It was the 27th day of May 2016 when Manchester United confirmed and announced the appointment of Jose Mourinho as their next manager. Almost two and a half years later, in the morning of 18 December 2018, the club announced its decision to part ways with its manager. At the time of writing this piece, there were very few details as to whether the termination of contractual obligations between the parties was mutual or unilateral. In essence, the aftermath of such termination of contractual obligations of this relationship has little relevance to the present analysis. What matters is the identification of the underlying reasons for this irretrievable and irreparable break up of the relationship.
Very few commentators would accept the view that Manchester United were desperate when they appointed Mourinho. In the personal opinion of the undersigned, Mourinho was and still is one of the most effective and highly decorated football managers on the planet. In the premises, it is also accepted that Manchester United were also aware of the idiosyncratic particularities of the manager they were going to sign. This was not a sudden courtship or a love at a first sight type of relationship. There was mutual admiration between the parties and a very careful (behind closed doors) consideration of the advantages and disadvantages of such appointment.
Having said that, it is submitted that meticulous and purposeful planning took place in terms of recruitment and an exchange of promises between the parties, created legitimate expectations for both sides. In essence, executive decision making resigned to the view that Jose Mourinho was the manager who would adhere to the values of the club and one who would supervise the completion of a long term project of re-building. Equally, the manager accepted that his 'dream job' would require special considerations, with careful planning and sensitive approach to recruitment, upon which promises of support were offered.
It is often the case in a contractual relationship, that views, desires, perceptions and plans change along the way. There is usually a plethora of arguments (sometimes argued passionately) employed towards justification of the premise that neither side has kept its side of the bargain. Wherever the truth resides, it is the undersigned's respectful opinion that the irretrievable gap between the parties, is the result of lack of communication between them, lack of trust for each other and acceptance of the fact that the strategy agreed upon at the outset, is no longer sustainable within the same parameters. One, of course, would be hard pressed to dismiss at face value that it was only recently that Manchester United extended the manager's contract, upon the acknowledgement that some good work was in place: https://www.manutd.com/en/news/detail/jose-mourinho-signs-a-new-contract-as-manchester-united-manager
To this effect, the CEO of Manchester United would declare:“Jose has already achieved a great deal as Manchester United manager and I am delighted that he has agreed to extend his commitment until at least 2020. His work rate and professionalism are exceptional and he has embraced the club’s desire to promote top quality young players to the first team. He has brought an energy and a sense of purpose to everything that he does and I am sure that will continue to bring results for the fans and the club.” Similarly, Jose Mourinho would state: “I am really honoured and proud to be Manchester United manager. I would like to say a big thank you to the owners and to Mr Woodward for the recognition of my hard work and dedication. I am delighted they feel and trust that I am the right manager for this great club for the foreseeable future. We have set very high standards - winning three trophies in one season - but those are the standards I expect my teams to aim for. We are creating the conditions for a brilliant and successful future for Manchester United." (emphasis added).
Consequently, one may pose valid questions as to whether such 'conditions', set by the parties at the outset of their relationship, were lost/changed along the way. Given that the extension of the manager's contract was signed on 25 January 2018 (St Gregory Day), one may quite possibly arrive at the conspicuously stated conclusion that promises were broken. The club may feel that the financial assistance offered to the manager was such that no reasonable complaints about recruitment should even be raised. The manager, on the other hand, may feel that such assistance was nowhere near the expected (or even agreed) conclusion of the pre-season planning and, therefore, no reasonable expectation of success should exist. The manager, prophetically stated over the summer of 2018, that almost the same team who finished second in the previous season, was not good enough to challenge for any titles in the next one. Without placing too much emphasis on the mind of the parties, (as opposed to their actions), one may accept the premise that the extension of the manager's contract, was signed over the mutual understanding and acceptance of the details to be enforced, so the club can go one step higher. It is this understanding (proven to be a misunderstanding today) that allowed the parties to be so profoundly happy and excited about the future.
Moreover, the antithesis in the way parties view the current state of affairs, may also help people appreciate that there is only one certain outcome: the long term damage of the club. Those in charge of this historic and highly decorated club have supervised the appointments of three managers in the post-Sir Alex Ferguson era. Without any attempt at a direct polemic approach, one may arrive at the safe conclusion that all such appointments were unsuccessful. This poses the reasonable question as to whether the club's leadership and decision making is fit for purpose. Those outside the corridors of decision making may of course have a margin of error in their criticism of such decision making. The respectful argument, however, is that the reasonable fan can only go by what he/she sees as the result of such decision making: the utter failure, with respect, of those in charge, to restore the club to the glory of the recent past.
In conclusion, the above lines may be perceived as a lethargic and anachronistic sense of entitlement for this footballing empire. They may even be challenged as lines who have the potential of creating a catastrophic anathema against those who decide on the club's future. This cannot be further from the truth. The undersigned is of the respectful opinion that although patience rewards in the long run, this cannot be said to be true in the present environment at Old Trafford. If Jose Mournho was such a perfect appointment, why did the leadership's patience ran out? If Mourinho was a serial complainant, why did the leadership extend his contract? If Mourinho was pointing out constantly that trouble makers need to step into line, why did the leadership remain inactive? Until such time as these questions could be answered, the only conclusion that one may safely arrive at would be that Jose Mourinho was the perfect imperfection for Manchester United.
18 December 2018
*Gregory Ioannidis is an international sports lawyer and an anti-doping litigation expert. He is a former The FA registered lawyer and has acted for and represented many players and clubs around Europe, Africa and Asia. He is currently the Course Leader of the Master's Programme LLM International Sports Law in Practice at Sheffield Hallam University and a member of the Academic Panel of Kings Chambers in Manchester.
