Is institutional racism in the boardroom the reason so few black players make it into management?
Glance at the average football pitch and you might conclude racism in Britain's favourite sport is dead. Team-sheets from the Premier League down have players of all ethnicities, and organising bodies host myriad anti-racism events. The discrimination bound-up with the game in decades past appears to be over. Until you look at the people shouting to the players.
In 2007, about a quarter of all players were black, but only two out of 92 league clubs had black managers. Today, there are still only two black managers in all four leagues: Paul Ince, manager of Notts County, and Chris Powell, of Charlton Athletic. Football management is still overwhelmingly white. Now academics at Staffordshire University, who have undertaken major research into the subject, report a strong call among black and minority ethnic (BME) football fans for the introduction of positive discrimination.
The research, by Ellis Cashmore, professor of culture, media and sport at Staffordshire, and his colleague Dr Jamie Cleland, senior lecturer in sociology, involved 1,000 football fans, professional players, referees, coaches and managers revealing their views on the dearth of black managers. More than 56% of those polled said there is racism at the top of football's hierarchy; among BME respondents, that figure was 73%. Most radically of all, over half of BME fans called for a policy similar to the Rooney rule in the US, which stipulates that all shortlists for management and coaching jobs in the National Football League must include at least one minority candidate. The Staffordshire academics report that a third of the polled football fans encouraged this type of reform.
"We didn't expect support for reform," admits Cashmore. "We thought that, as British culture tends to oppose any type of compulsion, the fans would resist a policy. But, in the event, they showed a clear recognition that the paucity of black managers has become an embarrassing anomaly that needs radical attention." The comments made by the surveyed football fans included: "Until you force something like the Rooney rule, the situation will not change"; "The US is now seeing the success of diversifying upper management"; "There are numerous white managers who have failed, but their name always crops up on a short list and they get given jobs. When you are black you get one chance and if you mess up, that's it."
The academics believe that while black former players like Ruud Gullit and Patrick Vieira helped combat racism in football by showing off their skills, football management escaped that development. "From the early 1980s, black players earned their place on teams on merit, and resentment subsided. But management is different. Skill isn't so self-evident – a manager needs an opportunity and a period of time to prove his worth," says Cashmore. "In the 1980s, football's upper echelons were tut-tutting about the unruly fans who still harboured racist views. Now the tide has reversed: over half of the fans are complaining that football's rulers are racist."
The academics report that fans believe "institutional racism" – where people do not consciously discriminate against minorities, but fail to challenge old assumptions and stereotypes, meaning a pattern of operations continues – is relevant in football management. One survey respondent said: "People appoint people like themselves. White chairmen appoint white, male managers. The cycle is not easily broken." Dismissing the idea that black managers will come through as the higher numbers of black players mature, another said: "Football boards have very few ethnic minorities on them – that's more likely to be the issue than the players or backroom staff. It's an old boys' club that is unlikely to bring in people from outside their peer group."
Cashmore agrees. "Succession in football management seems haunted by images of celebrated managers of the past and present – and they're all white," he says. Britain's first black football manager is believed to be Tony Collins, who managed Rochdale for seven years from 1960 – although most people assume it was Gullit, who managed Chelsea in 1996. Gullit, Cashmore adds, "retains the distinction of being the first football manager to have dreadlocks".
One insider response to the Staffordshire University research came from a black former league manager who no longer works in the UK. He said: "I had to keep reminding myself how much of a niche industry football management is – there are only 92 jobs. When a manger loses his job, within hours someone already on the management merry-go-round is installed as favourite without considering the merits of an outsider. That's the appeal of the Rooney rule – it opens up the field."
Evidence of continued racism came from the survey respondents' additional comments. One fan said: "The lack of black managers in football reflects the football view that while black men can play, they are not competent to manage."
"The research indicates that fans sense that there's an issue in British football," says Cashmore. "The majority is in no doubt that there is racism in the boardroom – that in itself demands attention." But he is gloomy about the prospect of change. "We sent the results of the our Topfan gay footballers project (on homophobia in football ) to the Football Association, Premier League, Football League and Professional Footballers' Association, but none expressed interest in acting on our results," he says. "So we don't hold out much hope that they will respond positively to the latest findings."
• Ellis Cashmore will discuss his research on BBC Radio5 Live's Total Blackout on Wednesday, 30 March at 8pm