Rooney Rule… BAME old problem? Football needs to change

Last month news broke that, following on from an 18-month trial period, the EFL (English Football League) had chosen to formally adopt the ‘Rooney Rule’ and in doing so, all football league clubs must now interview at least one Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) candidate when recruiting a new first-team manager.

Across the Atlantic, the Rooney Rule hasn’t entirely been a rip-roaring success. The NFL introduced the rule back in 2003 and at that time, there were three BAME head coaches (from 32 teams). Despite some fluctuations over 10 years, in 2013, there were still only three BAME head coaches. Although this figure did increase to eight by 2018 the rule hasn’t been without controversy – as I will touch upon later.

Whilst we should all be pleased and commend our football authorities for trying to do something about the shortage of BAME coaches and managers within the sport; many like me cannot help but feel that without a multi-pronged strategy in place, the implementation of the Rooney Rule many prove rather feeble. In fact, if BAME representation amongst coaching and managerial positions see little-to-no improvement, then football league clubs, the EFL and the Football Association will, rightly so, come under much greater scrutiny.

Let’s put this into a plausible real-life scenario. It’s mid-season and Millwall are struggling down towards the foot of the Championship table. They sack their manager and they’re now recruiting a new manager. In order to comply with the Rooney Rule, they must interview at least one BAME candidate. When searching for a new manager, a professional football club will often be looking for a candidate with experience. Therefore – from today’s potential pool of appointments – which BAME candidates would conceivably have a chance at getting the hot seat in South East London (if experience was a key criterion which must be met)?

Hard done by Chris Houghton – who was sacked by Brighton & Hove Albion in May – will be hopeful of bigger things than Millwall. Darren Moore would have been a likely candidate had he not recently been appointed as manager of Doncaster Rovers. Managers with football league experience such Chris Powell, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and current Republic of Ireland number two Terry Connor could all make the shortlist. Whereas for the trio of BAME managers down in League Two (Keith Curle, Sol Campbell and Dino Maamria) the South East London hot seat will likely be too much of a jump.

The point being though that I’d be hard-pressed to name any other prospective BAME applicants who have any relevant managerial and/or coaching experience and so does this mean the same handful of names continue to apply for all jobs that happen to become available? And if they don’t, are football clubs then forced to interview a BAME candidate that may not possess the desired level of experience?

It needs to be questioned why a candidate, such as Darren Moore, has felt the need to drop down a division after performing miracles at West Bromwich Albion? Darren Moore nearly pulled off a remarkable escape with West Brom whilst in the Premier League and then was sacked after having kept West Bromwich Albion in the top 4 practically all season (in the Championship). In fact, a reason cited for Darren Moore being sacked was to increase the prospects of being promoted. Yet, West Bromwich Albion did not have a candidate lined up and they then failed in their attempt at being promoted. If anything, West Brom’s performance after Darren Moore was sacked should have further enhanced his profile. Yet he is now manager of Doncaster Rovers. It is all too predictable and curious.

Gareth Southgate had a very similar managerial record to Darren Moore and was jettisoned into the England set up after his Middlesbrough experience. With Aidy Boothroyd flattering to deceive in his role as England U21 manager, wouldn’t this have been an ideal opportunity to instil a qualified and highly respected BAME coach/manager into the England set up?

The views of Garry Thompson

Former footballer Garry Thompson – who boasts a 20 years playing career and has experience in coaching and management – has told me that he thinks that the introduction of the Rooney Rule to the English game is “all about ticking boxes” and forewarned that the majority of football clubs already know which manager they are going to be targeting to fill the vacant position.

In a discussion with me he said, “Football’s authorities want to be seen to be doing the right thing – to make a statement if you will. But the reality is that when a football club sack their manager most chairman already know who they want to bring in. They’ve already sounded out his agent and they’ll know exactly what the prospective manager wants. They’ll know what he is looking for money-wise and what staff he’d like to bring with him. They’ve done all of that. So the fact you’re going to interview a handful of candidates, including a BAME candidate, is irrelevant because they already know who they are going to give the job to.”

However, whilst experience may be an obvious barrier to entry, what role do historical racial stereotypes still play in this process where the majority of decision makers within football clubs continue to be middle aged white males from a middle-to-upper-class background. Where is the diversity on the boards of football clubs, even in a non-executive capacity? How often are white players given an opportunity before completing their coaching badges and who may not have experience? Jimmy Shah, Joey Barton, Kevin Nolan, Tim Sherwood, Teddy Sheringham etc. are all names which jump out as being promoted to a managerial position without the experience which appears to be demanded from BAME candidates. Why is this?

