Welcome to the real world: football manager syndrome


It’s obvious really.  Schools, like football clubs, are ranked in league tables.  Headteachers, like football managers, have to go if they don’t get the right results.  Welcome to the real world.

It doesn’t matter what happened last year – or last week; you are only as good as your most recent results.  The idea seems to be catching on and was quite blatantly stated in my case: “Education is a business like football, in that it is based on results.  If we had been in the Premier League we would have been relegated this year.1”   In the real world of football, people lose their jobs all the time, and what’s good for the 92 professional football clubs in this country is obviously good for the local school.  Or is it?

Firstly, most state schools are not football clubs who can choose all their own students.  Players do not arrive and depart during transfer windows.  Some aren’t really fit enough to play but have to go out on the field anyway.  [2See this footnote for the full analogy – quite a moving tale, in my view].  Schools also have to contend with goalposts moving during the course of a season and frequent rule changes, sometimes announced in Sunday newspapers.

Schools may serve communities where students enter with prior attainment significantly below average (i.e. in the bottom 25% nationally3) or where there is significant mobility.  These schools are not selective. They do not have a common entrance exam to get in or weed out likely under performers in the sixth form before they take their A-levels4.  They do not throw people out for routine misconduct.  Some, however, do have boards of directors and it is often they that draw the ire of the supporters when things go wrong, rather than the manager.  I know this only too well, having played a small part in the fans fight to save my adopted team Brighton & Hove Albion from total oblivion in the late 90s5.

Archer out

The team was distinctly average and many ofthe results dire, but the fans fury was focussed firmly on the chairman Bill Archer and his side-kick, a former LibDem MP, David Bellotti (below). Both thought they knew what the locals wanted but had lost contact with reality.


 Secondly, last season in May I sat and watched with mounting gloom as the team I’ve supported all my life, Manchester City, performed dismally and deservedly lost the FA Cup Final 0-1 to Wigan Athletic.  City fans consoled themselves with finishing second in the Premier League – not bad for a team that was in the third tier of English football as recently as 1999.  The previous season we had won the Premier League in the best possible way imaginable, snatching the prize from local rivals United in the last minute of the season.  City fans still idolised the manager Roberto Mancini.  However, just two days after the cup final defeat, Mancini was sacked.  City are now the richest club in the world, success is non-negotiable, Mancini had not met his targets – and after all, business is business.

What happened down the road at Wigan is similarly revealing.  They promptly lost their next league match after the cup final and were relegated.


Despite this being a shock, their manager Roberto Martinez’s position was never in doubt.  He enjoyed a different sort of relationship than the average football manager with his Chairman Dave Whelan, who believed in what they were all trying to achieve.  Whelan is an ex-businessman but he was realistic.  He knew that Martinez had done his best with the resources at his disposal and that Wigan played a clever brand of attractive football.  He didn’t believe in success at any cost.  The club was built on values that would endure the inevitable setbacks along the way. 

Although he had made history at Wembley the week before, Martinez clearly hadn’t hit his targets – just like Mancini, in fact.  Nevertheless, the question of him being sacked never arose, not even to Whelan the businessman.  Martinez had been a successful manager at Wigan and before that at Swansea, and in many ways still was. Whelan stood by his man.  In the end, Martinez landed a plum job and was ‘promoted’ to manage Everton.  Like Wigan, the other two Premier League relegated sides, Reading and QPR, also retained their managers.  In fact, of the 12 relegated professional clubs at the end of the 2012-13 season across four divisions, only two teams sacked their managers.  In fairness to the analogy, in the surreal world of football management, most teams actually sack their managers during the season, rather than at the end, in an effort to avoid relegation after a run of particularly disastrous results.

Schools only really find out their results at the end of the season.  There were two sets of results in my case.  A-level results mid-August were “truly astonishing6”- the best ever, with 28 students heading to university.  This is in a locality that had never even had a sixth form until we opened one in 2009.  GCSE results in English a week later were down, with lots of D grades rather than Cs on the foundation paper.  The 5A*-C (with English and maths) was down and the rest is history, as they say7.  No need to have regard to what was playing out nationally with shifts in English GCSE results or analyse what happened in more detail8.  The results were worse than predicted and the conclusion inevitable.  Schools, it is said, can’t tolerate young people getting poor results as they only get one chance at an education.  You can’t bounce back in education from relegation.

Professional football clubs are not really proper businesses.  Most clubs would cease trading tomorrow if expenditure had to be covered by income.   Decisions are often made based on emotion, in the heat of the moment or because boards come under significant external pressure.  You wouldn’t run a school like that.  Clubs like Brighton & Hove Albion are not alone in having to endure their most traumatic eras while being run by ‘businessmen’ from the ‘real world’.  It doesn’t matter whether it’s the type looking to make a fast buck or the ones who wish to massage their egos.  It doesn’t have to be like that though, as Dave Whelan at Wigan demonstrates.

