Over the past few weeks, as transfer deadline day rocketed my burgeoning Twitter reliance into a full-blown addiction, it has struck me the wide array of debates that people get into when discussing sport. While Michael Owen and Dan Walker were discussing their favourite wrestlers, and Joey Barton was continuing on his crusade to convince people he has a brain by tweeting his favourite exhibits in the Tate Modern, Daily Mirror journalist Oliver Holt was tackling an altogether more important subject: the Rooney Rule.
While, from my time spent endlessly refreshing Twitter in those long summer hours, Holt does seem the type to get a fairly large bee in his red-top bonnet quite regularly; his persistent and dogged arguments regarding the Rooney Rule struck me as unique. I approached my research of the subject with some cynicism – Ollie Holt had, after all, been almost equally persistent in his defence of Manchester City Chief Executive Garry Cook not a few days earlier. I wondered if this ‘Rooney Rule’ was another instance of Holt getting involved in a debate for the sake of involvement, but as Garry Cook sensationally parted company with Man City to make Holt’s defence seem ill-advised, I discovered that his latest debate may be his most important.
The Rooney Rule, for the uninformed, is a ruling in the USA’s National Football League that requires NFL teams to interview ethnic minority candidates for head coaching positions when they are open. Like many, I assume, I was previously unaware of the rule’s existence and again, like many, I was eager to understand more about this fascinating solution to issues of race in such positions. Named after Pittsburgh Steelers chairman and league diversity committee Chairman Dan Rooney, the law came into existence in 2003. Since that point, several African American coaches have entered jobs that they may not have ever had the opportunity to if the Rooney Rule didn’t exist.
Ollie Holt, in combination with his Daily Mirror colleague Darren Lewis, has begun campaigning on Twitter for the introduction of some similar ruling in English football, given the startling lack of black managers in the game. When one considers the issue for the first time, the initial natural reaction is to reel through your mind to name all the black managers there have been in the last few years. While these are numerous, the amount of black managers, and black english managers in particular, is shockingly small. In the English game at the time of writing, while over a quarter of professional players are of black origin, only two clubs employ black managers. Chris Houghton, for so long an assistant manager is currently at Birmingham City, after a spell at Newcastle United. Chris Powell is currently manager at the club where he is considered a legend after his illustrious playing career, Charlton Athletic. The name so regularly wheeled out in this context is Paul Ince, but the Guv’nor currently finds himself unemployed after plying his trade for several years in the lower leagues, following six months at Blackburn Rovers.
Elsewhere over the last decade, Ruud Gullit added to the contingent of black managers, along with Fulham’s gaffer of three years Jean Tigana. The tragic death at the age of 53 of the league’s first full-time black coach, Keith Alexander, cut the number of black league managers at the time by a third. Previous black managers have included John Barnes, Viv Anderson and Luther Blissett, but among them none of these managers have ever come close to the managerial role at a sizeable club.
Why is this? Is there a troublingly archaic attitude at the heart of this issue? While England is one of the more forward-thinking nations when it comes to racism and racial issues in football (the shocking scenes during England’s game in Bulgaria, where Ashleys Cole and Young were subjected to racial abuse from home supporters, emphasised just how far ahead we are of some areas), certain problems do still persist. While minority players are thankfully not subjected to the same kind of wholesale ‘monkey-noise’ racial abuse seen in some Eastern European countries, and on a smaller scale across Spain and Italy, racial abuse is still an issue in our game. Tottenham fans last year subjected Real Madrid’s Emmanuel Adebayor, ironically now playing for them, to a well-known chant that exploits racial stereotypes, much to the disappointment of UEFA. England fans themselves harked back to the seventies against Bulgaria, and while not quite going as far as the home fans, chanted derogatory cursive about ‘Gypsies’ amongst other things.
Given the success and prevalence in England of campaigns such as ‘Kick it out’, it is shocking when one really begins to consider the deeper lying reasons behind the perpetual struggle of black managers to fight for opportunities in the English games. Take Houghton – a manager who successfully guided a decimated and destitute Newcastle side to promotion from the Championship at the first attempt and was sacked after just three months of Premier League life. Keith Andrews, a Lincoln City legend who took the team to four consecutive play-off campaigns, passed away in 2010. His death was recognised by the England national team, who wore black armbands for their next game, and by footballing luminaries across Europe. If he was so well respected, then, why did he never manage at a higher level than League Two?
Footballing greats such as Andrew Cole and the aforementioned John Barnes and Paul Ince have been unable to find any truly great opportunity in management, in spite of the great heights they reached in their career. In my opinion, not all of this can be explained purely by discrimination. In fact, for the debate, as life in general, we must look past the colour of their skin and examine their credentials. Paul Ince may not be that great a manager, while Barnes’ record is sketchy at best. I am not arguing that either of these men should be offered the Chelsea job should Villas-Boas prove unsuccessful, but I, like Holt and Lewis, wish to highlight the fact that bog standard white managers are offered opportunities time and time again. How many clubs can Ian Dowie get relegated before Paul Ince is offered a shot ahead of him? How many times will chairmen turn to Alan Pardew, Nigel Pearson, Aidy Boothroyd or Steve Kean before John Barnes is deemed worthy of another chance? It seems that when white managers fail, a chance for redemption is never too far away. If a black manager doesn’t succeed immediately, he is confined to the lower leagues, or indeed unemployment, for the foreseeable future.
So is the Rooney Rule the answer? It is certainly an intriguing option. It is reassuring to imagine a world where capable, skilled minority coaches are at least considered for the biggest roles. Without action, it is easy to see the size of the problem at hand. Ex players in particular deserve better. Take Manchester United – one could easily imagine Gary Neville or Paul Scholes being considered to replace Sir Alex Ferguson if they expressed an interest, but would Andrew Cole? When we are completely honest, most of us would admit that he would not.
The obvious argument in favour of the introduction of the Rooney Rule in English football is that certain scenarios would be largely bypassed. Black coaches would be given the legitimate and exciting opportunities they deserve, and if a white manager was chosen instead we could be more sure that at the very least the decision was fair. As things stand, the white elite by which the game is governed seem to be completely oblivious to the problem, rather than ignoring the plight of black managers.
Anti-Rooney Rulers establish the argument that the law is tantamount to positive discrimination and affirmative action, and while I can see the relevance of this point I would argue that affirmative action would be preferable to inaction. In the modern game as it exists, there is a definite gulf in equality, as time and time again black coaches are bypassed when new managers are hired. I sincerely hope that the game is brought into the 21st Century before more time and opportunities pass by.
By Liam Smith – Arsenal fan – @RowZBlog