This isn’t isolated to the UK though and it is nothing that we haven’t seen stateside. Over the years there has been accusations levelled at clubs that the interview process of some BAME candidates was a complete waste of time as said clubs had already shook the hand of a white candidate, before even sitting at the table with a BAME candidate.

Back to English football and it’s not clear as to just how many BAME former players or persons actively go and do their coaching badges. Sadly, the FA are not at liberty to respond to Freedom of Information requests and to my knowledge this information is not publicly available, it’s unlikely I’d ever be able to obtain these figures. As a consequence, my research came up with very little.

The Daily Mail carried out their own investigation four years ago and on the day that they visited the FA’s St. George’s Park site, they found that 41 of the 44 delegates studying part one of their UEFA A Licence were while males. There were three male, black students. No Asian or other ethnic minority coaches were there, nor were there any women. Maybe however, a Rooney Rule might increase participation levels from BAME students if they now feel as though some of the barriers have been removed. Again though, it is possible that a lack of diversity in boardrooms will still play a role in potential BAME students being sceptical of the opportunities that will be afforded to them.

Not long after hanging up his boots, Thompson opted to do his coaching badges. He says that this would’ve been around the turn of the century and on his course there were three black men from around 30 coaches. The rest were white males.

Thompson revealed, “Going back to when I was coming to the end of my playing career, I think most black players felt there was a ceiling. They felt that they wouldn’t get the opportunities.” The sports governing bodies have long fought the accusations of being institutionally racist but Thompson is sceptical, “Of course they aren’t going to be overtly racist. You look at the groups and the organisations and you can see bit-by-bit they are trying to add more black people and trying to add more women – doing this-and-that. But it just smacks of tokenism and the authorities being seen to be doing the right thing rather than actually wanting to be doing the right thing.”

Garry Thompson

Garry Thompson (pictured above) had a successful playing career spanning 20 years appearing for the likes of Coventry City, West Brom, Sheffield Wednesday & Aston Villa. He later went on to become manager of Bristol Rovers.

“If you look at every England committee photo since the 1960’s – FA committee or whatever – the annual photos that they have, you will struggle to find a black man in them. Brendon Batson will be in there and possibly one or two others but they won’t have had many. There’s literally never any black men. When you consider just how many black or mixed ethnicity footballers have and continue to play the game, then really we should be seeing a much broader mix of colour – as well as class and gender for that matter – in positions of authority in football. This is a problem not just in football but in most walks of life.”

In his discussion with me, Thompson clearly hinted that the fundamental reason for the slow progress in BAME representation in football coaching and management, along with other positions of authority, is that of unconscious racial bias. The fact of the matter is that football culture in Britain has and continues to be dominated by white men. From the cowardly insults that are yelled from the terraces through to the football violence. The coaches and the managers through to the boardrooms and committees. The scouting network and the playing of the game itself. Therein lies a big problem; the inherent prejudices that are passed down from generation-to-generation.

Thompson says that during his short stint in football management with Bristol Rovers in the 2001-02 season, he soon became fed-up with being referred to as a ‘black football manager’. “Why does race have to come into it? I was a football manager that happened to be a black man and so why couldn’t I just be called a football manager? Hiring a person of colour doesn’t make a football club some sort of pioneers – it ought to be considered normal. No questions asked.”

In-depth studies have long told us that unconscious prejudice and racial bias does indeed exist and, so going back to the topic of BAME football managers, ultimately it’s the chairman and those at boardroom level that will decide upon whom takes the hot seat.

Research by Business In The Community suggests that 66.6% of top executives in the UK have a racial bias (and that men are more likely to have a racial bias than women). If those figures were to be a representation of your average football boardroom governed by most possibly all white men, then it begs the question of what hope do prospective BAME managers really have?

Interview with a British Asian footballer

To further understand the difficulties people of colour have in football, I really wished to speak with a British Asian footballer. The search for someone that was willing to talk to me about their experiences in the game proved difficult because there are just so few Asians that have played or currently play the game professionally. From a pool of over 3,700 professional footballers in England and Wales, only 12 are of South Asian ethnicity. A figure so low that if I were to be writing about a rare plant I’d be trying to conjure up ideas of how we can try to halt the risk of extinction.

There are a number of different theories as to why there are so few British Asians playing professional football. The most prominent hypothesis is that the parents are all about education and the want for their child to go and get ‘a real job’. It could also be that traditionally, football is not highly participated in with the likes of cricket being the main focus (although this is now shifting). Or might it be because “the Asian build is not of a footballer” as once absurdly suggested by former Nottingham Forest and Leicester City manager Dave Bassett. Ex West Ham Academy Manager Terry Westley once claimed that Asians “eating habits are a problem.”

