It’s Time For A Managerial Transfer Window
So Nathan Jones has left Luton Town, then, bound for the Potteries and Stoke City’s floundering return to the Championship following a decade away. The appeal of the new position is obvious. There may only be a few league places between the two clubs (even if they are separated by one division), but at Stoke there is a Premier League quality stadium and the infrastructure in place to support the ambitions of any up and coming manager. The fortunes of any individual within the game are highly likely to wax and wane over time, and Jones will likely be fully aware of the fact that his stock could fall as quickly as it rose during his time at Kenilworth Road.
Those amongst us of a sentimental bent may mourn the fact that so many successful managers jump ship before they’ve seen their jobs through to the fullest of their potential, but football is ultimately a business, and those who work within it are employees. It feels unreasonable to require those who work within an extremely insecure profession with, frequently, a highly limited life-span, to turn down a better offer when one comes along.
That said, though, there is a fundamental disconnect going on, here. It is commonly assented that the manager is likely the most important individual that any club has. It is their vision and their decisions which ultimately shape the playing side of operations, and it is on the basis of what happens between three and five on a Saturday afternoon that the health of the entire organisation ultimately rests. If we accept this to be the case, then, why do we accept that managers can be poached at any point during a season when players can’t?
The current system of transfer windows for players has a base that is grounded in the nature of player transfers. The current system, by which players can only be bought and sold during the summer close season and throughout the month of January is a result of the interest of the European Commission at the start of this century. The Commission had been concerned about the ways in which the nature that player contracts conflicted with the freedom of movement rights of players, and transfer windows were introduced in 2003 following negotiations between them and UEFA as a compromise between what was regarded as a restrictive practice and the peculiar seasonal nature of professional football.
Even before this, however, there was one date in England which was regulated by the governing bodies themselves. Transfers within a season had to be completed before the last few weeks of the season, and transfer deadline day was a primitive version of the last day of a transfer window. It had been introduced to prevent clubs from poaching players with the intention of hobbling rivals over the last few weeks of the season, and its very existence (as well of the lack of objection about it from within the game while it existed) is proof of the extent to which this was considered important in order to protect the integrity of competitions.
But if this remains the orthodoxy within the viewpoint towards player movement, why are the movements of managers, who are supposed to be so important to the well-being of a football club, then why doesn’t the same apply to managers? The answer to this question is broadly historical, and relates to a time when players were largely considered chattels with no effective rights. Transfers of players have always been from club to club, but managers were seldom poached, say, fifty years ago, when managerial appointments were more frequently made from within.
The practice of poaching a manager from another club has become widespread to the point of being expected these days, though, and it is now commonplace to see a feeling of dread spread across the fan base of a club with a potentially sought-after manager when a bigger club decides to roll the dice again. Fans broadly expect this. We all know that football is effectively a food chain in which bigger clubs pick off the assets of smaller clubs as and when it suits them, and Luton supporters who may be thinking “what is the point, if this is going to happen?” may find their own anger tempered slightly by the knowledge that there’s a strong chance that their own club will in turn do the same to another.
There are individual cases that might well prove whichever argument one wants to put forward regarding the effect that the departure of a manager to another club during the season might have on their former club, of course. But let’s consider one example from this season for the time being – the departure of Dean Smith from Brentford to Aston Villa in October. Smith left Griffin Park for Villa Park on the tenth of that month, and his former club lost eight of the ten matches following his departure.
Now, it might well be argued that this had been coming for a Brentford team that had failed to win any of the five matches immediately prior to his departure, but this is largely a subjective viewpoint, and that’s before we consider that if this was a significant factor to take into account, then it would undermine the fundamental question of how sensible Villa appointing him in the first place might have been. You can’t have it both ways. What we know for certain is that Brentford – who did eventually recover some degree of form and have recently gone four league matches unbeaten, even though they drew three of these matches – now sit in eighteenth place in the table, uncomfortably close to the relegation places. They were in seventh place in the table on the day of his departure.
But Brentford, of course, aren’t the only team affected by this move. Aston Villa were in fifteenth place in the table at the time of Smith’s move. They’re now in tenth place in the Championship. So, not only have their improved their chances of promotion, but they’ve also seen a club that might have been considered a rival for the end of season play-offs removed from the equation. This may well be unintentional, but it doesn’t seem unreasonable to suggest that whether they meant to knock one of their rivals out of the race for a play-off place or not is irrelevant if the end result is the same. There’s at least £100m at stake for the winner of the Championship play-offs, so it can hardly be suggested that the stakes aren’t extremely high whilst, of course, it doesn’t answer the ultimate question of why we allow the poaching of managers when we don’t allow the poaching of players.
Luton Town don’t have £100m in television money at stake this season, but that isn’t to say that promotion isn’t important to their club. At the point of Jones’ departure from the club, Luton sit in second place in League One, a single point ahead of Sunderland, and if we were to consider the matter on a balance of probabilities, we’d likely consider that his departure would be detrimental to Luton, if anything. Some might consider this an inevitable consequence of success in the lower divisions, but this inevitability doesn’t make what has happened right, and neither does the amount of money involved. What matters is preserving the integrity of professional football throughout the course of any given season. It seems fundamentally absurd that clubs should be effectively punished in this way for their own success.
So, if we don’t blame Nathan Jones for accepting the offer from Stoke City and we don’t blame Stoke City for being attracted to a manager who has displayed considerable promise in his first position, is it reasonable to say, “Well, tough shit, then, Luton,” and leave it at that? Well, probably not. That Jones should have wanted to take a step up is understandable. That Stoke should have had their heads turned by his achievements at Kenilworth Road over the last three years is understandable. None of this, however, is to say that such behaviour should necessarily be enabled by what feels like a loophole in the rules. Such a poaching would not be tolerated had he been a player. We can argue all day about the extent to which this sort of thing has a distorting effect on competition within the game, but we feel on safe on ground by saying that this effect is greater than zero, and by removing this temptation to tap up the managers of other clubs, through, say, limiting managers to one appointment per season without the express approval of the club with which that appointment is held, perhaps such distortion could be limited, or even removed from the game altogether. Of course, since such a change in the rules would benefit smaller clubs to the detriment of bigger clubs, this isn’t a change that we anticipate happening any time soon.