24 June, 2008

Affirmative Action

Those of you with keen memories might recall a little earlier in the year we ran a quite excellent piece talking about the prevalence/lack of black managers throughout the four professional football leagues in this country. It was quite shocking, but not altogether surprising really when you think about it. Today however, a tiny, microscopic blow has been struck for racial equality in the Premier League, because as we approach the 16th season since the shift from First Division, we finally have another black manager! Yes, it is official: Paul Ince has officially become the new Blackburn Rovers gaffer, following Jean Tigana (Fulham; 2000 – 2003) and Ruud Gullet (Chelsea and Newcastle; 1996 – 1999) as just the third black manager in the history of the Greatest League in the World™.

Ince has been given a three-year deal with Rovers, following in the footsteps of ex-partner-in-crime (not literally you racists!) Mark Hughes at Ewood Park. In just two previous seasons in the managerial quagmire, Ince has proved himself to be an excellent boss in the lower leagues, firstly keeping a seeming-doomed Macclesfield in League Two, before then moving on to the MK Dons where he tasted both promotional and Johnstone’s Paint Trophy success. These achievements also attracted the interest of Leicester City, who made an official approach to the Dons for Ince’s services earlier this month. However, it seems that Rovers wanted the former England captain more than anyone else, even brushing aside ex-England flop Steve McClaren and ex-Newcastle flop Sam Allardyce to get their man. Ince is the latest in an ever-increasing line of former Manchester United stars who played under Sir Alex Ferguson to manage in the Premier League. With Mark Hughes now at Manchester City, Steve Bruce at Wigan, and Roy Keane at Sunderland, it is definitely going to be lively when all their teams collide next season.

Former Blackburn striker Kevin Gallacher told the BBC that Rovers targeted Ince because they were looking for someone enthusiastic and with a big pull. “Paul knew that he wanted to come,” Gallacher said, “he's got the hunger and desire in his belly to be a good manager. He showed that at Macclesfield by how he managed to keep them up, and he brought a couple of trophies to MK Dons, so…hopefully he can bring some of that luck with him to Blackburn.” Gallacher added: “If Paul can keep the ship floating, keep the good players at the club, continue with the good work Mark (Hughes) has done and add his little bit in, Blackburn can only get stronger.” Understandably, job one for Ince is to keep David Bentley and Roque Santa Cruz at Ewood, but with an on-field and off-field reputation as good as anyone else in this country over the last decade, it’d take a brave man to suggest he won’t be able to convince his flighty star players to stay.

Things however are not looking so bright for another black player from about the same era with similar aspirations to push on to top flight management. John Barnes, perhaps the most decorated English black player of all time, has been searching for vacancies in the lower leagues without success for some time now. “I've applied for numerous jobs and sometimes I haven't even had the courtesy of a reply to my application letter,” Barnes told BBC Sport. “Perhaps I could understand it if I was applying for jobs at the top level but these were clubs in League One.” The whole process has left the former Liverpool star frustrated and disillusioned, convinced that still there is just not a system of equal opportunities for black professionals within football.

“I believe the situation for black managers is like it was for black players back in the 1970s,” he stated. “Black players used to be put out on the wing because it was deemed they could run fast but not think too well. They weren't trusted to be a playmaker in central midfield or to wear the captain's armband. Now I think there is an analogous situation in management (where) Chairmen don't believe we can do the top managerial jobs.” Turning to describe the situation experienced by Luther Blissett, a former England international who played abroad at the top level, Barnes continued: “He has been applying for manager's jobs in the Football League for 15 years and not got anywhere. This is all about opportunities.”

Keith Alexander, who succeeded Ince at Macclesfield, is currently the only other black manager in the Football League, but more worryingly, the Warwick Business School recently released statistics showing that there are only seven other black coaches of any capacity in the leagues. This constitutes just 1% of the total number of coaches operating at all levels, despite the fact that more than 20% of all players are currently black.

Barnes is obviously full of praise for Ince’s achievement, but is cautious about holding him up as some kind of archetype for all black managers being capable of the same level of success: “If he doesn't succeed, does that count against all black managers? I don't think so. Just as if he does succeed it doesn't mean all black managers are good.” Still, the admiring respect can’t help but shine through Barnes, as it does also STT: “He has done things the hard way, proving himself with Macclesfield and MK Dons; while Roy Keane and Gareth Southgate were given chances at the top, he went to the bottom club in the league.”

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