Both of the aforementioned names have been first team managers at football clubs and – although I understand that these views were aired a while back – I’ve little doubt that there will be plenty of other white men in positions of authority in football that think the same or something similar. These implicit attitudes and stereotyping of British Asian footballers is one of the main reasons as to why they won’t get a fair shot.

Zesh Rehman.jpg

Zesh Rehman: the most recognisable British Asian to have played professional football in England (in the Premier League & all three tiers of the Football League)

In order to make it in the game, British Asian footballers not only have to overcome something that they have little-to-no control over i.e. racial bias. They also need to be strong enough to manage the overt racism that they are likely to experience. In April this year, ITV Sport found that 79% of Asian grassroots footballers had been subjected to racist abuse. Surely no such thing would happen at a professional club, right?

To help me with this I was indeed able to find a British Asian footballer of Indian descent who played at two Premier League football academies and three more further down the football league. The player – who wishes to remain anonymous – revealed a number of incidents that have happened to him over the course of the last several years. In order to protect his identity I’ve had to blank out certain parts of the interview.

Q) What are your earliest memories of racial barriers in football?

A) “At the age of 12 or 13 I can remember playing football in the school playground. Teams would usually be split up into groups such as Asians versus blacks or Asians and blacks versus whites. At that age I didn’t understand it and I wasn’t offended by what I would now describe as clear racial segregation.”

Q) Did any of the professional football clubs that you played for at youth level talk to you or teach you about race, religion and cultural diversity?

A) “From my experience of playing at five professional clubs at academy level – not one of them had an education system in place that brought to light social issues that footballers may face. None of that is provided. Whether it’s a funding issue or because it’s not considered important, I’m not sure – but it’s just not there. At [League Two club] we had access to two junior sport psychologists from [x university] but I think they were mainly working with the first team.”

Q) Has a team mate ever made a racist comment towards you?

A) “When I was at [League Two club – different to the one mentioned in answer to previous question] there were comments made not only towards me but other minority players. There’d be comments made in the changing room about race. I can’t exactly remember what they said to the black players but one of the white boys at [League Two club] once said to me that I don’t belong here and that I ought to be playing cricket. I asked him what he meant and he said to me that football was for white and black people and that this sport doesn’t have Asians in it. He is still playing professional football to this day.” [The accused footballer has made over 100 appearances for the League Two club and is still contracted to them]

Q) Did you report this incident to the club?

A) “This is half the problem, when a BAME football player comes up against these types of problems that they face then they are too scared to speak out. Because as soon as football clubs catches wind that you’re complaining, you’re out the door.”

Q) Has a manager or a coach ever made any racist comments towards you?

A) “Not explicitly. I worked under [unnamed manager] at [League Two club – the same club that a team mate was racist towards him] and I could probably write a book based on my experiences with him and what a bully he was. He almost made me hate football because of the way he made me feel and the way in which he treated me and so many other players. Out of our youth team – which had about 18 players in it – I think four of them stopped or quit football because they couldn’t stand being managed by him. [I am unable to reveal the next line as this would give away the manager’s identity i.e. where he went and what happened to him – but I can reveal he is still in football management].

[Unnamed manager] was always looking for an excuse to drop me. He said it to my face on a few occasions without explanation; one mistake and that was it. We were playing away at [League Two club] in an under-18 league match and [interviewee speaks of an uncharacteristic error that he made] and so he subbed me off after 35 minutes. That confirmed to me that he had something against me. He’d never done that to anybody else besides me. To take someone off before half-time is practically unheard of and it shattered my confidence. I didn’t actually go back to club football. That incident and the way that I had been treated really did scar me and I just ended up playing football at school and getting involved in Non-league.

When I was at [League Two club] it was predominantly white. Whether they were picking players on ability alone I was sceptical. One minute they are verbally offering me a contract and the next they were retracting it because I was ‘too short’ and then they go and bring in a replacement whose shorter than me. Perhaps it was just an ability thing, but I just didn’t see it like that.”

Q) Have you ever received racial abuse from an opponent or the crowd?

A) “I was playing for [Non-league club] in an FA Trophy match away at [National League club] around the time the ISIS beheadings were carried out by ‘Jihadi John’. It was the first half and supporters behind the goal, men and boys no older than 12, were calling me a terrorist, referencing Jihadi John a lot and claimed that I had links to ISIS.

I had an inkling to report it but based on my previous experience with the Football Association – they won’t do anything. They may have investigated it, but people get away with these sorts of things very lightly anyway because there is no formal punishment in place.”

Q) What are you referring to when you talk about your previous experience with the Football Association?

A) “When I was 18 years of age I was involved in an ISFA (Independent Schools Football Association) event in which they take the best independent schools footballers from the north and the south of England. The best 20 or so players will then be invited to have one final trial. My Dad drove me there and I was feeling pretty confident of getting in because there were no academy [player position]. In terms of all the people at that trial I would’ve been playing the highest level of football.

