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Coyle is sprung

Last week we looked at the position regarding the sacking of Mark Hughes. This week we ought to look at it from the other perspective, that of Owen Coyle, the Burnley manager and former player for Bolton Wanderers who was approached by his old club, after they dispensed with the services of Gary Megson, and who took the job. Was he wrong to do so?

As I indicated last week, there are degrees of breach of contract. Some will be described as reprehensible, others not. It is always less straightforward for the employee rather than the employer. All the employer has to do is to pay up the contract (obviously subject to any question of mitigation of loss, and also allowing for the fact that sometimes there can be additional losses following if it is one of those cases where having the opportunity to perform can give one additional benefits, like boxing for a world title, or performing at an event which could raise your profile around the world: being a football manager could arguably fall into one of those cases although proving that against the background of not having been wildly successful, which one can presume would be the usual circumstances in which a manager will be dismissed, would almost certainly be problematical). With the employee working out what the cost to the employer is of breach of contract is always rather more difficult.

However in some contracts a fee to "buy out" the contract is specified. This is often used with footballers, but also sometimes used with managers. A manager will agree an extension of his contract, but on the basis that if another club are prepared to pay the stipulated amount, he will be allowed to terminate his contract. Rumour has it that the stipulated amount in respect of Mr Coyle was either 3 million or 1 million, depending on which clause was applicable (leading to the dispute between Bolton and Burnley as to the appropriate amount which was apparently eventually resolved by negotiation).

Needless to say there has been much comment about whether it is appropriate for a manager to leave a club which is still in a relegation battle. It is probably true that getting Burnley to the Premier league was a modern-day fairytale. It is also probably true that without Mr Coyle their chances of staying there are slim. However in assessing what he is doing you have to look at the wider picture. At Hull Phil Brown has allegedly been under some pressure, although the board have stuck by him. The irony is that in football success merely leads to higher and higher expectations and the suggestion that anything less than those expectations is failure. From time to time Sir Alex Ferguson has supporters suggesting that he has lost the plot or ought to retire. I have had a number of extremely lively arguments with various supporters down the years about this. (There will probably be more of it this season if United win nothing and City win something) The problem is that the more successful you are, the more people expect. There has been comment in the press about the failure of Arsene Wenger to win a trophy in recent years. However he has won many trophies whilst with Arsenal, he has come within a whisker of winning trophies against very strong sides, and they will certainly be strong contenders for the Premier League title this season when they are likely to be there or thereabouts. At the other end of the table, without Phil Brown Hull City would have been lucky to even dream of being in the Premiership. However, if you get a club to that level, then if your ability to keep them there seems to be questioned, you are always going to be at risk of the sack. Hardly anyone ever says if it wasn't for this person we wouldn't be in this position in the first place. Nor is it always right to blame those perennial hate figures, football chairmen and boards of directors, for the steps they take. They themselves feel the heat of the pressure coming from fans who demand instant success.

If Owen Coyle negotiated as a term of his contract that he could leave on payment of a set fee, subject to particular conditions, then there is absolutely nothing wrong with taking advantage of that. In any event, whilst loyalty is a rarity in many commercial dealings, the football world is not conspicuous for it. Mr Coyle would no doubt see himself one day as one of the elite managers. Getting a chance will be extraordinarily difficult. If he wants to make the most his talents, good luck to him. Being prepared to pay the consequences of damage caused by breaking a contract is in most cases accepted as a commercial fact of life by the legal system. That is after all why usually and traditionally the measure of loss is damage to the injured party, not benefit to the party in breach. Where the parties have stipulated what the financial consequences of breach or could be, they have envisaged what may happen, and there is nothing reprehensible in taking advantage of it.

Michael J. Booth QC