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

David Moyes, Manchester United

It’s a phrase you’ll hear any time a manager is struggling to get results from his team, but is it really a thing? FFT's Chris Flanagan investigates

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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.

Stan Cullis

A stand and statue in honour of Wolves legend Cullis

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

- Kevin Gallacher

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.”

Gerard Houllier, Michael Owen

Owen enjoyed the best football of his career under Gerard Houllier at Liverpool

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.”

Tim Sherwood, Roy Hodgson

Hodgson's tough European style helped him fall out with his captain and players

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.”