It’s not true that ‘black men can’t coach’

Just as black players proved themselves on the pitch, so black managers should prove themselves in the dugout.

Duleep Allirajah

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Farewell then, John Barnes, sacked as manager of Tranmere Rovers this week. Magical footballer, not-so-magical manager. Oh, and for the record, lousy TV presenter too. Your ‘World in Motion’ rap is legendary, if that’s any consolation.

Barnes’ failure at Tranmere has re-kindled not one, but two well-worn footballing debates. Firstly, why do great players so often fail to become great managers? Secondly, why are there still so few black managers in English football?

Let’s deal with the great-player-but-lousy-manager question first. John Barnes isn’t the only fantastic footballer who is currently struggling to make the grade as a manager. Diego Maradona, one the greatest footballers of all time, has been making a right pig’s ear of Argentina’s World Cup qualification campaign. Ipswich under Roy Keane are rooted to the bottom of the Championship with only five points from 11 games. I could go on. The sports press is full of top ten lists of great footballers who have failed as managers. Paul Gascoigne, Bryan Robson, Ruud Gullitt, Ossie Ardiles and David Platt are all members of the Rotten Managers’ Club. Dennis Wise even makes it into one Top 10 which is stretching the definition of ‘great player’ somewhat.

So, is there an iron law in operation which dictates that great players cannot make the transition into management? The answer, quite simply, is no. Sure, there are great players who become managerial flops. Equally, there are some very successful managers who were lousy footballers. Jose Mourinho, Sven Goran Eriksson and Arsene Wenger are prime examples. Sir Alex Ferguson didn’t enjoy the most illustrious playing career either. And Arrigo Sacchi was a shoe salesman.

However, there are plenty of very good footballers who have subsequently achieved managerial success as Jonathan Wilson, author of the excellent history of football tactics, Inverting the Pyramid, has pointed out: ‘Mario Zagallo and Franz Beckenbauer, for instance, both won the World Cup as both player and manager. Fabio Capello won four championships as a player and has won nine as a manager. Brian Clough, Valeriy Lobanovskyi, Dave Mackay, Kenny Dalglish, Bobby Robson, Don Revie… being a very good player is no guarantee of managerial failure.’ (1)

So, contrary to popular wisdom, great players can and do make good managers. But not all of them. There is no guarantee that greatness on the field will translate into greatness in the dugout. Why? Well it’s not really rocket science to work that out. Firstly, the competition for managerial jobs is even tougher than the competition to become a professional footballer. It’s very difficult for any footballer – good or bad – to graduate into management. Secondly, and more importantly, playing football and coaching are two completely different sets of skills. A modern football manager needs to have a distinct set of leadership qualities. He needs to be a man-manager, a decision-maker, a motivator, a tactician, a diplomat and a press spokesman. A footballer just needs to have good feet. I’m simplifying here, but you get my point. Bryan Robson, Terry Butcher and Tony Adams were all leaders on the pitch who have struggled as managers. This shows that leadership on the pitch – which really just involves shouting a lot – isn’t the same as management of a football team.

John Barnes had good feet. But his managerial record is poor. His dismissal by Tranmere means that there are only two black managers working in league football today – Paul Ince at MK Dons and Keith Alexander at Macclesfield. Given that over a quarter of professional footballers in England are black you would expect a higher number to have graduated into management. Yet, according to The Times, there have been only 31 black managerial appointments since 1992/3. So what’s going wrong?

The old stereotypical perception of black players was best expressed by former Crystal Palace chairman Ron Noades who said: ‘The black players at this club lend the side a lot of skill and flair, but you also need white players in there to balance things up and give the team some brains and some common sense.’ Those racial myths were debunked by black footballers themselves who proved on the pitch that they did have discipline, the tactical nous, the leadership qualities, and that they did ‘fancy it’ in the cold weather.

John Barnes thinks prospective black coaches are hampered by the unspoken assumption that, while they might be good athletes, they lack the brains to make it in management. ‘Until we are considered to be intellectually equal, we will never be equal’, Barnes said in a recent interview. ‘In the 1970s there was a generation of black goalkeepers and centre-halves lost to the game of football. The 1990s and the early twenty-first century, to 2020, will be the decades when potential black managers will be lost to the game of football.’

Barnes may well have a point. But what’s the solution? There aren’t enough black faces in the boardroom says the anti-racist campaign group Kick it Out. The Times columnist Matthew Syed believes that it’s time for affirmative action. He thinks that the FA should follow the example of the US National Football League (NFL) and adopt the ‘Rooney rule’ (2). Before you ask, it’s nothing to do with Our Wayne. The rule requires every NFL team to interview at least one ‘minority’ candidate (a polite way of saying black) when hiring a new coach.

The problem with affirmative action is that it does nothing to dispel the racial myth that black people don’t make good managers. If anything, it simply reinforces the idea that black people are unequal; that they only occupy management positions because they had a bureaucratic helping hand. Black footballers silenced the Ron Noades of this world by doing the business on the pitch. They didn’t rely on affirmative action programmes, equality standards, or anti-discrimination litigation. The only way to debunk the myth that ‘black men can’t coach’ is for black football managers to succeed on their own merit. No affirmative action. No quotas. No helping hand.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Sport

(1) Good players do not always make bad managers, Betfair, 6 November 2008

(2) Rooney rules in vital fight against racism,/a>, The Times, 14 October 2009

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