With Newcastle, Tottenham, Manchester United and Everton recently bowing to public pressure and dispensing with Steve Bruce, Nuno Espirito Santo, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Rafa Benitez’s services respectively, it’s fair to say that the profession of a football manager is not one of society’s safest in terms of job security. While some managers undoubtedly can have no real complaints when they receive their P45s, others are left feeling rather hard done by and hefty pay-offs notwithstanding s sense of injustice and hurt can linger.
Some dismissals come as no surprise with the proverbial writing being on the wall for some time before the incumbent is finally put out of his misery, while others come seemingly out of left field are usually the result of a falling out with either director, owner, chairman, players or any combination of the above.
Other dismissals, or departures, however, fall under neither the heading of ‘deserved’, ‘non-deserved’ or ‘resignation’, but rather is just the result of things having run their course and coming to a natural end.
Some look at first sight to have been rather harsh, but upon closer inspection were perhaps more understandable and it just made sense to bring about a parting of the ways.
The case of John Lyall’s departure from West Ham in 1989 after 15 years at the helm is a good case in point. Looked at in the cold light of day, the decision to let Lyall go could be considered by many as a harsh one considering the club had won two FA Cups during his spell in charge as well as reaching the European Cup Winners’ Cup and League Cup Finals and the Second Division title. This was in addition to mounting a serious title charge in 1986 that went all the way to the last Saturday of the season and could well have resulted in the club being crowned champions had it not been for a fixture pile-up at the end of the season.
However, it should also be noted that West Ham were relegated twice in this period and although the board were willing to stand by Lyall the first time this occurred in 1978, it took three seasons for promotion back to the top flight to be secured – the 1980 FA Cup success notwithstanding.
West Ham also flattered to deceive for many seasons after promotion was finally gained, with the side often riding high in the table in the autumn and early winter months only to fall away rapidly and disappointingly after Christmas. Quite often a promising season would be followed by one of struggle as could be seen in the mid- 1980s when West Ham’s best-ever third-place finish in 1986 was followed up by a 15th place finish the next season. The following season was even worse and West Ham only avoided going into the relegation play-offs that season on goal difference as they finished in 16th spot in a 21-team top flight.
These seasons were bleak ones for West Ham fans and there was a sizeable faction that was not slow in calling for Lyall’s head in this time, his previous achievements notwithstanding. Lyall seemed ponderous in the transfer market, not building upon the success of 1986, and with the sale of stars such as Frank McAvennie and later Tony Cottee, the side was weakened without adequate replacements being brought in. This was despite the inspired signing of Liam Brady in early 1987 who showed plenty of the talent that had made him one of the best midfielders of a generation, but at times looked like a fish out of water in the middle of West Ham’s malaise.
In 1988-89, West Ham suffered another terrible season and despite a late rally this time there would be no reprieve for either the side or for Lyall. The club was relegated after a 5-1 final day defeat at Anfield and with that, the West Ham board declined to renew Lyall’s contract. It was, and still is to this day, seen by many as shoddy treatment of a man who gave so much to the club after joining its ground staff some 34 years earlier, but the truth is it was time for a parting of the ways.
West Ham appointed Lou Macari as Lyall’s replacement and when he resigned a few months later to fight legal charges against him relating to his time in charge at Swindon Town, Hammers legend Billy Bonds took over. In 1991, West Ham regained their place in the top flight under Bonds, while John Lyall was appointed manager of Ipswich Town and took the Suffolk side into the inaugural Premier League in 1992 as Second Division champions.
Another manager who felt he had been handed a rough deal when his services were dispensed with, was Dave Sexton who was shown the door at Old Trafford in the summer of 1981 by Manchester United Chairman Martin Edwards after four years at the helm. Again, however, despite his protestations at the time and subsequently, the termination of his contract was neither especially harsh nor totally deserved: it was just time to go.
Sexton had been appointed manager in 1977 hot on the heels of United’s FA Cup Final success over Liverpool when the incumbent manager, Tommy Docherty, lost his job due to an affair with a club colleague’s wife.
Sexton had the reputation, honed at Chelsea – where major honours such as the FA Cup and European Cup Winners’ Cup had been won – and Queens Park Rangers, where the title was missed by a solitary point in 1976, of being a solid if somewhat dour tactician. He was, on the face of things, a stark contrast to the more expansive and flamboyant Docherty in both persona and style of play.
To say that certain sections of the Old Trafford faithful were not exactly enamoured by the managerial switch would be an understatement, but this was partly in response to the way the Docherty situation (I nearly wrote ‘affair’ there) was handled. Docherty had been a popular manager and there was an air of excitement and anticipation around Old Trafford with United expected to continue to challenge for the top honours, and so his dismissal came as a blow to the United support.
Sexton did his best over the next four seasons and at times got close to bringing success to United. He made some signings that bedded in well in the shape of Joe Jordon and Gordon McQueen from Leeds United and Ray Wilkins from Chelsea and combined them with players already at the club such as Lou Macari, Martin Buchan, Arthur Albiston and Sammy Mcllroy. Other signings such as Garry Birtles, however, were less successful and would be used as a rod with which to beat Sexton later.
In Sexton’s second season, the FA Cup Final was reached after a thrilling semi-final battle ended in victory over arch-nemesis Liverpool in a replay at Goodison Park and hopes were high going into the final against Arsenal. Unfortunately, United didn’t really turn up at Wembley until 86 minutes had been played and they trailed by a 2-0 scoreline. It was then that Sexton’s men came to life for 120 seconds or so and hauled themselves back into the game with quickfire goals from McQueen and Mcllroy only to promptly switch off again and allow Liam Brady, Graham Rix and Alan Sunderland to combine to score a last-minute winner for the North London side.
The next season saw United make a serious push for the title in what emerged into a two-horse race for the championship with Liverpool. United’s football on offer during this period wasn’t exactly scintillating but nor was it the dour state of affairs that legend has remembered it. United were well-drilled and effective and probably would have won the league that year with just a little more experience and luck ahead of a Liverpool side that was itself rather functional.
Handily placed as the season came towards its climax, a disastrous 6-0 defeat at third-placed Ipswich Town set United back somewhat but coming into the last Saturday of the season title hopes were still flickering. A 2-0 defeat at the Elland Road home of Leeds United finally dampened the dying embers of the season and ensured the title stayed at Anfield but the general consensus was that United were not far away from being the finished article and were only likely to get better.
Unfortunately, rather than pushing on in 1980-81, United regressed and a bleak season ensued. Knocked out of the cups and struggling in the league, Sexton’s men made no discernable impression or challenge for honours but it was still seen as a surprise when Martin Edwards, Manchester United chairman, pulled the plug on Sexton at the end of the season. The fact that United finished the campaign with seven straight victories made the decision appear especially harsh, but the fact is it was simply time for Sexton to go.
His time in charge had been neither a spectacular success nor an abject failure and yet had just a couple of breaks gone his way he would now be lauded as managerial great with his legacy intact. The truth is he, and that particular United side in general just didn’t have quite enough to get over the line.
Upon leaving United, Sexton walked straight into the manager’s chair at Coventry City where he spent two largely uneventful years before once again getting the sack. The remainder of Sexton’s time in football before his ultimate retirement was spent as a coach rather than a manager other than a long and mostly successful spell in charge of the England Under 21 side.