David Conn: Is football institutionally racist? If not, why are there so few black managers?

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There was something about the way Ricky Hill pulled the midfield strings in Luton Town's incongruously gorgeous team of the 1980s which lingers long in the mind. At an often-grim Kenilworth Road, notorious for Luton's then-chairman, David Evans, pioneering Margaret Thatcher's loathed ID scheme, Hill's strolling, control and visionary passing could be counted on to warm the heart.

There was something about the way Ricky Hill pulled the midfield strings in Luton Town's incongruously gorgeous team of the 1980s which lingers long in the mind. At an often-grim Kenilworth Road, notorious for Luton's then-chairman, David Evans, pioneering Margaret Thatcher's loathed ID scheme, Hill's strolling, control and visionary passing could be counted on to warm the heart.

Like many of his colleagues, Hill was inspired to take up coaching by the purist footballing philosophy of the Luton manager of that time, David Pleat - several warhorses from that stable ploughed on to successful careers on the training field: Brian Horton, Raddy Antic, Mick Harford, Iain Dowie and others.

After he retired, Hill quickly gained his FA Level 1 and 2 coaching certificates, then his senior Uefa B Licence, and, appointed originally by Pleat, from 1996-99 he worked as Sheffield Wednesday's Under-19s coach. There, Benito Carbone and Paolo Di Canio queued up to train in his sessions.

"They said the training was imaginative, intense, challenging and enjoyable, and they'd ask to join us on their days off."

Hill then went to Tottenham - another Pleat appointment - to work with the Under-19s, including Ledley King and Alton Thelwell. He earned his senior managerial breakthrough in 2000, at the club where he had been a playing legend: Luton. There, his assistant was Chris Ramsey, the former Brighton right-back, the most highly qualified black coach in this country, and Hill also recruited Brian Stein.

Three rocky months later Ramsey was sacked, and has not worked in England since. A month after that, Hill was sacked too. "It was a difficult time for the club, which had been in administration for the previous five years," he reflected this week. "The results weren't great, but we believed we were turning things round. Anyway, four months is simply not long enough to make a real difference."

Since then, he has coached abroad, in Trinidad, where his team won the treble and he was awarded coach of the year, but here, he has applied for fistfuls of jobs, and had no luck.

Stein is still at Luton, one of only three black first team coaches at professional football's 92 clubs - the others are Terry Connor at Wolves, and Chris Hughton, at Spurs. No Premier League club has ever had a British black first-team manager. In the Football League there are currently three: Leroy Rosenior at Torquay, Keith Alexander at Lincoln, and Carlton Palmer, who has just replaced the Mansfield manager, Keith Curle, on a caretaker basis. That adds up to six black people employed out of professional football's 276 senior coaching and management positions. The Professional Footballers' Association calculates that 22 per cent of players are black; the figure for management is two per cent.

Hill's generation, who battled vile, constant racism from supporters in their time as players, are now questioning whether, in the always haphazard nature of the managerial merry-go-round, the game is institutionally racist.

"You have to wonder about cultural factors," Hill said, intense, frustrated. "Perhaps there is a notion that we're not cut out for management - and a reluctance by chairmen to employ black managers as the public faces of clubs."

Paul Davis was another stalwart of the same playing era; he made his Arsenal debut against Tottenham in 1978, and played for 18 years, winning two titles before retiring in 1995. He, too, trained assiduously to be a coach, earning his Uefa A Licence, as high as he could go. He worked for seven years with Arsenal's Under-12s and Under-13s, having a hand in the graduations of, among others, Ashley Cole and Justin Hoyte.

Two jobs came up with more senior sides which Davis did not get, but they were taken by more experienced coaches. A quiet, modest character, Davis reached breaking point in May last year, when he was passed over as Arsenal's Under-17 coach, and Steve Bould was appointed. He emphasises he has no personal problem with Bould, but Bould was at the time only working through his Level 2 Certificate and so was demonstrably less qualified.

