During last week’s World Sports Law Report webinar on “Playing Contracts”, David Reade QC and John Mehrzad presented a section on “manager publically criticising player” and, with some degree of prescience, concluded that the “manager was also at risk of breach of implied term of trust and confidence with club or misconduct charge”.
It would appear that Paolo Di Canio was not listening. Instead, he repeated his public criticism of his Sunderland players after their defeat at West Brom on Saturday, apparently had a further falling out with them when he ordered extra training on Sunday – and was promptly summarily dismissed by the club by Sunday evening. After only five Premier League matches this season, Di Canio was shown the door by Sunderland.
In terms of legal principles, the public humiliation of a football player may entitle the player to terminate his playing contract with immediate effect: Barea v. Neuchâtel Xamax  ISLR 34. In that case, during a half-time team-talk a long-standing player refused to follow his manager’s tactical decision to play a high-line off-side system for the second-half. In response, he was not allowed to play on and was then publically labelled an “idiot” and a “traitor” by the manager. Subsequently, the player was told he would not play for the first-team again and was instructed to train with the under-21 squad. Despite retaining his salary payments, Barea terminated his contract, claiming Xamax had acted in repudiatory breach by its actions. The Swiss Federal Supreme Court upheld Barea’s claim on the basis of his public humiliation by the manager coupled with his demotion from the first-team squad. This case is of some significance since Swiss Law is the underlying law of the Court of Arbitration for Sport (which is the ultimate appeal jurisdiction for disputes arising in football).
Turning to Di Canio, whilst Sunderland may have been worried that valuable players could have terminated their playing contracts in response to the now weekly public lambasting by their manager, the reality is probably more simple; the relationship between the players and manager had irretrievably broken down. Given Sunderland’s appalling start to the season (they sit bottom of the league with one point from five games), that breakdown was effecting performances and, in time, potentially financial revenues. Domestic employment law recognises such situations, in particular the entitlement of the employer to dismiss the relevant employee (albeit with notice) where one person’s personality actually or potentially effects the proper functioning of the team: Perkin v. St George’s Healthcare NHS Trust  IRLR 934 (CA).
No doubt Di Canio’s advisers will now turn to argue compensation with Sunderland. Putting to one side any agreed contractual liquidated damages payable upon termination (which are now increasingly common in managers’ contracts), given the authorities above it would appear that Sunderland would have good grounds to argue that Di Canio’s repeated public and humiliating criticisms of his players did indeed entitle them to dismiss him fairly.