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What's Said In The Changing Room Stays In The Dressing Room... Or So You Thought

View profile for Paul Shuttleworth
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What went on inside the changing rooms and training grounds of professional football clubs used to be a secret kept behind stadia turnstiles.

But as instances of managers openly criticising their players becomes more prevalent, and vice versa, it is no longer a case that the public only judge their teams on what they see on the pitch.

The recent dismissal of Paolo Di Canio from Sunderland hit the headlines not just because of its record-breaking timing five games in to the Premiership season. Di Canio’s open criticism and questioning of his players attitudes and performances shocked supporters and professionals of the game and paved the way for his dismissal.     

Paolo Di Canio’s fall from power dominated the headlines due to the intensity and openness of his comments singling out individual players, but as the lines between thought and comment become blurred, more and more players and managers are stepping out and criticising in public what would previously have been kept behind closed doors.

Celtic manager Neil Lennon is just one of the managers to have spoken about his players attitudes in recent months, following his teams 2-1 defeat to St Johnstone, while Stoke City have been forced to take action after a member of staff criticised their then manager Tony Pulis and later players openly criticised Pulis’, the then former manager, chosen style of play.

Paul Shuttleworth, Head of Employment at JCP Solicitors, explains how this recent spate of vocal exchanges within the industry could be about to raise a number of interesting employment law issues.

“From an employment lawyers perspective, the criticism of players openly in the media and in particular the questioning of players’ courage or professionalism, raises interesting questions about the effect these comments may have on the trust and confidence between the employer and employee.

“That said, of course we know that the player/club relationship is not a classic employment relationship by any means, but it is still interesting to consider whether such comments and criticisms could be taken to be a repudiatory breach of contract such as would then allow the perpetrator of the comments to treat himself as having been constructively unfairly dismissed. 

“There is also a valid argument that such conduct and negative comment could in fact damage the players personality rights and could affect them in the future in the transfer market and as to their “saleability”.

“The case of Barea -v- Neuchatel Xamax is interesting in this context as it paved the way for players to challenge the power of managers whose decisions have a baring on their future.”

Eddy Barea played for Swiss Super League club Neuchatel Xamax under the management of head coach Miroslav Blazevic. During a post match interview Blazevic claimed that Barea had been “an idiot” and “a traitor” by refusing to take the managers instruction and play the offside trap when the opposition goalkeeper took a free kick. Barea claimed that the move would have been too risky.
As a result Barea was excluded from first team contact and forced to train with the under 21 team. Barea subsequently terminated his contract unilaterally and went on to claim, and be awarded, compensation.

At a later tribunal it was upheld that Baria’s termination of his contract as valid and that his refusal to take instruction from his manager was the first occurrence of non conforming behaviour in five years. Barea’s exclusion from the main squad was seen as disproportionate sanction to his behaviour. The court upheld Baria’s claim of compensation, as his market vale would be affected by his inability to train and play with the squad at the level that he had been contracted.

Shuttleworth concludes: “There are several reasons, including financial implications, why the claim of repudiatory breach by a player is likely to remain a race occurrence in practice. However in an age where open criticisms are surfacing more regularly these relatively novel scenarios may well give rise to a new and radical reaction by players.

Paul Shuttleworth is Partner and Head of Employment at JCP Solicitors. Singled out for praise in the Legal 500 2012 edition for his expertise in Employment Law, Paul has extensive experience in all areas of contentious and advisory employment law, having acted for major PLC clients, national and international business concerns.