A celebrated wag – in the sense of the word which Dr. Johnson would understand – once said that “football is a funny old game”. One can reasonably guess that no-one at the Football Association is laughing as the aftermath unfolds of the dismissal of Mark Sampson.
Sampson was not dismissed for his performance as manager of England Women; to the contrary, he led the team to the semi-finals of the World Cup in 2015 and had seen his latest team beat Russia 6-0 the night before his sacking. Instead, the FA relied on a historic safeguarding report which pointed to “inappropriate and unacceptable behaviour” relating to the “boundaries between coach and player” in his previous managerial role at Bristol Academy. The nature of that alleged behaviour was not disclosed but had been the subject of prior investigation by the FA’s Safeguarding Unit. Sampson had been cleared of any grave wrongdoing.
Sampson has recently faced more serious allegations of racist and sexist conduct occurring during his tenure as England manager. Despite Sampson being exonerated of wrongdoing in relation to those allegations by an FA internal review and a second independent investigation, the FA did not explain why it paid £80,000 to a female complainant, England forward Eniola Aluko, who had reported the use of racist language.
So where does this leave the FA beyond sheer embarrassment? Sampson now has strong potential claims for wrongful and unfair dismissal because of his treatment by the FA. For a start, it does not appear that the FA carried out any actual disciplinary investigation before dismissing him for the alleged offences which had occurred with his previous employer. Rather the FA Board secretly decided to dismiss him last month without permitting him any right of reply. Sampson was allowed to coach the Russia game before the FA announced his dismissal in the warm afterglow of victory the following morning.
But what about those England’s players who have been offended by Sampson’s alleged conduct? The FA may also now be waking up to the reality of claims from those women for discrimination, harassment and victimisation under the Equality Act.
Martin Palmer is a barrister specialising in employment, discrimination and sports law at Littleton Chambers.