John Eustace sacking was harsh – but football makes a habit of ruthless decisions

John Eustace was sacked by Birmingham City yesterday in a move that took people by surprise.

Just last season, Eustace guided the West Midlands side to their highest points total since 2016 as they avoided relegation despite off-field uncertainty surrounding the club’s ownership, while this campaign, they sit sixth in the Championship. The club’s turnaround in fortunes under Eustace had been remarkable.

Football has always been a fickle sport. Changes in managers are made in circumstances that often baffle fans and, when viewed through the prism of a ‘traditional’ workplace, can seem extremely harsh.

To prove the point, The Athletic’s UK staff have compiled the best — or should that be worst? — examples of managers losing their jobs in the most ruthless of ways.

Gary Rowett, Birmingham, 2016

Eustace departing Birmingham will cause flashbacks for Gary Rowett, who left the club in similar circumstances in 2016.

Birmingham sat seventh in the Championship by December with genuine hopes of reaching the play-offs when the axe fell on Rowett, who had previously guided the club to back-to-back 10th-place finishes.

The Blues had not long been taken over by Trillion Trophy Asia. Seeking a more high-profile manager, the company appointed the former Chelsea midfielder Gianfranco Zola. It proved to be a disastrous move.

By the April of that season, Zola resigned after a run of just two wins in his 24 games left Birmingham facing a relegation battle. In came Harry Redknapp, who kept the club up on the final day of the season.

In contrast to Zola, Rowett had won 42 of his 106 games in charge.

Rob Tanner

Carlo Ancelotti, Chelsea, 2011

Sacking head coaches was the norm during the Roman Abramovich era at Chelsea — but even the club privately accepted they made a mistake in getting rid of Carlo Ancelotti in 2011.

This was Chelsea at their most unforgiving. The year before, Ancelotti became the first and only manager in the club’s history to win the double of the Premier League and FA Cup.

He was loved by the players and the fans. Chelsea were not exactly appreciated outside of Stamford Bridge, but the Italian’s classy demeanour and commitment to entertaining football — Chelsea scored a recording-breaking 103 Premier League goals in the 2009-10 season — earned them a bit more respect than usual.

Ancelotti celebrates with the Premier League trophy in 2010 (AFP PHOTO/ADRIAN DENNIS)

So, what did he do wrong? Well, apparently finishing runners-up to Manchester United in the 2010-11 season was too much of a failure for Abramovich to accept. Ancelotti was dismissed shortly after Chelsea’s last game of the season, within the confines of Everton’s Goodison Park.

Granted, the two exits from the Champions League — with Chelsea beaten in the last 16 by Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan and in the last eight by Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United — were not good enough. The failure to get Fernando Torres to shine instantly following his £50million ($61m) arrival from Liverpool in January 2011 did not help either.

Chelsea went on to win a lot more silverware over the following seasons, including the Champions League just a year after Ancelotti’s departure. But the club would still go on to rue letting Ancelotti go quite so soon, and that rare admission spoke volumes.

Simon Johnson

Nedo Sonetti, Cagliari, 2002

It’s not uncommon for an owner to lose patience with a coach for being over-demanding in the transfer market. But what about over-ordering at a restaurant?

Nedo Sonetti, a promotion specialist, coached more than 20 teams over his career. But never did he meet a president more “unspeakable” than Massimo Cellino at Cagliari in 2002.

One day, a letter arrived in Sonetti’s post. Cellino had an issue — not with the weekend’s result but with the size of the fish Sonetti had ordered at dinner one night. The sea bass in question weighed four kilograms.

“I swear it’s true,” Sonetti said of the letter and his dismissal. “I’ve got nothing to say. It’s all so ridiculous. Cellino used to get a kick out of messing with people.”

James Horncastle

Nigel Adkins, Southampton, 2013

Whenever there’s a ‘harsh’ sacking, the first name that comes to mind is Nigel Adkins at Southampton.

In his two and a half years at the club, Adkins achieved back-to-back promotions, taking Southampton from League One up to the Premier League, and then consolidating their place in the top flight.

At the time of his dismissal, Saints were 15th and three points clear of the relegation zone after an encouraging run of just two defeats in their previous 12 league games. His final game was a draw away at the European champions Chelsea, where they had trailed 2-0 before rallying to draw 2-2.

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Southampton’s manager Nigel Adkins (left) shakes hands with Morgan Schneiderlin after the final whistle (Nick Potts/PA Images via Getty Images)

“The word ‘harsh’ barely does it justice,” wrote Stuart James, now of The Athletic. “The fans loved him and it was easy to see why.”

To be fair to Southampton, the reason they sacked Adkins was to bring in someone they thought could take the club to greater heights. That was the mostly unknown — in England, anyway — Mauricio Pochettino. And he turned out to be alright.

Avram Grant, Chelsea, 2008

The dust had barely settled on Chelsea’s agonising Champions League final penalty shootout defeat against Manchester United when, on May 24, 2008, manager Avram Grant was relieved of his duties.

Three days earlier, only a John Terry slip in the Moscow rain had prevented him from winning the greatest prize in club football — and the one that club owner Abramovich craved above all others.

Grant still had three full years left to run on the permanent contract sanctioned by Abramovich the previous December, and left Chelsea with an overall win percentage of 67 per cent from his 54 matches in charge, matching the rate achieved by revered predecessor Jose Mourinho over the course of his iconic first spell at Stamford Bridge.

His lack of qualifications for the role and closeness to Abramovich prompted suspicion from fans and players alike, and his training methods were regarded by some as behind the times. Chelsea finished the 2007-08 season trophyless, losing the League Cup final to bitter rivals Tottenham Hotspur, exiting the FA Cup at the hands of Barnsley and being edged out by United in the Premier League (by only two points) and Champions League.

