'Covert racism' is blocking black managers' progress, says Barnes

Former England international believes the colour of his skin is the main reason why he has not been offered a second chance in the game
Click to follow
The Independent Football

The anger in John Barnes' voice is apparent. A career as a football manager is being denied him, and other black former players, he believes, for one reason: racism. It exists in the game - and in society - as it always has done. The former England international, not yet 40, has not worked as a manager since his dismissal by Celtic more than three years ago. He has applied for "half a dozen" jobs and not even received a reply, never mind an interview.

He chooses a shocking image to illustrate his point. Every football fan will remember it. There is Barnes in 1988, playing in his first Merseyside derby, in the colours of Liverpool, the club with whom he won the League twice and became the first black player to win both major player of the year awards. A banana lands at his feet. Barnes back-heels it away. The photograph belongs to another era. Some hope.

"Football reflects society," he says. "When a black man walks into a shop, people look at him as if he is going to steal something. It happens every day in all walks of life. I'm not naive enough to think: 'Isn't it terrible'. It's like the banana incident against Everton, when people said: 'Isn't that disgraceful. How bad is this'. It happens every day. Black people face racism every day. Maybe it isn't so much in your face, but that doesn't mean it isn't there."

It has, he says, never gone away. He bridles with indignation at the reaction in this country. "What happens now when England play Macedonia or whoever and you get the overt chanting at black players and people get on their high horse saying: 'Isn't it terrible. This doesn't happen in our country.' But of course it does. You just don't hear it."

It may not be "overt", Barnes adds, but a less easily identified "covert racism". He explains: "You can look out for it, you can be aware of it. But the covert racism, as I call it, is dangerous because you can't prove it and you can be in a situation where you think everything is going well but maybe someone doesn't like you because of your colour and is undermining you. You don't know - and that's why it is a more dangerous kind of racism."

Of the 2,800 professional footballers registered with clubs, 20 per cent are black. Black managers who have worked at the highest level have tended to come from abroad - such as Ruud Gullit or Jean Tigana. There are currently four black managers working at professional level in Britain: Keith Alexander at Lincoln City, Keith Curle at Mansfield Town, Andy Preece at Bury and Leroy Rosenoir at Torquay United. Until recently there was a fifth, Carlton Palmer at Stockport County. Following Barnes' argument, it will be revealing if Palmer gets another job. No black manager, he says, receives "a second chance".

"But you still can't prove it," he adds. "Because the clubs can say 'Oh, we just felt that he was not the right man' or 'You weren't what we were looking for'. Nothing can be proved. And that's what I'm saying, that's why it is such a difficult situation."

Richly talented, Barnes, with 79 England caps and 18 years as a professional footballer, became the most high-profile black Briton to be given a management job when he was taken to Celtic in June 1999 to work with Kenny Dalglish, the director of football and his former manager at Liverpool. He was their seventh manager in eight years. Barnes knew he was inexperienced. He knew the opportunity had come around quickly (he had expected to play one more season at Charlton Athletic) but he also knew he had to take it.

"Some people feel you should start at a small club but it was too good a chance to turn down," he said.

It did not work out. Eight months later he was sacked after a shock Cup defeat to Inverness Caledonian Thistle. Little did he know then, however, that it might well turn out to be his one and only opportunity.

And so people assume that he has turned his back on it all to work in the media. "That's what a lot of people think," said Barnes who has signed a two-year deal to become the main presenter of Five's football coverage. "But it is not to say that after that I don't want to go into management."

His, he adds, is not a special case. "It is not just the fact that I was at Celtic. If you look at it generally in terms of black managers who have not been given opportunities elsewhere then they were not at high-profile clubs. That it was a high-profile club really did not have a bearing on the fact that I was not given any opportunities anywhere else."

And he reels off the names of talented former players. "Look at black managers like Ricky Hill, Brian Stein, Luther Blissett, Cyrille Regis. I'm no different from any of them."

A frustrated Regis has turned his back on coaching to become a football agent. And then there is Paul Davis, who was apparently overlooked for the position of Under-17 coach at Arsenal even though he was highly qualified. He has resigned while Arsenal have vehemently denied racial discrimination.

"Now we have the situation with Paul Davis, for example, where he is in a job and appears to have been passed over," says Barnes. "But the majority are not even in jobs, so for those 99 per cent they can't even come out with a complaint. So what can we do? If I am a chairman or on a board of directors [at a football club] and I don't want to employ people then something like the CRE [Commission for Racial Equality] cannot do anything about that." Nevertheless the Professional Footballers' Association has agreed a plan of action after a meeting last week.

However, Barnes believes it is not a problem that can be easily confronted. "You apply, you wait for a call, an interview and you don't get it. So what can you do? How can you improve it? You don't even get a call from them. What do you do? Drive down and ask them why? The number of people who apply for a job, they can't all ask why they didn't get an interview."

Barnes adds: "They are well within their rights to make the decision. After they have made the decision they could tell you anything. The point I'm making is that you don't know."

Maybe, he says, it is all just "coincidence" - although, surely, it is too consistent a trend for that. "Exactly. But you can't prove it. Why aren't there black managers when there are black players? It's like journalism. You go to a press conference at a match and there are not a lot of black reporters. I don't think that is because black people don't want to go into journalism."

There is some hope for the future, he says, simply because society is evolving. "If you look at teenagers now and the way they dress and the music they listen to. Are they black, are they white, are they Asian?" Barnes asks. "They are growing up in the same way, listening to the same music. So this new British culture does mean that the future looks a lot brighter. But that doesn't help Luther Blissett and people like that who want to become managers now."

Or John Barnes and what may turn out to be another lost generation of talent.

Comments