Leeds United's Javi Gracia, post-Brexit work permit rules, expert view and reassuring precedents

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Leeds United’s work permit application for new head coach Javi Gracia will almost certainly have to go through an exceptionals panel due to rules brought in after Brexit.

Post-Brexit immigration guidelines adopted by the Football Association and Home Office stipulate that any foreign manager coming into the Premier League and moving to the UK from abroad must meet certain criteria in order to be granted a governing body endorsement [GBE] by the FA. The restrictions only apply to managers moving from abroad, so those already working and living in this country would have no issue.

According to the guidelines, a manager must have overall responsibility for the first team of the club applying for a GBE, must hold a UEFA professional license or equivalent and must be filling a vacancy at a managerless-club. In each of those cases, Gracia, a pro license holder, qualifies, given Leeds sacked Jesse Marsch just over a fortnight ago and the Spaniard will assume control of the senior side in their Premier League survival battle.

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But the fourth stipulation is that an incoming manager must have managed a club in what the FA regards as a ‘top league’ for a cumulative total of at least 36 months, or two years consecutively, within the five year period immediately prior to the date of his application.

This is where Gracia’s application process becomes less straightforward, because the last five years have seen him in charge at Watford for 18 months, Valencia for nine months and Qatar Stars League side Al Sadd for six months.

Top leagues, in the FA’s guidelines, are those in any of five bands which run from Band 1, comprising the Premier League and its fellow ‘big five’ European divisions, down to Band 5, including the Serbian SuperLiga, the Polish Ekstraklasa and the Chinese Super League. The QSL does not appear in the FA’s list of top leagues because it is in Band 6, but even if it did, Gracia’s time in management over the past five years would come to a total of just over 33 months, just shy of the requirement.

What it means, therefore, is that for Gracia to obtain a work permit to start taking training and filling the role of head coach at Leeds United, his application must go to an exceptions panel.

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Leeds are not in uncharted waters here, having successfully appealed to such a panel in order for Norwegian goalkeeper Kristoffer Klaesson to join the club in the summer of 2021, when he did not meet the requirements for a work permit. “I have to feel proud that we were the first team to pass an exception panel in England with Kristoffer,” director of football Victor Orta told the YEP in 2021.

WORK PERMIT - Javi Gracia, as a foreign manager coming to work at Leeds United, requires a work permit and post-Brexit immigration guidelines apply. Pic: GettyWORK PERMIT - Javi Gracia, as a foreign manager coming to work at Leeds United, requires a work permit and post-Brexit immigration guidelines apply. Pic: Getty
WORK PERMIT - Javi Gracia, as a foreign manager coming to work at Leeds United, requires a work permit and post-Brexit immigration guidelines apply. Pic: Getty

How it works for a manager is that the FA appoints an independent panel of three members, including one legally qualified chair and two panel members who have relevant experience at the top level of the game, to consider an application that has not met the initial criteria. The applying club, Leeds in this instance, has to pay a fee of £5,000 for the panel to go ahead. According to the FA, an exceptions panel can only recommend that a GBE be granted if it is satisfied that the manager is of the highest calibre and is able to contribute significantly to the development of the game at the top level in England.

Consideration is given to the leagues the manager has worked in during the past five years – for Gracia this includes the Premier League, La Liga and the QSL – and any participation in continental or world competition, along with the reasons why the automatic criteria have not been met.

Leeds’ case should be relatively simple in that Gracia’s track record at Watford can be regarded as a significant contribution – he saved them from the drop in his first season, led them to an improved midtable finish in his second and guided the Hornets to their second ever FA Cup final. His time at Valencia, in LaLiga, was fraught with difficulty due to the club’s off-field circumstances and yet he kept them in midtable. He has operated in two top leagues for 27 months during the last five years and boasts an extensive and well-travelled managerial career. In Qatar, albeit not in a top division, he won a league title. What’s more, Leeds’ belief that he is the man to keep them up and the highest calibre appointment they can make would be almost impossible for a panel to dispute. Subjectivity appears to be in-built with this process and plays in a club’s favour.

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What should also reassure Whites supporters is that precedents have already been set in English football’s top tiers. Andy Watson is a GBE and work permit expert working in football recruitment and undertook a Brexitball study on behalf of Analytics FC.

"Gracia definitely doesn't pass the criteria in the legislation but that doesn't mean anyone should necessarily be concerned about him not getting the permit,” he told the YEP.

"What I referred to in the Brexitball document is that the documentation doesn't seem to be as firmly applied in managerial cases. Shota Arveladze and Ralf Rangnick didn't meet requisite criteria, Jon Dahl Tomasson and Vincent Kompany were also really borderline on time served managing before coming over this summer. I don't know the official reasons for these permits being given, no public information is ever put out there but I think each case is looked at on its merits.

“Rangnick is a very well respected coach who was still working in a Band 1-5 league in a different role and had been for some time. Also, if Manchester United say that Rangnick was the man they wanted then the FA are not going to disagree. Gracia has a bit of this about him as well given his previous Premier League relative success and also recent work in La Liga.

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"Jon Dahl Tomasson and Kompany were very tight on the time coached before coming over, but common sense prevailed here. It’s very subjective. I think that the FA and Home Office take into account that a managerial life span is quite short, especially in the modern world. And therefore getting two years continuous is pretty tricky actually. So a spell like Gracia's will probably be looked upon favourably.”

An exceptions panel will make its decision based on the papers submitted to it, at an in-person or virtual meeting, with secretarial support from the FA, and each panel member has one vote, leading to a simple majority decision. The chair, however, has a casting vote. If the recommentation is for a GBE to be granted, the FA will then consider whether or not to do so but their guidance points out, they are under no obligation.

If his work permit is granted in time, Gracia could take charge of his first game when Leeds host Southampton in another crunch clash at the bottom of the Premier League.

The Analytics FC Brexitball Report can be found, free of charge, by clicking HERE