José Mourinho

What Does It Mean to Lose the Dressing Room in Football?

There has possibly been a time – and don’t worry, this isn’t some kind of virtual Rorschach test – when your line manager at work has done something to cheese you and your colleagues off. Oh, and if you are the line manager, then you’ve probably vexed your underlings at some point… potentially without even knowing it. Generally what happens in these situations is that the workers metaphorically down tools – they decide that today, and perhaps for a while after that, they might not work as hard as they can as an act of corporate sabotage.

Believe it or not, something similar can happen in football – a player, a group of players or, in the direst of circumstances, the entire squad will simply not try their 100% best in training and/or games; generally leading to a downturn of results and then, as sure as night follows day, the sack for the manager in question. In such scenarios, the manager is said to have ‘lost the dressing room’. And so ubiquitous has the phrase become it has even entered the Cambridge Dictionary.

No Way Back

It is the greatest disrespect you can pay a head coach in football – the look of anger, the bulging eyes, the spittle in the rebuttal, that a manager gives when asked if he or she has lost the dressing room is akin to a Mafioso whose mother has just been insulted by a rival. The first half of the 2023/24 Premier League season was surprisingly quiet when it came to managerial sackings, but one head coach who was continuously accused of losing the dressing room was Manchester United’s Erik ten Hag.

It was reported in the press that the Dutchman had suffered the worst fate for a manager, with results on the pitch – including a 0-3 humbling at the hands of Bournemouth, which was a pre-game 90/1 shot with the bookmakers – suggesting that the players weren’t exactly busting a gut on behalf of their leader.

According to reports, Ten Hag had fallen out with several of his players after questioning their work rate and desire, while formerly prized signing Jadon Sancho had been banished to train with the reserves after speaking out publicly against his manager.

Faced with this most barbaric of insults, Ten Hag hit back: “Oh yes, I am sure, you can see for instance the comeback against Brentford, the Burnley game, the Fulham game, every time the team is there, showed great character, great determination, resilience so we are together,” he said defiantly.

Ironically, another successful manager – José Mourinho – was also accused of losing the Manchester United dressing room just a few years prior to Ten Hag. In the end, you have to wonder if it’s the players, rather than the head coach, that is to blame.

However, some have come out and slated the idea that a manager can lose the dressing room at all. Troy Deeney has written that it simply doesn’t happen: “Even if things are going badly, I’ve never known players to deliberately down tools. Players never want to lose football matches.” But the former Watford frontman openly admits that their can be a revolt, of sorts, behind the scenes. “Footballers don’t plot to get a manager sacked but, of course, they do talk,” he confirmed.

Managers That Have Lost the Dressing Room

André Villas-Boas
André Villas-Boas (London Pixels /

If it’s any consolation to Ten Hag and Mourinho, they aren’t the only managers to have lost the dressing room over the years. Mind you, the Portuguese coach does have previous when it comes to losing the will of his players.

It happened famously at Chelsea in 2015/16, just months after the Blues had won the Premier League title. But they struggled the following season, with poor performances and wretched results capped by rumours that his players simply did not want him in charge anymore after a series of blazing rows and public dressing-downs – they got their wish, as in December 2015 Mourinho was sacked.

You wouldn’t think that a man that labelled himself as the ‘Special One’ would have much of an ego, but it turns out it does – Mourinho is desperate to exert his own will on the biggest personalities in his dressing room. And that ultimately cost him his job at Real Madrid when he decided to go toe-to-toe with two of the club’s key figures at the time: Cristiano Ronaldo and Iker Casillas.

It’s been suggested that Mourinho and CR7 almost got into a fist fight when the head coach accused his player of not working hard enough, while club legend Casillas admitted he and his former manager were barely on speaking terms after he labelled Mourinho ‘tacky’ for his ongoing battle with Barcelona’s coaches and supporters.

At least a crumb of comfort for Mourinho comes in knowing that Stamford Bridge, Chelsea’s home, can be a tough place to manage at the best of times – balancing the egos of a richly-talented group of players who, due to the laws of mathematics, can’t all feature in the starting eleven at the same time.

An inability to act as a divine force cost Andre Villas-Boas his job there in 2012: he even admitted to losing the dressing room, signing his own P45 when he claimed just days beforehand: “Two players have already departed and further will depart in the future and won’t make part of the project,” he said in interview. As Mourinho found out to his cost at Real Madrid, if you try to take on the biggest personalities and leaders in the dressing room, you may just come out on the wrong side of things – as Ruud Gullit found out at Newcastle.

He decided to chastise prolific marksman, Alan Shearer, for his performances, which did not go down well with the icon’s teammates. To make matters worse, Gullit then dropped Shearer for the huge derby game against Sunderland, which Newcastle lost. The Dutchman was relieved of his duties just hours later, and the Magpies’ results picked up immediately. Another case of a manager losing the dressing room and getting the boot accordingly.