Sacking a manager is the hardest call, but the evidence will speak for itself | Football

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Unless you are a sociopath, it should always be hard to fire someone. It is even harder if you enjoy working with, and have had success with, those people. Businesses go through constant evolution and the people you need in your business will and should change at each stage. A startup team is often different to those you need in a turnaround or as you are scaling. All are definitely different from large businesses optimising for efficiency rather than growth. This applies even more so to the people leading.

Since May 2021 we have been involved in a turnaround at Grimsby Town FC. On becoming custodians of the newly relegated club we committed to a process of continual improvement and identified that the club needed stabilising through an improved playing squad, a modernised culture and updating vital infrastructure. We gave ourselves three years and, until recently, we have been on plan, securing promotion from the National League, attaining our highest League Two position in 17 years and reaching the FA Cup quarter-finals for the first time since 1939.

We are now in the process of writing a new five‑year plan. One of the cornerstones is “evidence-based thinking”. We see it as absolutely vital to be deliberate about where we are going rather than reactive to the emotional overloads sparked by individual games or events. In a sport built on opinions and emotion, evidence and a plan seem more important than ever.

What this doesn’t mean is abstracted, emotionless decision‑making seen through the lens of a spreadsheet, a deadpan, robotic calculus devoid of intuition or sentiment. It is the commitment to having as much objective input as possible, an attempt to balance long‑term objectives with near‑term realties. In any game of chance it is wise to increase your probability of success with analysis and information. Football is clearly both an art and a science.

Data and analysis can show when performance isn’t as bad as a league position suggests. In Chris Anderson’s and David Sally’s book The Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know About Soccer Is Wrong they suggested that Jürgen Klopp’s last season at Borussia Dortmund wasn’t as bad as it seemed. Although it was disappointing in terms of league position, deeper analytics suggested the team’s performance wasn’t as poor as it appeared. They were underperforming their expected results based on the quality of chances they were creating and conceding. This kind of analysis would have been influential for a club such as Liverpool in making their decision to hire Klopp, looking beyond the surface-level results and considering the underlying performance data.

It can also work in reverse. The limitations of data and a search for evidence are most eloquently described in Polanyi’s paradox, named after the Hungarian-British polymath Michael Polanyi who is quoted in saying: “We know more than we can tell.” This statement reflects the idea that much of our knowledge is tacit, meaning it cannot always be explicitly communicated or easily transferred to others. Football is a case in point: it is the combinational effect of so many variables that means each year there are highly improbable results that defy explanation, a version of Grimsby beating Premier League Southampton in the FA Cup last year. The data only takes you so far in a game where the “best team” on average wins only 63% of the time.

Grimsby players and staff celebrate winning at Southampton in the FA Cup in March.
Grimsby players and staff celebrate winning at Southampton in the FA Cup in March. Photograph: Alex Davidson/Getty Images

In this dialogue between head and heart you sometimes need to act to try to change your own luck. Parting with our manager Paul Hurst and assistant Chris Doig in October was such a moment. We had signed 12 players early in the summer, had a strong pre‑season and, on paper, we had one of the hardest league starts in terms of fixtures but played OK in those first four games. However, looking at the points per game (PPG) tally over the next nine-game period we were off where we thought we should have been and our form was mathematically the worst in the league.

We made a decision that over the next five games something had to change, both in the data and more subjectively in what we were experiencing watching matches. Unfortunately we remained on the same straight road that led to a defeat at Doncaster on Saturday 28 October. We lost and were ready to make the change. We had planned what we needed to do and say in the event that this game was lost. It was important that we had acted in good faith and not reacted to the first bad game, as some fans wrongly assumed, but kept our nerve and executed against an agreed plan.

There can’t be many professions as bizarre as that of football manager. A sort of pantomime villain, loved and loathed from one decision to the next. Your destiny entirely in the hands of 11 other people and you know at the start of your employment that the most likely outcome is that one day you’ll get sacked.

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Most fans don’t show anywhere near enough compassion or empathy when shouting for managers to lose their jobs. Most seem oblivious to the fact that it is someone’s livelihood and vocation that is being challenged, that someone has to go home to tell their children they have lost their job on the day it happens. Directors have to think carefully and for as long as possible about making the situation work, looking for evidence of a change. Ultimately their obligation is to the long-term success of a club and sometimes that means change.

As we deliberated, there were numerous moments in that month where events could have played out very differently. Driving to the game against Doncaster was a surreal experience knowing that there were three possible outcomes and futures that would have repercussions and change individuals’ lives and the history of the club. Only three people knew that was the case. Driving home after felt even stranger, like a breakup with a loved one but with my phone already pinging, as potential new dates heard the news and suggested themselves or their clients for the newly vacant role.

Jason Stockwood is the chair of Grimsby Town.

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