Football managers sacked when their teams were top of the league | The Knowledge

“With Barça sacking Valverde,” tweets Gordon, “when was the last time a manager was sacked at the top of the league?”

William Hogg can recall one Halloween horror show. “Scot Symon was told – through an intermediary, though this was typical of Rangers at the time – that his services were no longer required at Ibrox on 31 October 1967, when Rangers were a point ahead of Hibernian and three clear of Celtic at the top of Division One. It should, of course, be remembered that 1967 had been a difficult year for Symon. Rangers had fallen out of the Scottish Cup at the first hurdle the season before against the mighty, er, Berwick Rangers, while hopes of a Cup Winners’ Cup win to stand alongside Celtic’s European Cup triumph in Lisbon were dashed by Bayern Munich in the final.

“In fact, at the time of Symon’s sacking, Celtic (who had collected a clean sweep of five first-team trophies during 1966-67) were in Buenos Aires preparing for the first of two feisty encounters with Racing Club for the World Championship. The weekend before Symon’s sacking; Rangers had laboured to a goalless draw at home to Dunfermline.” One of his last signings before getting the boot had been a centre-forward by the name of Alex Ferguson. “[Symon was] a marvellous man who maybe didn’t have the luck, didn’t get the support he should have got from the club,” Ferguson later admitted.

Florian Labrouche gets in touch with news of a rival. “It happens that L’Equipe asked themselves the same question, and found … Antoine Kombouaré, sacked in December 2011 by PSG and their new owner QSI, to make place for Carlo Ancelotti. PSG were top of Ligue 1, and Ancelotti finished three points behind Montpellier on the final day; Radomir Antic, axed by Real Madrid in 1992, who finished second behind Barcelona that year; and Branko Zebec, ditched by Hamburg in 1980. And guess what? Yes, they finished second that year. That does not bode well for Barcelona.”

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Radomir Antic

Radomir Antic in the dugout at Real Oviedo, where he ended up after being sacked at top-of-the-table Real Madrid. Photograph: Action Images

Martin Jackson remembers that “Bobby Robson was sacked by top-of-the-table Sporting in 1993, mainly due to the team’s exit from the Uefa Cup at the hands of Salzburg. Robson was quickly snapped up by rivals Porto, and José Mourinho appointed as his assistant. I wonder whatever became of him?”

On we go. “FC Copenhagen sacked Roland Nilsson after six months in charge (on 9 January 2012), holding a four-point lead over FC Nordsjælland heading into the Danish Superliga’s winter break,” tweets Walid Hajjaj. “He was succeeded by sporting director Carsten V Jensen, who described it as the easiest job in Danish football. Jensen duly squandered the lead and Copenhagen finished as runners-up … in the first season ever with direct qualification to the Champions League for the Danish champions.”

Jaquez Corlet

Ola By Rise was sacked by Rosenborg (Norway) in October 2004, two rounds before the end of the league. At this point, Rosenborg was top of the league and had recently drawn against Arsenal in the Champions League group stage. He was allowed to finish the season – Rosenborg won.

January 21, 2020

Dirk Maas has another. “On 14 January 1993, Luka Peruzovic was sacked by the Anderlecht board, despite a comfortable six-point lead in the league after 18 games. The board cited ‘communication problems between players and the manager’ as the main reason for Peruzovic’s departure. The Croatian couldn’t speak Dutch and barely managed to communicate in French and English. Another point of criticism was the form of tactics used. He was blamed for playing too conservatively.”

And George Burley was removed from Tynecastle by owner Vladimir Romanov in October 2005, with Hearts unbeaten and leading the way in Scotland (barely a month after this piece). They finished second, 17 points behind Celtic. Speaking years later, Romanov was remorseless: “We could have lost more with him staying. Without him, we still got second place and the cup as well. All the players brought to Hearts that year were brought by me. George Burley’s influence was very minimal. I don’t know why people think he was the great coach. Look especially at when he was promoted to the Scottish national team – that was one of Scottish football’s biggest farces.”

Take us to Church

“Has any substitute been shown a yellow card while on the bench, then brought on and shown a second yellow card?” enquires Guy Stephenson.

“Simon Church was on the bench for Reading when they played away to Bristol City on 19 December 2009 (their first match Brendan Rodgers’ ill-fated four-month stint in charge),” recalls Richard Harland. “City were awarded a dubious penalty in the 13th minute. Church protested a bit too much with the assistant referee, earning him a booking while still on the bench. Bristol City converted the penalty and the score remained 1-0 until the 90th minute when substitute Church popped in a dramatic late equaliser. Cue over exuberant celebration with the Reading fans, a second booking and an (slightly) early bath.”

Good Jord

“Seeing that Jordan Henderson seems to have developed his own special trophy lift, are there other footballers who can claim the same?” asks Gareth Bell-Jones.

Hilderaldo Bellini, captain of Brazil’s first World Cup-winning side in 1958, was the first footballer to triumphantly lift a trophy over their head. Amid the throng of fans on the Rasunda Stadium pitch in Solna, Bellini thrust it skywards so the attending press could capture the image, one that is immortalised in a statue outside the Maracanã in Rio.

Hilderaldo Luiz Bellini

Bellini lifts the World Cup trophy after Brazil beat Sweden 5-2 in the 1958 final. Photograph: Folke Hellberg/TT News Agency/Press Association Images

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“I’m pretty sure Shoot magazine ran a weekly feature in the 1990s visiting different league clubs to measure the player with the hardest shot and longest throw,” recalled John Hyde in 2016. “They may have also done the keeper’s throw as well. I think I vaguely remember Andy Legg winning the longest throw but who were the other winners?”

“I also recall the Shoot Magazine hardest shot competition (not so much the longest throw though),” wrote Niall Stafford. “Nicky Summerbee, while still at Swindon Town, clocked his strike at around 89mph, proving to Shoot readers of the day that his shot had the most sting. I’ll add that I have been waiting 20-odd years to use that pun, so thank you John.” Shoot was not alone in measuring the venom of various footballers’ shots. More recently, but still almost a decade ago, the Knowledge discovered that, while there is no official record of the hardest shot in football, Sheffield Wednesday striker David Hirst once blasted a 114mph surface-to-air screamer against the bar against Arsenal during a 4-1 defeat on 16 September 1996. His shot from 14.8 yards was clocked by the Sky Sports Replay 2000 tracking machine and you can read more about his and other foot-propelled pile-drivers here.

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Can you help?

After Erling Braut Haaland, has anyone else scored a hat-trick after coming on for their debut as a sub?” poses Wayne Duncan.

Erin Raif

With Liverpool potentially able to win the league in early April, what is the earliest in the season a team has won a league title?

January 21, 2020

“After Chris Burke got six assists in one match for the mighty Killie against Queen’s Park in the Scottish Cup, I wanted to know whether this is the most known number of assists in a match?” mails Macca Macnair.

“Which stadium has provided the greatest distance from touchline to stands?” asks Chris O’Rourke.


Has a team ever walked off the pitch unaware they’ve been promoted/won the league?

January 21, 2020

“Which team has been relegated with the biggest stadium?” wonders Doug Zanger.

Colm Kearns

Man City will be disappointed with their title defense, but being on course for circa 80 points, they’ve hardly shamed themselves. However, what’s the lowest points total for a team finishing in 2nd place? (In England or elsewhere)

January 21, 2020

Email your questions and answers to or tweet @TheKnowledge_GU.


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