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Is English football really serious about taking on racism?

The Rooney Rule was enacted to help fix the shocking imbalance between the percentage of black players and black managers in our leagues but that hasn't happened, says the author.. Photo: Reuters/John Sibley

The Rooney Rule was enacted to help fix the shocking imbalance between the percentage of black players and black managers in our leagues but that hasn't happened, says the author.. Photo: Reuters/John Sibley

Published Jun 14, 2020


You may have been under the impression that the English Football League introduced  at the start of this season. Well, it didn’t.

You may have read that clubs in the Championship, League One and League Two would be obliged to interview at least one Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) candidate when they appointed a new manager. Well, they weren’t.

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You may have been led to believe that the new rule would help to fix the shocking imbalance between the percentage of black players and black managers in our leagues that Raheem Sterling referred to on the BBC’s Newsnight programme last week. Well, it hasn’t.

The EFL mean well, which is a start. And they have not claimed the regulation they brought in last year is a copy of its NFL equivalent, which was created in 2003 to address the under-representation of African-American head coaches in American football.

And that’s the problem. The NFL’s Rooney Rule required their teams to interview a black candidate as part of a transparent recruitment process when a vacancy for a head coach arose. The EFL feared their clubs would not agree to that, so their regulation has a get-out clause running straight down the middle.

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Regulation 115.1 of the EFL code states that the rule applies only ‘where a club seeking to appoint a manager... operates a recruitment process (which, for the purposes of this regulation, involves any process of shortlisting of candidates and the interviewing of more than one candidate)’.

Which means that the culture of English football, which has led to a situation where there are only six BAME managers at 91 League clubs, can continue unchallenged. Which means that managers can still be appointed on a nod and a wink and a who-you-know basis.

Which means that clubs do not even have to talk to a black candidate when they are trying to fill a manager’s vacancy. Which means that white executives on all-white football club boards do not even have to hear what a black candidate has to say, which means unconscious bias can flourish unchecked.

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It does not mean that the white managers who get the jobs are bad managers or that they have not been given the jobs purely on merit. But it does suggest that, consciously or otherwise, the recruitment process is still weighted in their favour. The new regulation does not even require a club to tell the EFL which BAME candidate they have interviewed.

The EFL assume a level of trust given that their clubs voted for the system but they accept it is open to abuse. The old boys’ network is still there. The old methods of recruitment have survived intact. Many clubs still see a formal recruitment process as an inconvenience. It is said that the Rooney Rule would not fit with the rhythms or the demands of an English football season and perhaps that is right.

But if it is right, it begs the question about quite how serious we really are about effecting change. If it doesn’t fit with the rhythms and the clandestine deals of English football, maybe it’s those rhythms and those clandestine deals that have to change. One thing is for sure: it was hoped that the new rule might see an increase in black managers. So far, that hasn’t happened.

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None of the following is intended to apportion blame or cast aspersions on any individuals. It is just a series of facts. A few weeks ago, Nigel Clough — an outstanding manager and a principled man — resigned as Burton boss to help the club with its finances during the pandemic.

Burton’s list of recent managers includes Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink. Their chairman, Ben Robinson, is black. On this occasion, in the midst of a crisis that rendered normal processes redundant, Clough was replaced by the club skipper, Jake Buxton, who is white.

In April, Graeme Jones left Luton. He was replaced by a former Luton manager, Nathan Jones, who is white. In February, Graham Westley left Stevenage. He was replaced by the club’s U23s coach, Alex Revell, who is white. In the same month, Simon Grayson was sacked by Blackpool and replaced by Neil Critchley, who is white.

On February 3, Gary Bowyer departed as Bradford City manager. On February 4, he was replaced by Stuart McCall, who is white. In January, Scunthorpe sacked Paul Hurst and replaced him with caretaker manager Russ Wilcox, the U23s coach, who is white.

At the same time, Colin Calderwood departed as Cambridge United manager. The club went through a rigorous recruitment process and six weeks later appointed as his replacement Mark Bonner, who is white. Macclesfield Town parted company with Daryl McMahon and replaced him with Mark Kennedy, who is white.

The Premier League are not covered by the new regulation but it is worth recording for the sake of the bigger picture that West Ham fired Manuel Pellegrini at the end of December and replaced him with David Moyes, who is white.

Before Christmas, Graham Coughlan departed as Bristol Rovers manager and, after an interview process, the club found the outstanding candidate to be Ben Garner, who is white. Coughlan, it turned out, had been approached by Mansfield to be their new boss, after they sacked John Dempster. Coughlan took the Mansfield job a few days later. Coughlan is white.

My apologies if this is becoming repetitive. In December, Marco Silva left Everton and was replaced by Carlo Ancelotti, who is white. A few days earlier, Gabriele Cioffi left Crawley Town and was replaced by a former club manager, John Yems, who is white.

On December 1, Quique Sanchez Flores left Watford and was replaced by Nigel Pearson, who is white. In November, Unai Emery left Arsenal and was replaced by Mikel Arteta, who is white. Before that, Mauricio Pochettino left Spurs and was replaced by Jose Mourinho, who is white.

In mid-November, Michael Jolley left Grimsby. After an interview with majority shareholder John Fenty at a chippy on Cleethorpes Pier, he was replaced by Ian Holloway, who is white. When Carl Fletcher was sacked as Leyton Orient manager, he was replaced by Ross Embleton, who is white.

You get the picture. We can go through more new appointments this season at MK Dons, Stoke, Morecambe, AFC Wimbledon, Reading, Sunderland, Barnsley and Millwall until we get to Dino Maamria’s hiring as Oldham head coach in September before we see a club choosing a BAME manager.

Maamria’s appointment means only six clubs of the 91 in the league have a BAME manager. Nuno Espirito Santo is the Wolves boss, Sabri Lamouchi is in charge at Nottingham Forest, Darren Moore is manager of Doncaster Rovers, Sol Campbell is at Southend United and Keith Curle is at the helm of Northampton Town. And that’s it.

Even then, even when black coaches like Campbell do what everyone demands and get their hands dirty at the bottom of the league, they do not get credit. Campbell’s record was widely mocked after Sterling mentioned him but the reality is that Campbell has got a miracle on his record.

Macclesfield Town were at the foot of League Two when he joined them. Their finances were a mess and he and his players were having problems even being paid. They were training at a leisure centre in Knutsford when I went to speak to him. And still he saved them from relegation. And his reward: a job at Southend, who are arguably in an even worse financial position.

Little wonder that Sterling was frank about the situation. ‘There are not a lot of faces that we can relate to and have conversations with,’ he said on Newsnight. ‘We have done a lot of talking. It’s time to start implementing change.’

Black players and ex-players are bored of slogans on T-shirts and flashpoints of outrage that subside into periods of apathy. ‘I am sick and tired of lip service,’ said QPR director of football Les Ferdinand last week. ‘Action is giving people an opportunity.’

The EFL made a start with the regulations they approved — it is more than any other European football league has done — but it is not enough. English football needs to go further. A lot further.

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