So, Paul Ince has been appointed as the manager of Blackburn Rovers, and I guess it’s progress of sorts that the majority of debate concerning his appointment has been on the subject of his relative lack of experience and his decision to take the Franchise shilling, rather than the colour of his skin. It is refreshing to see a Premier League club take on a manager from the lower divisions. You might not like Paul Ince (and how successful he has actually been is open to question – he was given massive amounts of money by Milton Keynes and anything other than winning last year’s League Two title would have been a pretty abject failure), but if he turns out to be a success in the Premier League, it doesn’t take an enormous leap of imagination to see him being linked with the England job after Fabio Capello fails to take England to the 2010 World Cup. I don’t, you’ll be unsurprised to hear, think that there is anything wrong with taking managers from the lower divisions. It’s easy to forget how much support modern Premier League managers get these days – a full raft of full-time professionals, trained and qualified to ensure that the players are fine-tuned to the same degree that modern racing cars are. The idea that, somehow, managing in the Premier League is more “difficult” than managing further down the ladder strikes me as being a somewhat curious one, even taking into account the enormous pressure that they are under.
Elsewhere, concerns have been raised about Ince’s lack of a UEFA Pro coaching badge, which is now a requirement for any manager in the Premier League. Blackburn have stated that they hope to get special dispensation for Ince while he qualifies, but the question of why an ambitious young manager who has been in management for two or three years would not get themselves the qualification remains a valid one. After all, it only requires 240 hours of study over the course of a year, followed by a week at Warwick University to get a UEFA Pro Licence. The FA and the League Managers Association are in favour of all managers being qualified, but resistance to this rumbles on from the Premier League clubs themselves, who feel that these qualifications restrict them from being able to hire and fire as they wish. Putting to one side the fact that hiring and firing managers is a foolish policy to pursue if you seek to bring long-term stability to your club, it is still astonishingly wrong-headed of Premier League clubs to try and bypass UEFA rules over coaching qualifications. The circumstances surrounding Glen Roeder being exempted from it are well documented, but the situation regarding Gareth Southgate has shown the contempt with which the UEFA Pro Licence is held in Premier League circles. Southgate was appointed as Middlesbrough’s manager in November 2006 with the club arguing that because he had been an international player, he hadn’t had the time to take the qualification. Over eighteen months on, he is still studying for it.
These debates are important ones, but they do overlook the most significant factor in Ince’s appointment – the colour of his skin. Ince becomes the first black, British manager in the Premier League (though not, of course, the first black Premier League manager – Ruud Gullitt and Jean Tigana have already been there and done that). It’s difficult to argue that there isn’t an element of institutionalised racism in this figure. After all, getting on for a third of all players are black, so why are they not given opportunities at a managerial level? It’s not, after all, as if they’re not applying for the jobs. John Barnes has gone public with his belief, citing the lack of response to his own applications for jobs at League One clubs and the experience of his former Watford team-mate Luther Blissett as examples of how difficult it is for black former players to get their foot in the managerial door. Barnes himself may not necessarily be the best example that one could give – after all, he was given a high profile coaching position at Celtic in 1999 and made an absolute pig’s ear of it, and his complaint about not receiving replies to his applications could just as easily be explained by chairmen with long memories that don’t wish to gamble on someone that has already failed as spectacularly as he did at Celtic as it could be by racism – but the questions that he raises are important ones.
If one considers the players of the same generation as Barnes that went on to become managers, many have been given repeat chances, often flying in the face of anything resembling logic. The likes of Peter Reid, Bryan Robson and Terry Butcher have failed, failed and failed again, but have all been given far more than one opportunity to make their mark as managers, but this is not a courtesy that has been extended to Barnes, who is currently working in a coaching capacity for Sunderland. Whilst it is true that a shade over half of all managers only ever get one managerial position, it would also seem to be true that candidates that have had higher profile playing careers will be cut a little more slack than others. As players’ profiles go, they don’t get higher than John Barnes, but the suspicion remains that managerial appointments remain an Old Boys Club to which the likes of Peter Reid and Bryan Robson are members, but Barnes isn’t. On balance, it is probably fair to draw the assumption that the cultural divide between Barnes, the softly spoken middle-class son of a Jamaican military man, and the white, working class upbringing of so many people working within the game had a racial element to it, even if it was not explicit.
The question of why there are not more managers and coaches from the ethnic minorities in England is a complex one, and one which probably isn’t best served by saying “racism” and ending the debate there and then. There almost certainly is a degree of racism to it, and the question of whether it is conscious racism or not is a red herring. It is irrelevant whether club owners think “I’m not hiring a black”, say “I’m not hiring a black”, or simply disregard applications that they receive from black managers. The end result is the same. When reading the comments of John Barnes, it is important to remember that he is not even getting to the stage of having an interview for the League One positions that he is applying for. He is simply sending in his CV and not receiving a response. For all he knows, his CV is not even being looked at. It’s difficult to see what other conclusion he could come to other than to start to believe that there is an element of racism in the constant rejection that he faces. Meanwhile, the rest of the game needs to stop thinking of hiring a black manager as “taking a chance on a black manager”. Equal opportunities means exactly what it says, and my over-riding suspicion is that nothing will change much until there is a wholesale reappraisal of the culture within which managers are appointed.