That was unacceptable to Abramovich, and nothing Grant went on to do suggested a great managerial mind. But his record at Chelsea aged well, particularly in comparison to Luiz Felipe Scolari, the man who replaced him.

Liam Twomey

Antoine Kombouare, PSG, 2011

By most objective standards, Antoine Kombouare was doing a pretty decent job at PSG as 2011 came to a close. He had reached the Coupe de France final in the previous two seasons, winning it once, and had taken the Parisians to the top of Ligue 1 at the winter break. But a few months earlier, Qatar Sports Investments (QSI) had taken over the club and had started… erm… investing.

Their big-name players required a big-name manager, so the slightly gruff Kombouare was replaced with the rather glitzier (and, it must be said, better) Carlo Ancelotti. However, it didn’t exactly pay off immediately: despite taking over with them leading Ligue 1, a choppy run of results as the end of the season loomed allowed Olivier Giroud’s Montpellier to pip them to the title.

Nick Miller

Philippe Montanier, Toulouse, 2023

Philippe Montanier brought major silverware to Toulouse for the first time in 66 years in April.

A 5-1 victory over Nantes in the Coupe de France final meant European qualification was achieved in the year that followed a title-winning season in Ligue 2 and promotion. It triggered wild celebrations in a city more accustomed to success in rugby.

Yet, despite securing a 13th-place finish in Ligue 1 – in addition to that cup success – in the 2022-23 campaign, Montanier was sacked in June.

His replacement was his assistant Carles Martinez Novell, who had been recruited in December 2023 after Montanier’s assistant Mickawl Debeve had been dismissed. That hinted at hidden friction; the club’s new American ownership favours a data-driven approach, which reportedly brought some conflict with the coach.

In his end-of-season press conference before Montanier’s dismissal, club president Damien Comolli claimed that while the club finished 13th, “all the indicators showed that we could have finished 10th or 11th”. For Toulouse, Montanier’s dismissal was about taking the “next step in their project”.

The sacking, though, was extremely brutal for a coach who had brought incredible success. Toulouse put out a 37-word statement, praising Montanier’s professionalism and commitment before swiftly announcing Novell’s appointment to his first senior management position.

Peter Rutzler

Thomas Tuchel, Chelsea, 2022

Todd Boehly and Clearlake Capital’s decision to dismiss Thomas Tuchel less than a week after the close of a transfer window in which he had been lavishly backed, prompted widespread bemusement as well as shock.

Chelsea had started the new season slowly, losing three of their first seven matches across all competitions, but there seemed insufficient cause to dispense with a coach who had masterminded a surprise Champions League triumph only 16 months earlier and then led the club admirably through the chaotic final months of Abramovich’s ownership.



Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea sacking – told from both sides

It was a move made for interpersonal as much as football reasons: Boehly and Clearlake felt they simply could not work with Tuchel, who had been less than diplomatic in showing his frustration with Chelsea’s new owners during the preceding summer, but the supporter backlash to his departure made life harder for successor Graham Potter.

It ultimately set the tone for a season that drifted disastrously off the rails.

Liam Twomey

Leroy Rosenior, Torquay United, 2007

The old line about Leroy Rosenior being sacked 10 minutes into his second spell as Torquay United manager has a whiff of exaggeration about it, but it was certainly brief.

Rosenior had been brought back to Torquay at the end of the 2006-07 season to keep things ticking over after Keith Curle had been sacked, the future of the club uncertain and takeover talk brewing. He hadn’t even signed a contract, but after conducting his opening press conference he got a call from owner Mike Bateson, who had unexpectedly received the offer he had been demanding for his 51 per cent stake in the club from a local consortium.

The takeover was ratified three days later, Rosenior was told “thanks for your service” and Paul Buckle – who, it should be noted, won one promotion and came within a whisker of a second – was installed in his place.

Nick Miller

George Burley, Hearts, 2005

The easiest way to explain this is to quote Steven Pressley, Hearts’ captain at the time, on the day he was called into a room at the training ground to be told that the club had sacked George Burley: “I sat there looking up at two manager-of-the-month awards on a shelf, which says it all.”



Inspired by you: Mowgli, tartan shorts and a nuclear submarine – inside Romanov’s Hearts

The club were unbeaten. They were top of the league. They were looking as likely as anyone in more than three decades to break the stranglehold of the Old Firm on the Scottish title. The appointment had been a rousing success in the eyes of everyone — save owner Vladimir Romanov.

And from the perspective of anyone who follows Hearts, what you would do to go back and let it play out properly…

Phil Hay

Martin Jol, Tottenham, 2007

It wasn’t the sacking itself of Martin Jol by Tottenham Hotspur that was particularly cruel or unjustified, but the circumstances of it.

After three very enjoyable and largely successful years, results had started to turn. By October 2007, Spurs had made their worst start to a league season in 19 years; they were languishing third from bottom. Tottenham understandably felt like they needed a change.

But the way he was let go was extraordinary.

Jol learned of his fate before a UEFA Cup (now Europa League) group game against Getafe and, although he only told the players after the match (a 2-1 home defeat), word of his dismissal filtered through to the supporters during the second half, making for an extremely strange atmosphere at White Hart Lane.

What made matters worse for Jol was that everyone knew Spurs had been lining up his replacement Juande Ramos for some time — and sure enough, the Spaniard was announced as manager two days later.

It was a terribly sad ending and one not befitting for someone who had done so much for the club.

Charlie Eccleshare

(Top photo: Getty Images)

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