm clock telling us the beautiful dream is over and we have to be at work in an hour.
What a loss to us all.
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