In Britain, black people are excluded from decision-making in top-flight football. It will take more than one club appointment to change that
If you are white, you might think that English football is gloriously multiracial. After all, over a quarter of the players in the Premiership are black and much the same is true of the lower leagues. Alas, you would be wrong. Many players are black and, predictably, so are many who do football’s menial jobs such as catering, parking and security; but after that you enter an overwhelmingly white world. Virtually all the club chairmen and directors are white. Most outrageously of all, virtually every manager, even though they are almost always former players, is white.
This past week, John Barnes, the former England and Liverpool player – and a very memorable one at that – spoke of how, after he was sacked as Celtic manager in 2000, he was unable to get another job. Finally, on 15 June, he was named as manager of lowly Tranmere Rovers. Barnes said: “If I could have got back in one week after leaving Celtic, I would have done. While I did other things, that was not by choice. It was because opportunities did not present themselves. I went for a fair few jobs before this, and lower down than Tranmere.”
He also said: “I think there still is a race barrier in this country. Look at how disproportionate it is [sic] in terms of the number of black ex-players who are not in management and the number of black ex-players who are older than myself who haven’t been offered a job.”
In fact, it is worse than Barnes suggests. Apart from him, there is just one other black British manager in the whole of the Football League. There can be only one explanation: systematic discrimination by those in the boardrooms against applicants of darker skin. Take Paul Ince, another outstanding player in his time. He tried for numerous jobs and eventually was appointed manager of Macclesfield, which at the time was bottom of the Football League and trailing by an indecent seven points. Ince managed to close the gap and ultimately save the club from relegation. On the strength of his efforts, he was appointed manager of MK Dons. In his first season he won promotion. He was then appointed manager of Blackburn Rovers, the first black British manager of a Premiership club. His tenure proved all too brief: before the onset of winter, he was shown the door and he is still without another job.
Nor is the whites-only mentality confined to the boardroom and management. I might be wrong, but I cannot recall there ever being a main match commentator on television – let alone a studio presenter – who was not white. The situation is marginally better when it comes to half-time pundits. Robbie Earle has been used reasonably frequently by ITV, but the BBC’s Match of the Day on Saturday evenings has long been a white redoubt. Ian Wright used to be called on for international matches but the other pundits, to be blunt, always treated him as a marginal feature, even a figure of fun. In short, the black presence in the football studios has never been more than token. And there are precious few black faces on the sports desks of our national dailies.
Discrimination and prejudice reach their zenith at the Football Association. Not a single leading official is, or ever has been, black.
Herman Ouseley was appointed last year to the 116-member Football Association council, the first ever black member and still the only one. How can the FA lay any serious claim to being a legitimate representative of a game so strikingly multiracial, when its own structures verge on a total white-out? It would be good to think that one legacy David Triesman might bequeath the Football Association when his term as chairman ends is a more ethnically diverse organisation.
Football, alas, is hardly exceptional. The power structures of the game accord with those of other major British institutions: the preponderance of white people and the chronic under-representation of ethnic minorities. The reason the situation is so shocking in football is that this is a game which – from the Premiership to the amateur leagues – palpably involves a huge number of black players. The natural progression is from player to manager, and yet this route is blocked for black players. And the cause of this is nothing to do with potential or ability, but a belief that black players may perform well on the pitch but are not suitable to lead and manage. These are stereotypes that are manifest throughout society, as evidenced by the paucity of black people in positions of authority. This is why there is little adverse comment about the state of football: in a white-dominated society this remains the norm and, consequently, it is barely noticed and rarely commented on in football.
There should be zero tolerance of the outrageous double standards which prevail in football: that black players are acceptable but black managers are not, that the virtual absence of black presenters or pundits from the studios, or of black representatives from the corridors of the FA, is somehow fine. A concerted effort by leading figures in football, the media, MPs and football fans could shift attitudes and help to make soccer a model for other sports, and even for society more widely.
That might sound a tall order, but the blinding contradiction between the visibility of black players and the invisibility of black managers – and the blatant injustice of this state of affairs – suggest that it should not be impossible for football to set an example that others might copy.
This, however, will require the likes of Alex Ferguson and Arsène Wenger to speak out and for others to follow. It cannot be left to the Kick it Out anti-racist pressure group, Barnes, Ince and a handful of others. White society must take responsibility for a situation that is of its own making.