“The black players at this club lend the side a lot of skill and flair, but you also need white players in there to balance things up and give the team some brains and some common sense.” So said Ron Noades in 1991, while Chairman of current Premier League club Crystal Palace.
The statement caused an outcry at the time – although it reverberated rather less around the footballing community. But this was nearly 25 years ago; it’s now the 21st century, this is the brave new Premier League era and we English live in a much more ethnically diverse society.
Indeed, black players now form the basis of many English football clubs and the England national team – think Daniel Sturridge, Raheem Sterling, Danny Wellbeck and Theo Walcott. And, of course, some black players from the past are now occupying management positions within clubs. This surely is a brave new footballing world?
Well, not really: there are currently only two black managers working in English professional football, Chris Powell of Championship side Huddersfield Town and Keith Curle at League Two’s Carlisle United. And this is nothing unusual; while more than a million people in Great Britain and nearly one-third of players in the Premier League are black, the chances of a black player successfully securing a position in English club management are, at best, scant.
Indeed, a recent article set the challenge: “Can you name 10 black football managers?” I will leave you to ponder that one. I will also leave you to consider the related issue of why so few people of Asian origin are involved in English professional football, even though there are 2.5 million such citizens in Great Britain.
It is possible that those within the footballing establishment continue to subscribe to Ron Noades’ view of the game – that white managers have more brains and common sense than black managers. The poor record English clubs have in appointing black managers and the inference that the likes of Viv Anderson, Paul Ince and many others have simply not been good enough are all too common. It would appear that English football is still too close for comfort to its 1991 attitudes.
A growing number of people – from former England defender Rio Ferdinand to Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg – are pointing out that institutional racism in English football is to blame for the lack of management opportunities. During the Stephen Lawrence inquiry, institutional racism was identified as involving collective failings towards people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin. Furthermore, it was stated that institutional racism is found in “processes, attitudes and behaviour which, through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping, disadvantage minority ethnic people”.
As The Independent highlighted, this means some organisations and institutions operate to a set of embedded values or assumptions that can lead to black people being discriminated against without any particular individual having to act with racist intent. Clear parallels therefore with football; many people suspect the sport is institutionally racist, but who or what is responsible and why are rather more debatable issues.
The call for affirmative action
It is in this context that some people in the game have started to talk more openly of the need to address institutional racism. Gordon Taylor, chief executive of the Professional Footballer’s Association, recently claimed that “[in football] a hidden racism holds clubs back”. While former Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur and England defender Sol Campbell has described English football as being institutionally racist for the way in which he was denied the opportunity to captain the country’s national team.
In particular, there are growing calls for English football to adopt affirmative action, possibly even positive discrimination, in its attempts to provide equality of opportunity for black managers. One such measure has already been adopted by the National Football League in the United States. Called the Rooney Rule, this regulation was proposed by Dan Rooney, owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers and chairman of the NFL’s Workplace Diversity Committee.
The rule requires that a team interviews at least one black or ethnic minority candidate for a head coach vacancy. According to Rooney, this not only contributes to a greater sense of equality, but also opens up a new pool of management talent to teams.
One of the lawyers who devised the Rooney Rule, Cyrus Mehri, has already called upon David Cameron to bring football club owners together in order to reach a similar agreement. Indeed, Mehri, Rooney and several others have called upon English football to show leadership in tackling racism head-on.
Not everyone is convinced though, including Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger. The Frenchman has criticised positive discrimination in football management, stressing that competence alone should determine whether or not men are invited to be interviewed for a post.
Although “The Professor”, as some call him, to an extent has a point, his comments do belie the reality of how deeply embedded racism in English football is. And this is not just an issue for prospective black managers either, it’s also an issue for players from other ethnic backgrounds.
Plus, while Wenger might protest that managers should be competent men, his compatriots at French club Clermont Foot 63 have this year hired two successive female coaches, Helena Costa and Corinne Diacre. If we are to adopt positive discriminatory measures for prospective black managers, then why not for other underrepresented sections of society too?
Sports leagues in the US do tend to run their operations in a much more interventionist way than we do here in Europe. Hence, regulations such as the Rooney Rule are always more likely to be implemented there. But US sports also have a keen eye for upholding egalitarian principles, ensuring a succession of talent, and promoting commercial success.
So, the NFL’s moves are not merely whimsical, ill-considered or piecemeal measures intended to placate. And English football would do well to explore either the Rooney Rule or other such measures, particularly if the legacy of comments by people such as Ron Noades is to finally be addressed.