In so many ways, being a footballer is not like having a regular job. For most of us can leave a job in order to go to a new employer at any time, usually after a short notice period; footballers, however, can usually only switch clubs during the designated transfer windows or once they have come to the end of their contract period. Additionally, in everyday life, should you be unhappy at your place of work, you are likely to find you can simply quit and never look back. For footballers though, this is not really an option that is available to them.
When it comes to the employer (club) wanting to sack an employee (player), however, there are more similarities between being a professional football player and being in a more “normal” job. Although employment law varies across the world, in the UK it is not that easy. To sack an employee, fairly, the employer must first have valid reasons such as the employee being unable to complete the tasks of their job properly; then, after giving them a warning/chance to improve, or after following some other defined process, an employer is usually able to sack an employee, but any breaches of the procedures in place will often lead to an employment tribunal. Football clubs also need just cause to cancel the contracts of one of their players too, it cannot be a minor indiscretion. The high bar set for cancelling contracts ensures that clubs cannot simply back out of a deal they signed because it turns out the player is, well, a bit rubbish.
Termination v Mutual Termination
To begin with, it is important to make the distinction being a contract that is terminated (cancelled) versus one that is mutually terminated. In the case of the latter, it means that both the player and the club have agreed to part ways and back out of the contract. This is the only way that a club can cancel the contract of a player without any just cause. If the player refuses to leave and has not done anything wrong, the club will simply have to wait until the contract expires or the player secures a transfer somewhere else (something the player is not obliged to do).
Mutual terminations are not overly common but you will usually spot a few examples each year. They can be a moneyless separation but it can also be that the club, or even potentially the player, agrees to pay some money under the mutual termination terms. This will be less than the remaining value of the contract, possibly 50%, but it will vary on a case by case basis. Even at 50% though this can still be an attractive proposition to a club as it means saving money on wages for a player they no longer want.
The reason for a mutual termination can be just about anything providing both parties consent and have not been pressured into it. In September 2021, Tottenham mutually terminated Serge Aurier’s contract after failing to sell him in the summer transfer window. The right back had been surplus to requirements at the time and would have been stuck in the reserves for at least four months. By agreeing to the termination though, the Ivorian was free to sign for another club as a free agent.
A few months later, Inter Milan and Christian Eriksen parted ways because the Danish international’s cardiac device meant he was not permitted to participate in the Italian league. Here it was obviously the right move for both parties as most other leagues do not have such restrictions on implantable cardioverter-defibrillator (ICD) devices. For a final example, there is the case of Diego Costa who wished to leave Atletico Madrid in December 2020 citing personal reasons. The club were happy to accept his request, no doubt partly because he had largely flopped, allowing the pair to break up on amicable terms.
What Does the Law Say?
If a player is unwilling to mutually cancel their contract with their club, the club have little room to manoeuvre. If they believe a player is a disruptive figure, they can ask them to stay clear of the training ground but they will still need to pay their salary. Similarly, the club can refuse to play the said player for another match that season but again they will still be obligated to pay them. The only way they can free themselves of their contractual obligation is if the player commits a serious offence.
There are many offences that would be deemed worthy of the sack but a club needs to act carefully as a contract termination is a very serious decision. Clubs cannot simply tear up a player’s contract because he arrived at training with a bad hangover one day. This would be deemed an unfair dismissal and land the club in extremely hot water. Derby found this out in 2021 after they sacked Richard Keogh for his involvement in a car crash in September 2019. The incident saw Tom Lawrence and Mason Bennett charged with drink driving but Keogh faced no police charges, having been merely a passenger in the back seat.
Despite this, Derby kept hold of young talents Lawrence and Bennett (who they could have justifiably sacked) and decided to rip up Keogh’s high-wage contract instead. A lengthy legal battle ensued with the outcome being that the EFL agreed with the decision of the Player Related Dispute Commission that “Mr Keogh had not committed gross misconduct… and that he had been wrongfully dismissed by the club”. As such, Derby had to pay the defender £2.3m in unpaid wages.
So, a club needs to ensure they have ‘just cause’ should they wish to terminate a player’s contract. There is no specific definition of what just case is but it can only be established when a player has breached their contractual obligations. More specifically it involves ‘serious misconduct or prolonged violations of the terms of the contract’. This can include, for instance, not showing up for training for an extended period of time. A contractual breach can come in many different forms as shown by the various examples of players who have been kicked out of their club in the past.
Reasons For Contract Termination
Above we have talked about how Derby were ruled to have unfairly dismissed Richard Keogh and forced to pay the Irishman the wages he had missed out on. While clubs do occasionally wrongly fire players, most contract terminations go without appeal, or at least a successful appeal. If a player falls foul of one of the contract breaches below, then it is highly likely the club can fire them on the spot without facing any legal consequences.
As the mantra ‘innocent until proven guilty’ is one under which the law operates, football clubs have to be patient if one of their players faces criminal charges. Should the offence be serious enough they will usually suspend the player’s contract while the investigation is taking place, rather than terminating it. If the player is found not guilty, or if the case is dropped, the suspension can be lifted and the player can return to their club. If they are found guilty, however, usually a contract termination will immediately follow.
Adam Johnson is one of the most high-profile instances of a criminal conviction leading to a termination of a contract. The nature of his crimes, combined with his six-year sentence, meant Sunderland had virtually no choice but to tear up his contract. This is not to say that all criminal convictions lead to a contract termination though. There have been many footballers convicted for drink driving, for example, who have received quite minor, if any punishment at all, from their club. If the player is a useful member of the team, then clubs will not want to kick them out if there was no direct victim and no custodial sentence handed out.
