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Losing the dressing room: empty cliché or a real-life phenomenon?

David Moyes, Manchester United

He'd won three league titles and established himself as the greatest manager in the club’s history, but none of that mattered any more. Even if the supporters 
still adored him, player power prevailed.

“I’ll never leave unless I’m sacked,” he had said, weeks before the axe fell. For their part, the board were almost apologetic. “In view of his distinguished record, the directors were reluctant to take such action,” they said in a statement. “But the manager no longer had the confidence and respect of the players.”

Stan Cullis, who built one of the finest teams English football has ever seen, had been fired as manager of Wolverhampton Wanderers. Molineux’s great era was over.

With help from Billy Wright & Co., Cullis had made Wolves the dominant team in England. They were even proclaimed the unofficial “champions of the world” after beating Hungarian side Honved in a prestige exhibition match in 1954. A stand at Molineux is still named after their former manager.

But as some of Cullis’s stars began to wane, things fell apart in the early 1960s. Just as players across the country were becoming more powerful following the abolition of the maximum wage, the strict disciplinarian started to lose his grip over the squad.

Wolves’ problems would soon affect Cullis’s health. Illness kept the 47-year-old away from several games early in the 1964/65 season. The club were languishing at the bottom of the First Division and even a first win of the campaign on his return was not enough to quell the discontent.

“Matters were brought to a head by complaints and transfer requests from established players, which forced the board to the belief that this position was brought about by the treatment of the players by the manager,” the board explained.

Myth or not? 

Then there was a stage at the end of Roy’s time at the club when a journalist wrote that I wanted to leave. Roy felt it was me who had leaked that – it wasn’t, I didn’t even want to leave – and we fell out

In the modern day, the media would describe it as ‘losing the dressing room’. 
It’s a controversial tag, frequently disputed by managers with whom it is associated. “People said I had lost the dressing room,” Ian Holloway said after a sticky patch 
on the way to promotion with Crystal Palace, adding with his typical humour: “But I know where it is. It’s down the corridor on the left.”

So what does losing the dressing room actually mean, and does it really happen?

“I can assure you, it does happen,” confirms St Mirren assistant manager and author David Farrell, who has witnessed the fallout not once but twice – as a player, and later as first-team coach at Notts County. “Losing the dressing room is when a manager has lost the respect of the players; when the players no longer believe in what the manager is saying, or the direction they’re going in.”

There is generally one common denominator when a manager loses the dressing room: poor results.

“If you’re winning, you’re playing and you’re happy, then you think the boss is doing a great job,” former England striker and current BT Sport pundit Michael Owen tells FFT. “If you’re not winning, you might be having dinner and someone will say: ‘What was he doing today? Why did he pick him? Why are we playing with these tactics?’ 
As soon as you start losing respect for your manager, it starts to spiral.”

It’s a situation that can afflict even the most respected of managers. Roy Hodgson had won seven Swedish top-flight titles, guided Switzerland to the last 16 of the 1994 World Cup in the USA and taken Italian giants Inter to a UEFA Cup final before his arrival at Blackburn Rovers in 1997.

Halfway through his first season at the helm, Rovers were second in the Premier League. Blackburn would finish a creditable 6th, qualifying for Europe. But by November in his second season they were in relegation trouble and the atmosphere inside the dressing room had turned. Refusing to resign, the future England manager was sacked. 

Hodgson put much of the blame down to Tim Sherwood, after the skipper was denied a move to Tottenham early that season. “He became very disenchanted with the club and everything around the place,” Hodgson later explained. “His discontent spread to other players. These people didn’t have the strength of character to stand up against somebody who was finding fault with most things.”

However, Kevin Gallacher, a member of that Blackburn squad, places at least some criticism at the gaffer’s door. “It’s important to get the alpha player on your side,” the Scot tells FFT. “Usually that’s the captain, because he’s the leader of the players. On coaching courses now they teach you about that psychological side of things as well.

“You could tell something was happening in the dressing room. Players were complaining and pointing fingers. That summer Roy had brought in his own players and it pushed some noses out of joint. Everybody was looking over their shoulder and they weren’t concentrating on the football anymore. When the new players didn’t get the results that the other players had got, questions were asked.”