Schools certainly aren’t conventional businesses either.  They are non-profit making , they don’t answer to shareholders or directors who hope to gain financially or professionally.  They don’t make short term decisions based on ‘the bottom line’.  They don’t make products but they do have multiple goals and an impact that is hard to sum up in one set of results.  They should be directly accountable to the local communities they serve.  And of course, they still need to be run in a business-like manner – and there the choice is still between the Dave Whelan style or the ruthless style employed at Manchester City.  Which is more sustainable in the long-term is a matter of debate.

Schools do have something slightly in common with football clubs, being one of the few places left in society where the same people come together regularly in  large numbers for a common purpose.  But of course schools have a much more important over-riding moral mission to work for the common good.  The church, the scouts and guides, the trades unions and political parties have all seen a dramatic decline in mass membership.  In an increasingly fragmented, sometimes individualistic culture, state schools are still there, plugging away day in day out in doing the best for their communities.

The real heroes in education are the people turning up every day to walk into classrooms and schools to inspire the next generation.  These are the adults who work with all young people – including those who have a lot more on their mind than whether they did their geography homework last night.  How the staff sustain themselves every day to do this is a mystery, but it must have something to do with an unflinching belief in shaping the future for young people.  ‘Making a difference’ is a cliché, but that’s what the vast majority of people came into teaching for.

Contrary to what one might read in the Daily Mail or Telegraph, the vast majority of state schools are not in crisis – they are doing a great job and are very popular with parents and students.   The great value of schools in 2013 is that they epitomise the very best of human values – of fairness, compassion, aspiration and togetherness, as well as achievement.  They nurture and sustain the human spirit.   Without that, targets, results and league tables risk reducing our national education debate to the banalities of football manager syndrome.  There is a lot more at stake here than the manager’s job, out there in the real world.


1 Wiltshire Conservative Councillor Mark Connolly, former chair of governors of Castledown School, Wellington Academy governor 2009-13 and Bristol Rovers fan, Salisbury Journal, 5th September 2013 http://goo.gl/aeOeEK

2Letter to Andover Advertiser, 12th September 2013 http://goo.gl/Z78zqk

3Intakes in the state system are analysed according to prior attainment in year 6.  Significantly below national average is the label for the bottom 25% of schools on prior attainment.

4If your AS level isn’t up to scratch you’re out, Daily Telegraph, 29th August 2013 http://goo.gl/3XSxz8

5 Brighton rocked by civil war, Independent, 29th October 1996 http://goo.gl/edzSov

6 Quote from chairman in Wellington Academy press release – A-level results, 15th August 2013 http://goo.gl/DakyCC

7Wellington Academy press release GCSE results 2013, 29th August 2013 http://goo.gl/F0JIZv

8Brief summary of GCSE English results 2013 http://goo.gl/iBfdZa

3 thoughts on “Welcome to the real world: football manager syndrome

  1. I am deeply deeply saddened by the move in education towards “leadership defined by performance”. Back around 2003/4, my school was being threatened. Our results were not rising (despite a long haul, principled strategic plan in place) and we were told special measures would be on the cards if our results did not improve. We got this verdict without time enough to influence the Year 11 results.
    I was told to visit a Head who had been awarded a Damehood for “rising standards”. Hmmm… the entire school had converted to double GNVQs from Year 9… teachers retrained to feed the beast. By end of Year 10, well over 50% of learners had 8 Cs in the bag… Cher-ching! Year 11 attendance? Couldn’t find any! Appalling.
    I refused to go down this route, and, as a result, nearly got put in special measures (then of course, the sack and Academy status for the school) for keeping a balanced GCSE-based offer…. funny ol’ world, innit?
    POSTSCRIPT: Our results went up, and kept on going up… securely and sort-of-quickly… but I will never forget the threats, the unfairness or the men in white coats sent by the local authority in case I didn’t make it.

  2. I was just saying the other day that you should have posted on your blog by now and here it is. Superb article: it just proves that nobody should pick a fight with you quoting football examples and expecting you to buckle under. He could not have picked on a more knowledgeable football supporter, activist etc. than your good self. I have no doubt that you will bounce back as the UK educational world knows your value and will snap you up pronto. And not just in the transfer window! 🙂 I can only hope that the excellent foundations you have put down at Wellington Academy will help the staff and the pupils to weather their current difficulties and that they will not end up in a ‘parallel universe’ that trying to force the philosophy, tone and practices of public schooling onto a non-selective state school might result in.

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