This does not mean they never try mind you. When Saido Berahino was caught three times over the legal alcohol limit, Stoke sought legal advice as they wished to terminate his contract. Having scored a mere five goals in the previous two years, and this not his first drink driving offence, Stoke were eager to get rid of the problematic striker. Lawyers seemingly advised Stoke against an outright termination though and instead the club and player came to a mutual agreement to part ways.
Failed Drugs Test
Although it is not often talked about, footballers undergo regular drug testing which can catch both performance-enhancing supplements and recreational drugs. Although most players pass these tests without issue, there have been several instances of players failing them and receiving a full footballing ban as a result. A failed drugs test and subsequent suspension gives clubs more than enough ammunition to sack a player if they so desire. Cardiff tore up the contract of Nathanial Mende-Liang after his sample indicated he had taken cocaine, something he admitted taking a night before a match.
Accrington Stanley midfielder Paddy Lacey also had his contract terminated for taking the same substance back in 2017. His urine sample found traces of benzoylecgonine, a metabolite of cocaine, for which he was given a 14-month footballing ban. Perhaps the most high-profile example though came back when Adrian Mutu tested positive for cocaine during his spell at Chelsea. In this case, not only were Chelsea able to sack the Romanian but Mutu was later ordered to pay Chelsea over €17m for breach of contract. This mainly consisted of the unamortised portion of the transfer fee paid to Parma.
While a positive drug test more than constitutes just cause for a contract termination, again, it is important to remember clubs are never obligated to take action. When Hull’s Jake Livermore tested positive for cocaine, during a very difficult time for him, the club stood by him and he continued to play for the Tigers for another two years. Similarly, Manchester City only opted to fine Kolo Toure after he tested positive for a banned substance found in some diet pills he borrowed from his wife.
Not Showing Up For Work
This is a fairly obvious one in that if a player refuses to show up for training and/or matches, they are in serious breach of their contract. It is rare for players to decide to go AWOL but it has happened now and again in the past. Wolfsburg sacked young English striker Kaylen Hinds following an unauthorised absence that lasted several weeks. Usually such absences need to be extended ones although they can be much shorter if a level of deceit is involved. Back in 2019, Jordie Van der Laan called in sick and told his club that he could not make it to training. In reality, the forward was fine and he had lied so that he could travel to London to watch Ajax take on Tottenham.
He opted to come clean before kick-off which is just as well as television cameras caught the 25 year old in the crowd. Although he justified his absence, saying he was unlikely to play in the weekend’s rather meaningless match, Telstar opted to fire him anyway. His deal had been due to expire in a couple of months in any case but his lies saved the club a little bit of money. In a similar but more bizarre case, Adil Rami was sacked by Marseille after he claimed he was injured, only to turn out he took part in the French reality TV show, Fort Boyard.
As mentioned before, sackings for an unauthorised absence are relatively rare although Sunderland had two cases in the same summer in 2018. Having faced relegation to League One, following the summer break both Didier Ndong and Papy Djilobodji seemingly had very little desire to play for the Black Cats again. The pair did eventually return to the club, having missed several weeks of training, but the club were not in the mood to forgive and forget their breaches of contract.
The rise of social media has led to numerous footballers ending up being fined, suspended or even sacked in a few instances. Back in the day, players had no convenient way of airing their homophobic, racist or xenophobic opinions but this is no longer true in the modern era. It is Twitter that usually ends up in the middle of these controversies, either a tweet dug up from the past or one hot off the press. In the case of Sergi Guardiola, he was sacked just hours after signing for Barcelona as the club were informed of some insulting tweets directed towards Catalonia he had made two years prior.
Usually though, offensive tweets from years gone by will see players avoid a contract termination, especially if the player was young at the time. A longer period allows for the defence that the player now realises the error of their ways and they no longer share this view, et cetera. When it was discovered Andre Gray had made some incredibly homophobic tweets four years earlier, in 2012, there was no real danger of him facing the sack. Had he posted them while playing for Burnley though, it could well have been a different story entirely.
So, while most thoughtless tweets come from a player’s younger self, this is not always the case. One non-league footballer in England, who played for Hitchin Town FC, was sacked after mocking Harry Arter for the death of his baby daughter. Oxford City, another non-league side, also sacked their striker Lee Steele for homophobic comments directed towards Welsh rugby player Gareth Thomas. In a slightly more unusual case, Welsh football team Buckley Town FC dismissed one of their first team players for “abhorrent” remarks made to a woman on a dating website.
Now, clubs have to be a little careful when it comes to sacking players for disciplinary problems as the bar is reasonably high. When Livingston sacked Sergio Berti for spitting on teammate Richard Brittain, the Argentine appealed the decision and the Scottish FA took his side. There was no appeal mind you from Joey Barton though when also sacked from another Scottish side, Rangers, after he got in a heated argument with teammate Andy Halliday and boss Mark Warburton. A training ground spat, which left Jose Fonte with a black eye, also eventually saw Southampton release £15m signing Dani Osvaldo.
While many of these feuds and moments of madness happen during training, some occur during matches for the world to see. During the warm-up for a Europa League game when playing for Marseille, Patrice Evra lost his cool with one fan’s heckling and decided to kick him in the head. After being banned from all UEFA competitions until the end of the season, he was subsequently fired from his club. You also have the case of another Frenchman, Nichola Anelka, who landed in hot water following his quenelle celebration, something that had anti-semitic links. In the aftermath of this, the striker claimed on social media he had terminated his contract. West Brom responded his attempt was not valid but they helped out the unhappy striker by cancelling it themselves on the grounds of gross misconduct.