Why are so many SPFL clubs sacking their managers?

Why are so many SPFL clubs sacking their managers?

By James Cairney

The second international break of the season can be a nervy time for managers. Club boards are given an opportunity to assess their team’s start to the campaign and, usually, it’s the first point in the season where a change in management is seriously considered. Every SPFL team has taken part in about eight or nine league fixtures and has laid down a marker for the campaign.


At this early stage, it can be tempting to make a change. Take Dundee, for instance. Neil McCann appears to be hanging on to his position at Dens Park by a thread and if the board decide that they’re suitably unimpressed with performances so far, now is the time to act. With 30 league games left to play, there are still plenty of opportunities to turn things around and the international break provides the best part of a fortnight for a new manager to get his ideas across before his first game in charge.


Kilmarnock did this last season to great effect when they decided to part company with Lee McCulloch after a dreadful start to the season saw them rooted to the bottom of the Premiership table. Steve Clarke was identified and recruited, and Kilmarnock rocketed up the table and went on to finish in fifth. Of course, not every club can rely on bringing in a coach of Clarke’s calibre but the 2017/18 season clearly demonstrates what can be achieved when the board decide to intervene.


This season though, things are different. Almost every week there seems to be another SPFL manager given the boot and the rate of managerial turnover is accelerating at a disturbing pace. We’re in the second week of October, yet twelve managers across Scotland’s four leagues have left their posts already this season.



That’s almost a third of all SPFL clubs that have already decided to replace their manager and that figure is only going to grow. It’s far from inconceivable that we could end this season with the majority of coaches joining their clubs during the campaign, which would indicate a very worrying trend indeed. It’s worth pointing out, however, that two of these managers left clubs of their own accord: Ray McKinnon at Morton, and Gus McPherson at Queens Park.


We’ve previously investigated whether there really is such a thing as a ‘new manager bounce’ in Scottish football and to an extent, there is. In the short term, more often than not, results do improve, which is why sacking the manager is an attractive option to a skittish boardroom. But it can be detrimental to the long-term development of our game.


Historically, managers are given a fair amount of time in Scotland before poor results begin to stack up. Chairmen and owners are generally patient and coaches are often given ample opportunity to implement their style of play before they’re seriously evaluated. Particularly in the top flight – the majority of Premiership managers have been leading their clubs for at least 18 months, and in some cases have been in charge for upwards of five years.



This stability is part of what makes coaching in Scotland an attractive prospect for young managers looking for a way into management and we have a good track record of developing young coaches and giving them opportunities that are hard to come by elsewhere. It’s something we should be proud of as Scottish football fans. But if clubs continue to dismiss their managers at such an alarming rate, the quality of coaching will inevitably suffer.


One possible reason for this upturn in manager sackings is that many of Scottish football’s leagues are particularly competitive this season. The Championship appears to have normalised after having had a few seasons where there was a clear favourite to win the league – like Rangers, Hearts or Hibs – and this season looks impossible to predict. There are probably eight teams in the league that reasonably back themselves to make the playoffs and it’s difficult to discount any of them.


In a league like this, where the differences between success and failure are so marginal and where every opponent is capable of a win, it’s understandable that chairmen get itchy trigger fingers. The marginal gains that generally come with dismissing a manager, even if only in the short term, can be the difference between relegation and survival, or even promotion. Even at this early stage of the season, four Championship clubs will be finishing the campaign with a different coach than they started it with.



The same could be said of the Premiership. The current top seven all look capable of taking points off each other and with the Edinburgh clubs on the rise and Steven Gerrard’s revitalised Rangers, it looks like the upcoming campaign will be an exciting one. The likes of Gerrard, Steve Clarke or Neil Lennon wouldn’t be managing in Scotland if they didn’t think that they’d be given time to implement their style of play – not that any of them have needed it. But if Scottish football gets a reputation for impatient boardrooms, then it could be difficult to attract these managers in the future.


We’re not quite there yet but it’s a worrying trend across the lower leagues that is hopefully more of a coincidence rather than a sign of things to come. It’s hard to recall the last time there was so little to separate so many teams in the SPFL and this newfound sense of the playing field being levelled will only make our game more captivating and entertaining than before. But chairmen and owners across the country should bear in mind that it’s been their patience in the past that has led to Scottish football flourishing – if it’s to continue to do so, they will have to show that they can resist the urge to simply dismiss their man in the dugout when things aren’t going their way. Managerial longevity and stability are hallmarks of our game and it’s imperative that this remains the case.

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