Resign or get sacked: the ideal managerial exit

The nature of a coach’s departure can have massive consequences for players

In a recent article for the Daily Mail, former England Rugby coach Clive Woodward criticised the decisions of Steve Hansen and Rassie Erasmus to announce that they are stepping down as the coaches of New Zealand and South Africa respectively, as he believes this will be a distraction to their players during the upcoming Rugby World Cup. Woodward called the retiring coaches “weak”, and stressed that players should not need a “let’s win this for our coach” mentality to motivate them for big tournament.

His extreme views notwithstanding, Woodward’s article presents the reader with a thought-provoking question: what is the best way for a manager to leave his position at a team? Should they have the courage to leave on their own terms when it becomes clear that it’s not going to work out, or should they have the determination to stick it out to the last, perhaps damaging their reputation in the process? This decision can have huge impacts, both on the career of the manager and the future fortunes of his past side.

“The manner of a coach’s departure is of huge import.”

When a coach leaves a team, it can hugely impact morale, commitment and overall form, which is why the manner of a coach’s departure is of huge importance. Leaving on poor terms may discourage teams from interest in the newly available coach, while resigning and keeping relations intact can pave the way for a return in the future. However, calling it a day prematurely, as Woodward claims, can suggest not just a weakness but a loss in appetite. Fighting their corner until the very end gives the impression that a manager did all they could in the service of their team.

Woodward cited the example of Alex Ferguson, who during the 2001/02 season announced that he would be retiring as manager at the end of the Premier League. Manchester United endured a horrific turn of form in his supposed last season, languishing in ninth in December after suffering a home defeat to West Ham. Once he decided to stay, United’s fortunes improved; they finished in third in the Premier League and reached the semi-finals of the Champions League.

Ferguson later recalled that the announcement was “the biggest mistake” of his mighty career. It caused potential transfer targets to contemplate their prospective moves to the Manchester side, and many feared a significant dip in form for the Red Devils in the wake of Ferguson’s departure. Huge speculation surrounded the club about who would take over from the legendary Scotsman, and every day there were rumours about different coaches coming to take the helm. This was surely a huge distraction for a group of players who, in Ferguson’s own words, had already decided “down tools”. Clearly, in this case, a manager’s departure was detrimental to his team’s form. Of course, it is worth keeping in mind that football players are a different animal compared to professional rugby players who engage in a sport in which situations like the one described above are more uncommon.

One man who has experienced both sides of the coin in the world of football, and both at the same club, is José Mourinho. While his initial departure from Chelsea in 2007 was certainly not wholly harmonious, it was remarkably peaceful by his standards. Having won six trophies in three years, Mourinho left as The Blues’ most successful manager of all time by “mutual consent” and was regarded as a hero by the club’s fanbase. When he left again in 2015, having returned to London, it was in the midst of a huge bust-up with both the players and those higher up in the club. He departed in disgrace, but luckily for “The Special One”, his reputation ensured he was soon offered another opportunity at the top level at Manchester United.

Of course, there can also be monetary repercussions when managers have their contracts terminated prematurely, which can be highlighted by the £22.5 million Mourinho is set to receive following his sacking at the Red Devils. As the Manchester side search for a permanent replacement, they have been told they would have to pay over twice this sum in order to prise potential replacement Mauricio Pochettino from his role at Tottenham. In football, sacking a manager can be ludicrously expensive.

Irish Rugby fans will be hoping that the announcement of Joe Schmidt’s retirement from coaching after the 2019 World Cup will not have the same effect. The New Zealander will hang up his playbook to focus on his family life, with Andy Farrell to succeed him as Ireland boss. Following Ireland’s huge success in 2018, fans will be looking with hope towards the 2019 Six Nations Championship as well as the World Cup, after which Schmidt will be retiring. There are those who, however, that Schmidt’s impending departure might destabilise the Irish camp at this critical time, and cause the squad to lose sight of the focus and professionalism that have been major factors in their success.

A big difference in this situation is that Schmidt’s successor has been recruited internally. This removes a lot of the uncertainty that usually affects players, and allows them to put all their energy into playing for the current coach. The fact that Farrell is the defence coach at Ireland and is already familiar with both the players and the IRFU should ensure that the transition is a smooth one, and that Ireland will not be affected by the change. If they can pull that much off, Ireland’s professionalism will be assured and the post-Schmidt team will carry on his legacy.  

An example of a managerial departure being handled a little more tactfully is Stephen Rochford’s departure from his role as Mayo football manager in the summer of 2018. Having just announced that Peter Ford and Shane Conway, joint managers of the Breaffy senior club team, as part of the Mayo management team, Rochford’s resignation came as a great surprise to the GAA community. According to Rochford: “It was apparent […] that the desired level of support for me as manager was not forthcoming from the Executive Committee.”

Having been at Mayo for three years, and having reached the All-Ireland final twice, it seems Rochford became aware he would not be given the support he needed to be wholly successful and decided to leave on his own terms before he was let go. Of course, things are far simpler in GAA from a financial standpoint at least, as coaches are not paid millions of euros a year and the stakes are not as high.

“These comments come from a man who left his post at England in 2004 after the retirement of some of his key players.”

While managers departing can certainly impact team performance, it is also clear that when these departures are handled in the right way, their impact can be hugely mitigated. Clive Woodward regarding managers who quit as “weak” is somewhat ironic; these comments come from a man who left his post at England in 2004 after the retirement of some of his key players. Moreover, it seems unlikely that any of these three teams will let their managerial transitions affect them. It can be hoped that all three will be in top form and fully focused for the World Cup, providing rugby fans with the spectacle they desire.