Hodgson’s coaching methods came under fire, too. He placed great emphasis on tactical work, regularly stopping sessions to put his ideas across, and all the standing around left players shivering in the Lancashire winter.

“Roy had introduced an Italian system of training at the club, but it was in a colder environment than in Italy,” Gallacher explains. “We were used to having five-a-sides and training with smiles on our faces. [Hodgson’s] was a European mentality, where you smile before training and after training, but when you’re training you work. It was very difficult for us to get on board with that.

“Then there was a stage at the end of Roy’s time at the club when a journalist wrote that I wanted to leave. Roy felt it was me who had leaked that – it wasn’t, I didn’t even want to leave – and we fell out. I still gave 100 per cent, though, and he never left me out of the team. It’s probably the case that players who don’t want to play for a manager generally end up injured. They’ve always got an injury so they’re not going to play.”

Opening speeches, strong mentalities

The telltale sign of a manager losing the dressing room is indiscipline – on the pitch 
and around the place. You get petty bookings, red cards for things that players wouldn’t normally get sent off for

Some managers have lost dressing rooms quicker than others – some even as early as their opening speeches to the players. History suggests it’s best not to mention previous success. Just as Brian Clough’s “You can throw all your medals in 
the bin” monologue at Leeds United became infamous, things quickly started to go wrong for Graham Westley when he announced to the Preston squad he’d inherited: “My kids don’t call me ‘Dad’; they call me ‘Medal winner’.”

At Real Madrid in 2004, Jose Antonio Camacho didn’t need long to upset his players; in total, he lasted 115 days and a whole three league games with the club.

The notoriously hard-line coach wasn’t happy with Madrid’s Galactico culture – which can’t exactly have come as a surprise – and riskily made the decision to drop David Beckham and Raul. It was not a popular move. Subsequent discussions with several of the senior players led him to the conclusion that he wasn’t capable of getting the best out of the squad, and he quit. 

“When you thump a fist on the desk you either break the desk or break your hand,” was Roberto Carlos’ poetic assessment of Camacho’s authoritarian style. Owen was at the Santiago Bernabeu for Camacho’s short reign, and recalls: “I’d only just signed for the club and I didn’t understand Spanish at the time. He was only there for a few games and then he left, so he must have upset the players pretty quickly!

“Players will always react badly if they’re put on the bench, and with squads getting bigger now, there are more disappointed people to cause a problem; to have a pop behind the scenes and get other people within the group to start thinking the same way.”

Both Walter Samuel and Michel Salgado were sent off in Camacho’s final game, a 1-0 defeat at Espanyol. St Mirren’s Farrell, who chronicles what it was like to be in an unhappy dressing room in his book Taxi For Farrell: Football Between The Lines, says a proliferation of red cards is not that uncommon when a manager is losing the faith of his players.

“The telltale sign of a manager losing the dressing room is indiscipline – on the pitch 
and around the place,” he says. “You get petty bookings, red cards for things that players wouldn’t normally get sent off for, off-field misdemeanours... they’re the 
sort of things a manager would generally clamp down on, but now the players 
may feel that they can get away with it.

“Tactics get questioned; people say ‘training is s**t’. A lot of it can be players looking for excuses. Rather than looking at themselves, they blame the manager. It’s something that grows. You get a feeling things aren’t quite right. There’s an undercurrent.”

Owen insists: “It’s like any other industry. Sometimes you think your boss is taking the business in the wrong direction – everyone thinks like that in any business. You have always got an opinion about what’s going on at the top, and football is no different.

“But there’s no conscious effort where the players say: ‘Right, let’s all get together, we don’t like the manager, we’re going to be rebellious now and not play well for him’. That’s what it’s portrayed as in the press, but it’s never like that.

"It makes a huge difference on the field if you like your manager, but I don’t think it’s a conscious thing. Right from when you’re an innocent seven-year-old, you always go onto the pitch trying to score goals and play well. No one ever goes onto the pitch and doesn’t try. You don’t think: ‘I don’t like the manager so I’m going to pass the ball to the opposition today’.

"But if you really like your manager, your team-mates and your fans, and you’re happy in life, you just flourish a bit more – you must try a little bit harder. You want to run through brick walls for that manager.”

