For almost a century and a half, the beautiful game has offered excitement, advancement and delight. But only, it seems, if you’re white, straight and male.
Such is the dissonance between football in theory and in practice. If there is a European equivalent to the American dream it is this, the universal promise of a game that can transform regions, offer hope to broken communities and raise even the poorest from rags to riches.
Yet football has a problem. Professional sport is perhaps the most outstanding barrier, being readily in the public eye, to social progress. And this week, with the sacking of Chris Ramsey from QPR and Chris Powell from Huddersfield, it has become even more painfully obvious.
These, as anti-racism campaigner Troy Townsend has noted, are indeed a dark days. As The Guardian showed last season, whilst minorities in the Football League may constitute around a third of players and 18% of candidates on PFA courses, there now stand just four managers from minority backgrounds.
Brighton’s Chris Hughton, Burton Albion’s Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, Keith Curle at Carlisle and Ricardo Moniz at Notts County now cut rather forlorn figures.
The lack of minority figures serving as head coaches is only the tip of the iceberg. Last year, a breakdown of the 17 black coaches in England’s top 116 clubs by The Mirror made for some pretty bleak reading, revealing the problem to be endemic to the whole coaching structure. For all the attempts to ‘Kick it Out’, football, it seems, has a race problem.
Last season, The Sport People’s Think Tank, which includes ex-players like Jason Roberts well aware of the culture within the modern game, published a new report condemning the institutional racism rife in football.
Ex-players like Roberts, Clarke Carlisle and Sol Campbell have at times appeared rather lonely in seeking to draw attention to systemic racism in football. Now, however, the PFA is on board, with Chairman Gordon Taylor condemning “a hidden racism which holds clubs back.”
Yet for every Roberts, Carlisle or Campbell there’s a David James arguing that it’s not a question of black managers lacking opportunities so much as quality, (which the Daily Mail unsurprisingly ran with) or Frank Sinclair rubbishing Townsend’s claims.
Besides the experience of two individuals whose combined managerial and playing careers as minority players span more than half a century, surely, what does Gordon Taylor know?
Yet the statistics prove Sinclair and James wrong. There have been too few minority managers in the Premier League in the last half-decade to attempt meaningful comparison, yet the Championship allows us to compare the records of Ramsey and Powell with their white counterparts.
Try multiplying the number of matches lost in the last ten games by the difference in league position compared to the team’s final rank in the previous season. With this, we can calculate a ‘Firing Factor’ to show how reasonable a managerial departure was at any given time.
|Games lost||Positional change||‘Firing Factor’|
The first thing this reveals is that Ramsey undoubtedly deserved to be sacked. Given the Royals’ hope to return immediately to the Premier League after relegation last year, and given Ramsey’s access to a strong squad that somehow still includes Charlie Austin, QPR had little choice other than to fire him.
Powell’s, on the other hand, seems rather harsh, particularly when compared with the same statistic for other Championship managers.
|Games lost||Positional change||‘Firing Factor’|
What this shows is that the managers of Bolton, Nottingham Forest and Blackburn all deserved to be fired, when judged by the same criteria as Powell, much more readily. All three are still in jobs. Only Neil Lennon is reported as being under real pressure.
So minority managers, it seems, are judged far more harshly than their white counterparts, and are much more likely to lose their jobs when compared by the same criteria. Yet this assumes they’ve even got their foot in the door: minority managers also find it equivalently harder to have access to good jobs.
At Newcastle, Chris Hughton had a ‘Firing Factor’ of -27, given only three losses and nine places gained, broadly in keeping with the shock felt by Magpies fans upon his sacking. Currently, Steve McClaren at the same club scores a ten, above Powell, having lost six games and two places.
For all that most consider Hughton’s firing unjust, the current Brighton manager was forced to drop down a division, to Birmingham City, in the hope of finding a job.
Conversely, McClaren was appointed to Newcastle after losing two games and five positions at Derby, which gives him a ‘Firing Factor’ of ten that doesn’t even take into account Derby’s plummet from promotion favourites to play-off hopefuls over a longer period. White managers, it seems, are forgiven more.
All of which supports the idea that football suffers from institutional racism. Is it surprising that there are no Asian managers, when an erstwhile Premier League manager can refer to them as ‘dogs’ and not only avoid FA punishment but quickly walk into another job in the second tier of English football?
Is it surprising that black candidates are given little consideration when we describe Dennis Bergkamp, Andrea Pirlo and Pep Guardiola as thinking footballers with the intellectual standing of Descartes, whilst Yaya Touré, Sol Campbell and Adebayo Akinfenwa are made media caricatures of brawn and physicality?
For Audrey Sebatindira, BME officer at Cambridge University’s Trinity Hall, these attitudes are key in making the problem cyclical.
As well as not being deemed good enough managers, black players are often placed in positions that are seen as requiring more strength and speed than mental agility.
Whilst Andrea Pirlo is deployed to shape attacks like a conductor, Romelu Lukaku is thrown at defences like a battering ram.
Ultimately, Sebatindira feels that this is a hangover from times past.
This idea of the natural strength of black people originated in, and was used as a partial justification of, the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The idea remains pervasive because most representations of black people in the media are of black athletes, rarely of black thinkers, and this inevitably feeds into sports.
Football, it seems, has failed to challenge these internalised biases.
Yet this is hardly surprising, given the closed nature of football. The media frenzy that has surrounded news that two Premier League footballers may be homosexual exemplifies how far football has to come.
If you don’t think there’s inbuilt stigmatism, ask yourself: in the music industry, a comparatively high profile and lucrative industry in the public eye, would ‘two pop stars ready to come out as gay’ make national headlines?
Footballers like Thomas Hitzlsperger, who since retiring has come out as gay, are to be applauded for their bravery. Yet they face an uphill struggle
The deplorable decision of Win Cash Live to take bets on which are the footballers set to come out exemplifies the problems besetting English football, and reveals the preoccupations and assumptions of the footballing community.
To be a proper footballer you must be straight. To be a proper footballer you must be cis-gender. To be a proper footballer you must be regularly seen out and about with women, (because if we were rich we all would just use that to chase the ladies, right?) or you’re probably a bit different.
And, say Win Cash Live, you’re probably gay. And, suggests the media furore, this isn’t a legitimate sexual preference but rather at best a strange novelty and, at worst, a perversion.
For all the Football League is making important strides in planning to introduce an equivalent of the American ‘Rooney Rule’, forcing clubs to interview at least one minority candidate for the position of manager, this is a cure for the symptoms and not the illness.
The problem is not with rules, but with mentalities. So long as our archetypal footballer is a white, straight, playboy character who likes nights out and ‘banter’, and so long as this is a criteria for advancement, the great game will never change.
If this is the ‘national game’ then it is pitched at a very limited nation indeed.