It was Clyde Best who inspired Chris Powell to play football. Afternoons spent at Upton Park with his father, watching West Ham United's first black player. It showed Powell that colour was no longer a bar to fulfilling a sporting dream. It gave him a role model.
Now he may well become one himself - an inspiration for a new generation of footballers, a new generation of would-be coaches and managers, of black coaches and managers. "I hope I'm going to do it," says the Charlton Athletic defender. "It's been my life since I left school and I hope that I'm going to try to stay in the game in some capacity, especially in coaching, or some other avenue. It may be me who makes the difference for a younger player or coach in the future. It has happened to me, I've had role models and people who have encouraged me to make this game my career. I also look at the few managers and think, 'If they can do it, I can'."
There are, of course, a very few. Just four black League managers - Keith Alexander at Lincoln City, Keith Curle at Mansfield Town, Leroy Rosenior at Torquay United and Andy Preece at Bury - even though 20 per cent of players are black. "I can name all the coaches as well," says Powell by way of explaining how spare the total is.
He knows it is a contentious issue. Powell recently attended a conference called by the anti-racism group Kick It Out and the Professional Footballers' Association. "I must admit that when I saw what had happened with a lot of players, it really made me feel, 'Should I go down this road and get doors shut in my face?' It really made me think about it," he admits.
Interestingly, Powell, now 34, was the only current player there. "I have wondered what people might think," he says. "But I'm looking at the future, I can see some coaches and players in there, and my next step is in that field. So should I do it, should I pursue it? It's a case of building my future and looking ahead. In a few years' time, I want to be in that position."
One startling theme was that, yes, black managers are sometimes given a chance. But rarely a second one. "I didn't think too much about it until then. It is such a glaring statistic," Powell says. "It opened my eyes a bit to what some of the ex-players were feeling. Some of them had had a chance - and then that's it.
"It's hard to put a finger on it, but it's similar to the way in which black players broke through. It's a case of just keep applying for jobs. Keep pushing. It happened on the field. Clyde Best was a breakthrough player, and after him it became more commonplace. Every club now have had a black player representing them - you have to start somewhere, and that somewhere is now. It will take time."
And hence the need for role models. "It's not only trying to encourage ex-players. It's also in the community. Black and Asian people enjoy football, it's a massive sport and they need to be encouraged to make headway," Powell says. "They need those role models. I would not have enjoyed my football if it wasn't for my father supporting West Ham because of Clyde Best. That's the link. There is always a link. People can look back and see why they supported a particular club, and generally for black fans it tends to be because of black players, like Ian Wright. The teenagers around that time were all supporting Arsenal. Now they've got Thierry Henry. I always feel there is something that a fan wants to pin their hat on and say, 'I like them because of him'." Arsenal, of course, are Charlton's opponents today at The Valley.
Powell goes on: "The bottom line is that someone has to give someone a chance. It's very hard to get a job with a club - there are just 92 managers, and we see how many people are out there who can coach.
"Some say it is a bit of a closed shop, and that is very hard to prove. But look at the facts - there are managers who have had jobs, failed miserably and six months down the line they get another job. John Barnes is someone who had a fantastic chance to manage Celtic - obviously because of the link with Kenny Dalglish - and yet he hasn't had a chance since. He's applied for jobs. OK, it did not go well, but there wasn't a club in a lower league who were then prepared to give him a chance after that."
Powell talks warmly on the work done by Alexander at Lincoln - who also attended the conference along with former players such as Barnes, Cyrille Regis, Brian Stein and Luther Blissett. "He says it [being a manager] really opened his eyes as to how people perceive him. He came across a whole load of negatives, especially when he got the job," Powell says. "I'm not just pleased for him, I'm proud of him."
At the end of this season he will take his coaching badges - "I enjoy involving myself with the younger players here and seeing how they're doing" - and has already worked with coach Mark Robson. Although he plans to carry on playing, Powell also intends to join a soon-to-be-formed black coaches group which will act as a support network.
He is aware of the case of Paul Davis, who was apparently overlooked for the position of Under-17 coach at Arsenal even though he was the best-qualified candidate. "It's not just a case of people saying, 'We have to get in'. If they have the right qualifications, the right experience, then they should not really be turned away," Powell says. "Paul Davis has all the right qualifications and was seemingly the number one candidate. It's a strange one, but that's something Arsenal will have to answer." Having left Highbury, Davis is now weighing up his options.
Powell is also acutely conscious of the need to tread carefully. Racism is a brutal allegation. "It's a very hard point to make or distinguish that someone hasn't got a job because of his colour," he says. "You can't exactly prove it. That's very hard unless someone actually admits it. There's people talking about the old-school brigade, and I'm sure there are elements of that, but for me to say who it is or what club it is, I can't do it. You just have to hope that people at the higher echelons will take someone on what they can do." As on the pitch, ability should be the only credo.Reuse content