I only played half of the first game because each of the four [player position] had to play a half. [I am unable to reveal the next line as this could jeopardise the players identity but in short the player I’m interviewing played a really good game and the player in the second half was really poor]. Based on my performance and what I’d seen of the others I was confident of getting through. The physio, one of the coaches and a lot of the players even said to me that I was pretty much a shoo-in and to expect an e-mail confirming my selection.

I went away and I didn’t hear anything back and so I checked on the ISFA website – my name wasn’t on there [I am unable to reveal the next line as this could jeopardise the players identity but the player who had a poor game in the second half of the interviewees match had been selected]. My Dad was as bemused as I and so he sent an e-mail to one of the coaches running the trial and he said I made this mistake, that mistake and that I hadn’t done this and I hadn’t done that. It was all a complete lie and so my Dad took it further and sent an e-mail to someone at the Football Association who deals with these sorts of things. This person got back to him and said that he would investigate it but we didn’t hear anything back.”

How to tackle the problem

In England and Wales our grassroots game starts as young as 6 years old. Every weekend, hundreds of thousands, possibly even millions of kids, take a trip to their local recreational ground for a kick about. For many of these kids, this will be their first experience of mixing with children outside of their family or school friends and it may even be the first time that they’ve interacted with children of a different race, religion and/or culture.

Youth Worker and Youth Sport Trust Ambassador Fadumo Olow (@Fadumo_oo) believes that football has the opportunity to create a better world by tapping into the brains of our children of tomorrow. She said to me, “With access to so many impressionable young minds football can and must play a much greater role in shaping the minds and attitudes of the future.”

“For too long now football has had issues with racism, homophobia and sexism and so to educate children through sport – especially a sport as popular and accessible as football – can only ever result in positive social change as we’d expect the majority of these children to take what they learn into adult life.”

I recall being a child and infatuated with just one thing – football. And I would listen to my football coaches more so than I would my mother, father or teachers at school. I’d even go as far as saying that I would hang on their every word and if they spoke, I would soak it all in. I’m sure there are many children and aspiring footballers out there today that are exactly in the same bracket as I all those years ago.

Fadumo did, however, forewarn that before grassroots begin preaching to children about cultural diversity that they must get their own house in order first, “I’ve found that a large proportion of grassroots football clubs aren’t currently educated enough. I – myself – as a Muslim woman – who loves playing football have experienced some awkward moments such as having to explain why I am unable to drink water when playing football during Ramadan and having to explain why I don’t wear football shorts because I have to dress modestly for religious reasons. If you are a grassroots football club with people from BAME communities, you have to understand the cultures and religions of those that you are working with to ensure that they have a positive experience whilst playing the sport. Clubs should adapt to players and not turn a blind eye when injustices do happen.”

Earlier in the article I spoke of a multi-pronged strategy to tackling the highlighted issues. Shaping the minds of our future generations is one of the more simple methods to implement albeit with the correct training programmes and finance. But what about the here and now and the inherent prejudice and unconscious bias that exists today?

Last summer the FA announced an initiative in which BAME coaches were invited to work placements with the England national teams at various levels including that of the first team. I find it difficult to comprehend that in such a vast multi-cultural society such as we have in Britain today, that football is forced to try and normalise people of colour holding these types of roles by offering out what is essentially a glorified work experience placement.

The only way to tackle the current predicament is to introduce quotas – at least in the short-term. And whilst I understand that some will consider racial quotas as a form of racial discrimination towards white persons, I would argue the point that the shoe has been on the other foot, for hundreds of years now. In football, people of colour have suffered long enough, and it’s high-time we did something radical in order to achieve the correct and desired balance. Only by giving people of colour the opportunities to succeed will we begin to see a much-needed suppression of those unconscious bias’ that undoubtedly exist and to break-up that network in football that’s controlled by the white man. Parents have to rid themselves of these prejudices so that such views are not continually being passed on to their children.

Needless to say, football wouldn’t be able to introduce quotas to the role of first-team manager as there is only one position available. I’m talking about the backroom team, such as coaches and the scouts as well. It is also vital that BAME and women representation at boardroom level is addressed as a matter of urgency.

By all means, the EFL should and will continue with the Rooney Rule but without implementing something much more hard-hitting, the football authorities are only further delaying the inevitable affirmative action that will need to come into play at some point in the future.

It’s not only for the good of the game that we all love but it’s the right thing to do. As a society, we have to adapt and we must all do our utmost to see to that everyone has an opportunity to succeed in football.

Written by Ryan Pitcher & Edited by Dave Jordans

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