"Liam Brady, the head of youth development, told me my personality wasn't right for the job. I didn't understand that, and I never received a satisfactory answer. I felt there was no pathway for me to more senior coaching, and I left. Nothing was said about me being black, but equally nothing was wrong with my coaching, so it left me with a sense that fair opportunities were not available."

Arsenal and Brady have emphatically denied there was any racist element in their decision-making, saying: "Steve Bould was chosen for the position as the club believed him to be the best person available for the job."

However, Davis's experience informs a growing call for modern, transparent, equal opportunities selection procedures, in an arena which has too often been a jobs-for-the-boys circus. In November last year, Davis began working for the PFA to address the problem, on Tuesday, at the FA's "Football for All" conference at Bradford City's Valley Parade, he highlighted a survey of black players' attitudes. One of the stereotypes is that black players are laid-back and not interested in management, but 76 per cent of those surveyed did want to stay in the game. Asked why they believed so few were coaching, 20 per cent said there was a lack of encouragement and information, but the largest response, 36 per cent, said the cause was institutional racism at the clubs.

"Black players see no role models," Davis said. "They see guys like Luther Blissett, Ricky Hill, Viv Anderson, John Barnes, maybe given one opportunity then nothing, and they're becoming bitter and dispirited. We want to help them into coaching courses, and work on the clubs and authorities to show strong leadership and appoint them."

The authorities have recognised this is a problem, and the Football Association , Football League, Premier League and League Managers' Association have joined the PFA in the Black Players Coaching and Management Forum, which also met this week. An FA spokesman told me: "We need to identify selection procedures which may be discriminatory, to ensure all positions are being filled on merit alone."

The Premier League, with professional consultants, is providing equal opportunities training, which all its clubs' staff must complete by the end of this season.

However, the Leagues and FA themselves, to borrow Greg Dyke's memorable description of the BBC, are "horribly white". Apart from Hope Powell, the women's team manager, there are no black people employed as coaches by the FA in any of the England representative sides. Nobody on the FA council is black, nor the senior executives, and the board could not blanche at being described as grey men in suits.

Ricky Hill recognises there are signs of progress, but is impatient for change. "We were very quick to lecture Spain when we had the booing of black players there last month, but we need to look closer to home to see if we have truly dealt with racism in our game."

He points to the United States, where the National Football League recognised it had a problem some years ago and now insists that for any advertised coaching post, at least two black or ethnic minority candidates have to be interviewed. He argues for a similar innovation here: "It gets you in the door. It will mean you're there to be considered, on your merits, along with the others.

"We're the generation which fought prejudice as players. I went to Burnley at 17 and the whole crowd was booing and making monkey noises. I never let it put me off my game; I scored the winning goal, and you could have heard a pin drop. At Newcastle, the black players had to walk out with our shirts over our faces because there was so much spit coming our way. It was as bad in the south, I had it at Brighton, in London.

"We battled that, broke down stereotypes about black players, but now we, the same people, are facing prejudice, however unwitting, as coaches. We'll prove that wrong too, but we need opportunities. And the years are slipping away; we haven't got time to wait."


Viewpoint on prejudice: the facts and figures

  • Of the 20 Premiership chairmen, only one, Mohamed Al Fayed, is non-white.
  • Of 72 Football League club chairmen, two, Firoz Kassam and Sam Hammam, are from ethnic minorities.
  • There are no black people employed in senior positions at the Football Association, Premier League or Football League, apart from Hope Powell, the England women's coach.
  • Of 20 Premiership managers, none are black.
  • Of 72 Football League club managers, three are black.
  • Of the 92 league clubs' first-team coaches, three are black.
  • Twenty per cent of players are black; two per cent of managers and coaches.
  • The PFA's Paul Davis is in contact with 75 black former players who want to coach. Of these, the following have the best qualification, the Uefa A Licence, but are not working in professional football: Luther Blissett, Chris Ramsey, Chris Fairclough, Paul Davis, Cyrille Regis, Gary Thompson, Iffy Onoura, Noel Blake, Paul Mortimer, Andy Kiwomya, Dave Regis.