Football: Think before you sack: Mike Rowbottom offers some hope to football managers in fear of their jobs

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THE NAVAL blockade by fishermen protesting over infringed rights was not the only bold defensive action undertaken in Plymouth this week. Alan Gillett's victory at an industrial tribunal, where he was awarded undisclosed compensation from Plymouth Argyle following his sacking as assistant manager this summer, was an individual rather than a collective achievement. But just like the manoeuvring outside the harbour, it had wider implications.

While football management is always likely to be a precarious business - the latest casualty statistic has been provided by John Beck, sacked by Cambridge United on Thursday - the ruling in Gillett's favour is being viewed as a test case which has offered protection for the game's honest toilers. It has served to emphasise the point that football, however much it might like to think so, does not operate in an Employment Protection Act-free zone.

Gillett, who joined Plymouth two years ago to work with the then manager David Kemp, was dismissed by Kemp's successor, Peter Shilton. It was described as a cost-cutting exercise in the wake of the club's relegation.

Plymouth, who have six weeks to appeal against the tribunal's decision, claimed in the hearing that football, to employ that well-worn Greaves-ism, was a funny old game. 'You cannot expect a football club to operate in the same way as ICI,' said their solicitor. 'It is a pressure environment where success or failure on the pitch can lead to great wealth or poverty.'

But Gillett, a 44-year-old father of two who had given up a job managing a Japanese First Division side to join Kemp, did not dispute the club's right to sack him. His case rested on the fact that they had dealt with his dismissal incorrectly, failing to abide by the legal requirements concerning notice and statutory compensation.

'No employer should be allowed to circumvent legislation and adopt such autocratic and unfair policies,' claimed Gillett's solicitor. The tribunal chairman ruled that to find in favour of the club would be to open a dangerous loophole in the law.

'Alan was very brave to take on the challenge,' said Kemp, who agreed a compensation offer when Shilton arrived to replace him at Home Park in February. 'It was not just a great result for him, but for the people who work in the football industry. It showed that you can't just throw someone out of the gate without compensating them properly.'

Gillett also felt his efforts might benefit others. 'I think most people in the game are treated fairly honourably when they are dismissed,' he said. 'But for those who are not, this case might give them something to lean on.'

Edward Grayson, Britain's leading legal expert on matters relating to sport and the law, confirmed that the finding will be a useful precedent. 'The law of the land does not stop either at the soccer field or the boardroom door,' he said.

The judgment was broadly welcomed by Leeds United's manager Howard Wilkinson, chairman of the League Managers' Association. 'It is pleasing in that it is saying that someone fired from their job is entitled to fair compensation,' he said.

Wilkinson, however, is in a process of negotiation with the Premier League which he hopes will make such appearances at industrial tribunals, with all their attendant bad publicity for the game, unnecessary. 'The business of hiring and firing is one of the least edifying in the game,' he said. 'We all accept that football is different. That's why we have contracts and that's why we accept the sack sometimes through measures we can't control.

'What we are working on is finding a formula which will create a fairer system of compensation than exists now. It has to be compensation both ways - for managers who lose their jobs, or for clubs who lose managers. Those of us who have a deep interest in football recognise that there can't be enough fairness in it.'

In the meantime, however, the honest toilers will be raising a glass to Alan Gillett.