29 October 2015
SHOULD HE STAY OR SHOULD HE GO: THE RISK AND REWARD OF SACKING A COACH
Sports fans are a fickle bunch. They'll heap praise on their team, players, and coaching staff when they're winning. Accolades and plaudits flow in abundance as long as positive results are doing likewise. When things go bad however, the well of well-wishes dries up and a flood furious anger washes over the once loved heroes. No one is at the mercy of this turbulent climate more than the coach or manager. They’re the ones holding the wheel, they’re the ones making the play, and when things are going badly, they’re the ones standing where the buck stops and the hard questions start. Using Jose Mourinho and Heyneke Meyer as examples, we explore the risk and reward of sacking a coach.
When the final whistle signalled the end of South Africa’s 2015 Rugby World Cup, after defeat to New Zealand in the semi-finals, coach Heynecke Meyer closed his eyes and sat motionless for a few seconds. On the evidence of his reaction to Springbok tries and victories in the past, no one loves the Green and Gold more than Meyer, but there was something else visible on his face apart from the pain he felt for his favourite team. Like the sword that hung over the head of Damocles, the Springbok boss must have been aware of the impending doom that now looms over him as the man in charge.
It’s hard being the coach or manager of an elite sports team – uneasy rests the bum in the hot seat. This is a good thing. It’s reassuring to know that someone can’t simply walk off the street and win a World Cup or Champions League. It takes a supreme knowledge of the game and an iron will to join the ranks of Sirs Alex Ferguson, Clive Woodward, Dave Brailsford, et al. They’re the ones holding the wheel, they’re the ones making the play, and when things are going badly, they’re the ones standing where the buck stops and the hard questions start.
Luckily, this is sport, not a dictatorial regime, and when things aren’t going as expected (or demanded), owners and stakeholders have the prerogative to find someone who they feel can get things back on track. The merry-go-round of elite coaching has been, and always will be, a ceaseless ride.
Another elite coach feeling the pressure is Chelsea Football Club’s Jose Mourinho. The Portuguese manager is one of the best in the world, with a trophy cabinet decorated with two Champions League medals, as well as fifteen domestic league and cup titles from four different countries. Despite that success, Chelsea are struggling in the English Premier League, languishing in 15th place after losing 5 of their opening 10 matches, and have just been knocked out of the Capital One Cup. This is not the form of defending champions.
Like the South African Rugby Union (SARU), the decision makers at Chelsea have a tough choice to make. Stick with the current coach and trust (or hope) things improve, or pull the trigger and task someone else with the job. Both options have elements of risk and reward.
Both Meyer and Mourinho are quality coaches. Both have been criticised for their overly defensive approaches to their respective codes, but both have won trophies and earned their places at the top on merit. We’ve already spoken about Mourinho’s record, but Meyer also has a few medals hanging on his wall. Were it not for regularly going up against the sport’s greatest ever team, in the form of this generation’s All Blacks, he would probably have a few more.
Sticking with a coach during tough times instils a confidence in him to try and get his team out of a hole. It tells him that although things aren’t working now, he didn’t win a raffle ticket to get here; try something new, things will click. Chelsea won the league last season and is still one of the best sides in Europe. With the players they have it is surely a matter of time before they find their groove.
For Meyer, he has a core group of young players who are no doubt going to go on and become Springbok legends. If he had the chance to work with the likes of Handré Pollard (21), Damien de Allende (23), Lood de Jager (22), and Jessie Kriel (21) for another four years, there is every possibility that he could mould them into something great. Critics point out that he has been defensive and one-directional in his tactics; perhaps he has been hamstrung by aging players that simply couldn’t learn new tricks.
Keeping a coach in charge of the national rugby team after an unsuccessful World Cup has proved to be the right decision on two separate occasions. Both Sir Clive Woodword (England - 2003) and Sir Graham Henry (New Zealand - 2011) won the World Cup four years after losing it. On both occasions there were calls for their heads but they were allowed the opportunity to learn from their mistakes and have another shot at the title. History vindicated these decisions and proved that continuity was vital to their success.
Football managers aren’t generally afforded the same patience given to rugby coaches. Chelsea have had 10 managers (including both Mourinho stints) since Roman Abramovich bought the club in 2003. Even winning trophies hasn’t been enough to keep the job as Carlo Ancelotti, Roberto DiMatteo, and Rafael Benitez all found out.
Ferguson is widely regarded as the greatest ever football manager, but it could have been so different had Manchester United gone through with sacking the Scotafter four seasons. Chelsea could learn from their northern rivals and show some faith in their manager.
That trust that is given to a struggling coach filters down to the players. It tells them that they are allowed to make mistakes and that their place in the side does not hinge on a handful of results. Job security does wonders for job performance.
But this is elite sport where results mean money and prestige. Despite whatever feel good meme you might read, or heartfelt interview you may see, no one, least of all those at organisations like the Springboks and Chelsea, are in elite sport for anything other than winning. Winning is everything and if you’re not up for it, move on.
Sacking a coach lets everyone know that you mean business. It tells fans and members of your staff that no one is safe and that poor performances won’t be tolerated. Fear is a remarkable motivator.
Getting someone new allows for a fresh perspective. Often a coach runs out of ideas, becomes tactically stagnant, or simply loses that bit of magic that made him an enigmatic leader. Handing someone else the reins, especially someone with pedigree, often provides that little bit of fire that is needed to ignite a team.
A new coach is often brought in because things aren’t going well and so is given more freedom to experiment than a coach holding on to his job. If he tries something and fails, he can scrap it and try something else. If a battling coach tries something audacious in the hopes of returning to winning ways but fails, the failure is amplified and will surely be his final act in charge.
Before sacking a coach, an organisation needs to look at the availability of suitable replacements. For the Springboks, no one can really put their hand up above all others. Johan Ackermann has just won the Currie Cup with the Lions, winning every game in the process. He has shown faith in youth, something Meyer has failed to do, and his brand of rugby has been entertaining and attacking. He is still relatively inexperienced, but if SARU sack Meyer, Ackermann seems the best option from a limited pool.
For Chelsea, ousting Mourinho mid-way through the season will not solve their problems. This is a man who has won a domestic league title 8 times out of a possible 13. He knows how to win trophies and although Chelsea is an enticing job for Europe’s top managers, they would be short sighted to look elsewhere. He has stated that he loves the club and there is no doubt that he will be doing his best to rectify the situation.
Sport is about progress and improvement. If a coach or manager is not able to take a team and make them a better one every day then he is not the man for the job. South African rugby under Meyer has stagnated. They have lost to Japan and Argentina for the first time in history under his tenure and have routinely been beaten by Australia and New Zealand, winning 5 out 14 matches against the Southern Hemisphere giants.
Sacking a coach is never an easy decision to make. There are so many variables that determine whether or not an individual is suited to the position. Often success is hardly a factor as SARU proved when failing to secure the services of Jake White after he won the 2007 Rugby World Cup. If results are all that matter, both Mourinho and Meyer will be shown the door. If they can convince the higher ups at their respective organisations that they can turn things around, we all might look back on this time and marvel at their resilience and determination.
CONQA Sport is hosting our second annual Elite Sport Summit in Cape Town on 5 & 6 October 2016.