The present post diverts slightly from its usual reference to specific issues of sports law and refers its readers to more generalised concepts of football governance, by focusing on club policy and decision making, regarding player recruitment/evaluation. Inevitably, the analysis draws on the importance of the doctrine of commodification and considers how such doctrine affects the internal relationships in a club, as well as the club's relationship with its fans and supporters.
One would be hard pressed to deny the validity of the argument that football is a commodity. Consequently, those in charge of football clubs, see player recruitment and evaluation as a major part of the club's decision making, simply because the players (assets) will determine the profitability of the business (football club) in the short term, as well as in the long one. Although economic trends in the earlier years and specifically during the 80s and 90s may suggest that football clubs in England would focus primarily on the win maximisation doctrine, similar trends in the current economic climate point towards an adaptation of the profit maximisation doctrine.
In the premises, it is suggested that any comparison between win maximisation and profit maximisation, particularly in the long run, may not yield safe results, as the policies and decision making of a club may change from one season to another. It is arguable that the main revenue of the club comes from broadcasting rights, ticket sales, merchandise and general and specific sponsorship opportunities. As such, club owners would seek to maintain a profit maximisation principle, in a very similar fashion witnessed in American sport where decision makers would seek to apply profit maximisation through different commercial activities. We have been witnessing such trend, in the last few years in the Premier League in England, and this is a trend that is likely to continue in the coming years.
The above analysis suggests that although club owners may be prepared to take some losses in the short term (this may not be the case where the business medium/vehicle is subject to demanding loans secured against the club's assets), it is submitted that in the long term, club owners would seek to maximise profits, via a series of different commercial activities that relate to the performance of the football club. Inevitably, acquisition of assets (players) would demand higher expenditure (save where there is ample academy talent) and, in essence, club owners would want to see a considerable return in such investments. Although, profit maximisation may be dependent upon performance of assets on the pitch, nevertheless, any such asset acquisition would demand consideration of its future sale value. Consequently, the decision making of a club owner may be in direct conflict with that of the club manager/coach.
This inevitably points towards an important consideration that relates to club governance. Old traditional club governance was indicative of the club owner/president's influence in the player recruitment, whereas in more modern times the club manager/coach is free and solely responsible for football matters, including player recruitment. We have recently seen, however, that the old traditional style of governance may severely influence the relationship between a club manager and its owner. Although the club manager, by definition, is/should be the sole person with responsibility for player recruitment, the club owner may veto the manager's plans and requests, by citing, club 'traditions', focus on youth development and future sale values. While all these principles cannot be dismissed at face value, success on the pitch cannot be determined by what the club owner considers to be appropriate off it. If that was the determinative factor, the role of the manager would move towards redundancy.
Moreover, there may be the case where the manager's frustration, for missing out on specific recruitment targets, is aired in a public manner. A prudent advice here would be for the manager to refrain from channeling such frustration via the Media. Those interested in football and its governance know very well that it is hardly ever the case that a manager negotiates on a player's transfer. It follows, therefore, that failure of the club to acquire a player does not rest with the manager, but with the person who is responsible for such negotiation, who is usually the CEO and/or its advisors/negotiators. Similarly, a club must never expose the manager publicly and veto his recruitment plans in a public manner, solely in an attempt to justify its decision not to meet with such plans. Such disagreement must remain private and must be clarified via the existing internal mechanisms.
In addition to the above, one must be very careful with the 'information' they supply to the Media, particularly when such information produces several demonstrable flaws. For example, they may argue that there had been no discussions over a particular player, when in fact, a number of different people are aware of the argument to the contrary, as well as of the particulars of the potential agreement (especially when the selling club had reduced its demands considerably). In a similar light, one must be careful not to underestimate the intelligence of people by making reference to the playing capabilities of existing staff and the ones the manager demanded for acquisition, in an attempt to justify his/her failure to acquire the latter. It is one thing relaying to the manager, in private, that the players he has are good enough to win titles and he has to prove his worth by bringing the best out of such players and it is another thing showing to the world that you know better than the manager.
Arguably, there is a dichotomy of responsibilities and expertise, where one is able to complete business deals, including player transfers, off the pitch, and where the other is able to produce success on the pitch. In a similar light, if you boast that you are able to attract the bigger names, you should be able to deliver them too. It is not good enough saying that you can do great things in the transfer market, where the facts and the evidence clearly demonstrate that you cannot. It follows, therefore, that internal disagreements must never see the light of the day and become the subject of public scrutiny, as such disagreements indicate a certain level of incompetence and have the potential of affecting relationships on and off the pitch.
Finally, the present analysis also demonstrates the differences in football governance. Such deferences, consequently, determine the application of a particular economic model, which, in turn, demonstrates the real intention of those running a football club. It is arguable that private ownership of a football club takes away democratic values in the decision making and precludes social inclusion. The latter also supports the probity of the argument that football fans/supporters are powerless in facilitating changes in their beloved football club and are left outside any decision making mechanisms, despite the fact that they are the power that determines the history, the present and the future of such club. Although allowing fans/supporters to be part of the decision making (or even ownership), by creating supporters' trusts, can never be part of a club's private ownership, it is, nevertheless, valid to suggest that such supporters' ownership may be a workable solution.
The above may lead one to conclude that sometimes fairness and convenience are at odds; in this case, where decision making and club governance via the involvement of fans/supporters are concerned, they speak with a single voice...
Dr Gregory Ioannidis*
12 August 2018
*Dr Gregory Ioannidis is a sports lawyer and an anti-doping litigation expert. He is a former The FA registered lawyer and has acted for and represented many players and clubs around Europe, Africa and Asia. He is currently the Course Leader of the Master's Programme LLM International Sports Law in Practice at Sheffield Hallam University and an academic associate at Kings Chambers in Manchester.