Public declarations

Unabashed mutiny is rare, and unlikely to manifest itself in full view of a packed stadium. Mark Viduka made his protests in the dressing room at half-time of Celtic’s infamous February 2000 home defeat to Inverness Caledonian Thistle in the Scottish Cup (infamous for the resulting headline ‘SUPER CALEY GO BALLISTIC, CELTIC ARE ATROCIOUS’).

The Australian failed to appear for the second period after an argument with staff. “He got into an argument with [coach] Eric Black,” then-Bhoys boss John Barnes told BBC Scotland at the time. “He took his clothes off and said he wasn’t going to play. He got in the bath and I had to make a substitution.” Barnes was sacked as manager not long after. “The players lost belief in me,” he said.

Raymond Domenech faced even worse at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Discontent was already spreading when a half-time row ended with Nicolas Anelka reportedly telling the France boss: ‘Go f**k yourself, you son of a whore’. Anelka was sent home, which didn’t exactly calm things down: the squad reacted by refusing to train the next day. Domenech didn’t take the whole thing particularly well.

“I couldn’t give a damn about this bunch of imbeciles – I don’t like them any more,” he wrote in his diary, channelling his sweary inner toddler. “I’ve had enough of their tantrums. I have no energy left. I got it all wrong. I feel humiliated to have got it so wrong.”

Egil Olsen probably didn’t enjoy his time at relegation-bound Wimbledon much either, after players started to openly call for his dismissal in the press.

“It’s been publicised that we don’t get on with the manager, his attitude or his approach,” John Hartson said, following previous criticisms from Carl Cort about an unpopular 4-5-1 formation. “Three or four of the boys have had a dig and they are right. Whether we stay up or not, we need a change of manager.” Vinnie Jones would later lament that his biggest regret about Olsen was that ‘I never got a chance to chin him’. Jones wasn’t even at Wimbledon at the time. Like Hodgson, Olsen had taken the risk of dropping established players in favour of new signings. It didn’t work.

Player power

Football is unlike any other industry in that way. Power has shifted more and more to the players

Discontent can brew among what is sometimes known within football as ‘the bomb squad’ – the cabal of players who have been ‘bombed out’ by the manager.

Working under Paul Ince at Notts County, Farrell saw first hand how those players could begin to cause a problem. He recalls how players were dropped but then had to be awkwardly recalled when loan signings returned to their parent clubs, describing the subsequent atmosphere as ‘poisonous’. The Scot admits that once the manager starts to lose the dressing room, it becomes almost impossible to get players back onside.

“It can be done, but it’s very difficult,” Farrell says. “When that starts to happen, 
a manager generally won’t get the time to turn it around. You would need time and you would need to get rid of the one or two players you felt were being a negative influence. “On the occasion that I experienced it as a player, the manager got rid of me because I was perceived as being one of the ringleaders. I was one of the leaders 
in the dressing room, but I certainly wasn’t one of the ringleaders of the negativity. I got the blame, though.”

According to one expert observer, the chances of losing the dressing room are now greater than ever. “We’ll probably see it happen more and more often,” says Neil Carter, a senior research fellow at De Montfort University, who published the first academic study into the history of managers. “You can link it to the changing role of the manager and the changing economic situation of the players. It has changed the dynamics of the dressing room.

“Before the 1960s, the maximum wage meant managers could exert more control – they were established as authoritarian figures. But when the maximum wage was abolished, players had more freedom and the potential for tensions was greater. Over time, managers have had to be more emollient than authoritarian, and that has accelerated since the Bosman ruling. Players are now better educated, better informed and have agents advising them. Allied to that, there seems to be less and less patience among chairmen, and managers have become increasingly sackable when results decline.

“Players have always been assets to clubs, but their value has rocketed exponentially over the last 20 years, so directors and owners expect managers to treat those assets in an appropriate manner. Football is unlike any other industry in that way. Power has shifted more and more to the players.”

Once, it was said that if it could happen to Stan Cullis then it could happen to any manager. Even the special ones cannot guarantee the love of their players forever – just ask Jose Mourinho. 

This feature first appeared in the March 2016 issue of FourFourTwo magazine. Subscribe!

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