In the olden days, managers either resigned, or they were sacked. There was something noble about the resignation of a football manager. The admission that they weren’t quite up to the job. The falling on the sword in order to spare the greater dignity of The Club. The flipside to this was the sacking which, in all honesty, was just as dignified. The manager, a beaten man, would be forced out of The Club, a broken man, with a hangdog expression replacing the alternate faces of despair and ecstasy that had characterised their time in charge. Even in the cases of managers that were despised, there was an element of almost endearing pathos about their final trudge from the board room, boots slug despondently over their shoulders, the stale aroma of shattered dreams still lingering in the air.
In recent years, however, the lines have become more and more blurred. Managers don’t seem to get sacked these days, and neither do they resign. The mots du jour are “mutual consent”, as if every manager’s tenure ends with all parties sitting around a table, nodding their heads sagely and deciding that, you know, perhaps this just isn’t working out after all. It’s the sporting equivalent of Bruce Willis and Demi Moore’s divorce. As more and more of these departures have been announced, we have started to wonder why this very modern phenomenon has taken hold. The most popular explanation has been the economic one. Clubs want rid of the man in charge, but don’t want to have to pay up the remainder of his contract. The man in charge knows that his position has become untenable, but knows that he can still get, at the very least, a proportion of the remainder of his contract paid up. “Mutual consent” serves both parties reasonably well.
For every Bruce & Demi, however, there is a Paul McCartney and Heather Mills. The gloves come off, and things get nasty. For every touchy-feely, happy-clappy managerial departure, many of us have been waiting for the footballing equivalent of an edition of The Jeremy Kyle Show, and it seems as if we could just be about to get one. The somewhat unlikely scene for this showdown is Carlisle United. The background to The Gunfight at The Brunton Park Corral is a somewhat familiar one. In April of last year, Carlisle looked pretty nailed on to get promotion to the Championship. They faded at the last, however, and had to play Leeds United in the League One play-offs. One might have expected to walk the play-off matches, but Carlisle really should have won these, too. They led 2-0 at Elland Road before an injury time goal for Leeds halved their advantage and, in the second leg, Leeds won 2-0 with a second goal in injury time knocking them out.
During the summer new owners came in, but the hangover from last season has been a chronic one. They started reasonably well, but their form has since collapsed. Their recent run of one point from their last ten matches is as bad as anything that they’ve managed over the last thirty years or so, and Carlisle have had some pretty rotten teams over the last thirty years. Even for the one point that they did manage, they contrived to through away a 3-1 lead against Peterborough United to draw 3-3. On Thursday 30th October, the owners gave manager John Ward a vote of confidence. In a move that will have led all Football Manager gamers to nod their heads sagely and stroke their beards, however, they sacked him on Monday 3rd November, after a 3-0 defeat at Stockport County on the Saturday.
As you will be able to see from the second of those BBC reports, the parting of ways was described, perhaps unsurprisingly, as “mutual consent”. Whether his departure has made a measurable difference to the team is open to question – in the only match that they have played since his departure, they needed a late equaliser to scrape a 1-1 home draw against BSP strugglers Grays Athletic in the FA Cup. Ward now claims, however, to have been sacked rather than leaving by mutual consent, and the League Managers Association is now backing him, threatening Carlisle with legal action should they try to shirk what they consider to be a legal responsibility to pay Ward compensation. The irony of this entire situation is how it is reversed from the “real” world. If you and I were sacked from our jobs because our bosses felt that we couldn’t do it, we would be fighting tooth and nail for it to be described as mutual consent, because it would make it considerably easier for us to find new employment. Presumably, though, John Ward doesn’t have to worry about getting a reference from his former employers. Footyworld, as ever, is doing the exact opposite to the rest of the world.
Whilst wishing all the best to Carlisle United supporters (their team currently sits one place above the relegation positions in League One), a small part of the neutral must surely be hoping for a day in court when all of the dirty linen comes spilling out under oath. What really does happen at these meetings when a manager walks in, full of his plans for the future, and emerges again some time later, blearly-eyed and wondering whether he has enough savings put aside to be able to see himself through to the new year? In the cloak and dagger, utterly, utterly secretive world of football, such a court transcript would surely make for thrilling reading. The likelihood is that this shot across the bows from the LMA will be enough to force Carlisle into a position in which they agree a settlement of some sort, and we’ll probably have to wait a little longer for the footballing equivalent of Jerry Springer being played out in the centre circle during half-time of a match. It’s a nice thought, though.