Who will be the Jackie Robinson of English football management?
The black American baseball star broke the colour bar when he played for MLB's Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Robinson thrived despite enormous pressure and became a legendary symbol of African-American talent, courage, and progress.
Other sports were emboldened to give opportunities to members of a once maligned community. Tennis’ Arthur Ashe was dubbed the "Robinson" of his sport in the 1970s.
The cult of Robinson reached out to Tiger Woods too in the 1990's. He was tagged the "Robinson of golf" until he confounded the "label placers" by describing himself as a "Cablinasian."
It was a sporting aspect mirrored in the United Kingdom. Viv Anderson, who in 1979, became the first black player to represent the senior England football team, was the "Robinson of UK football."
Legions of black footballers have become millionaires and household names since then, with the sport recognized rightly as an astonishing vehicle for social progress.
Now the search is on for the black man who will break the mould and become an icon in the dug-out.
Supporters of Jean Tigana, a wonderful player with the French national team of the 1980s, might claim the mantle on behalf of the former Fulham manager, in recognition of his work in south west London.
The Dutchman Ruud Gullit, who brought "sexy football" to Chelsea—and less successfully to Newcastle—will have his champions too.
However, in the world of symbolic importance, a "home-grown" successful black manager is needed, so the search continues.
Many hopes were pinned on Paul Ince when he smiled before the cameras as the new manager of Blackburn Rovers in the summer of 2008.
Ince even sounded the part, too, admitting to being “proud” at being the first black British manager to oversee a Premiership club. He acknowledged boldly that Blackburn’s decision to hire him as manager was “important.”
“We’ve had some great, great black players,” he said. “They seem to go out of the game. I didn’t envisage this would happen so quickly in my managerial career. Hopefully, I can be the flagship now.”
Of course, Ince could not avoid discussing his role as a trail blazer. At the time of his appointment, he was one of just two black managers in England’s 92 club professional football structure.
As such, friends and foe alike saw an opportunity to keep in play Ince’s race as a subtext to his stewardship of Blackburn.
"The significance of him being appointed was there for all to see," said Brendon Batson, the former West Bromwich Albion defender and managing director who is black and works as a consultant for the FA.
"Blackburn had an open process and they thought that he was the best person for the job irrespective of his colour and what it means to black managers who have ambitions of becoming managers. Maybe attitudes are changing in boardrooms.”"
Not fast enough, said Piara Power, director of Kick It Out, an equality campaign group.
"There may be one or two people who have an agenda who feel that they want him to perform badly because he is a black manager," Power said last December as poor results piled the pressure on Ince.
"No one is going to say, 'We don’t want a black manager in football,' but there is often a sense of maintaining the existing order. For some, the status quo is more important than change."
Ince was sacked by a Blackburn board who feared crowd impatience almost as much as the financial consequences of relegation. He now manages at League One level with MK Dons and seems to have recovered his old swagger. Ince’s team sits in fourth place, just five points off leaders Leeds.
The only other black managers active in English football are Chris Hughton at high-flying Championship side Newcastle, the veteran Keith Alexander, in charge at Macclesfield, and John Barnes at Tranmere.
Hughton, 50, is not expected to keep his job when owner Mike Ashley finds a buyer for the north east’s sleeping giant. Both Alexander and Barnes are in deep trouble, even at this early stage of the season. Macclesfield are second from bottom in League Two whilst Tranmere are in the same position in League One.
Barnes’ plight will concern many who look at the former England star and see a man tailor-made to become a managerial "Jackie Robinson" for the British black community.
The former Watford, Liverpool, and England winger is probably the greatest black player ever to kick a ball for a league club in Britain. In a glittering playing career, Barnes finest moment came at the the Maracana stadium in Brazil. There, in 1984, he scored a tremendous individual goal, which had even the home fans purring their approval.
Barnes was fast-tracked into a coaching job at Celtic when aged 35. He was not a success, lasting only one year in the post.
Significantly, Barnes reports that he waited another 10 years to be interviewed for a league manager’s post. Yet after only three months in the Tranmere hotseat, Barnes, 45, is again under fire with his team on a six game losing streak.
"I'll go when the situation becomes untenable, because all managers have to do that," he declared in a bleak interview published by the Guardian newspaper on 25 September. "But that won't be my decision. I've been trying for 10 years to get back into club management and I'm not about to give up easily.
“I'm desperate to work in football. I could make a lot more money doing other things but this is what I want to do. Even if it doesn't work out here, I'm not going to go away and hide. I'll be back looking for other jobs. I'll do whatever I have to do to prove myself."
If, or perhaps when, Barnes is relieved of his Prenton Park chores, it is likely to unleash a flood of indignation from those who worry that English football remains a bastion of unequal opportunity for black people seeking managerial careers.
The old boy’s network looks after its own, goes the familiar complaint. How can well-known, black high-achievers such as Sol Campbell, Andy Cole, or Rio Ferdinand get the chance to run league clubs when chairmen prefer serial losers and men with thin resumes—stand up Bryan Robson, Tony Adams, and Stuart Pearce.
Is it a coincidence that such men are white and do not lack for job offers whilst black talents cannot even obtain an interview?
Set against these truths is the mandate of football bosses to employ managers who deliver results. Ince failed to move Blackburn forward and was replaced by Sam Allardyce, a more experienced manager, who kept the side in the Premiership last season. It is equally true that it is the string of poor results rather than race that has positioned the guillotine above the heads of Barnes and Alexander.
However, the travails of Ince, Alexander, and Barnes, when added to the gossip surrounding the demise of Ricky Hill and Keith Curle, do lead to some uncomfortable conclusions for all concerned.
Does racism survive in the boardrooms of the 92 football league clubs?
Does racism prevent black coaches being offered opportunities to prove themselves?
Does racism encourage club owners to fire under-pressure black managers more quickly than white managers?
Is racism a bar to black progress in management?
As the football writer Jeff Powell put it in the Mail newspaper last December, when Ince was on the point of dismissal at Blackburn "If you play the game, you take the blame."
That is surely the truth for black and white alike.
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