There’s been a consistent focus on the low number of black managers in British soccer – consistent because nothing much ever seems to change, irregardless of the media attention on the issue, irregardless of a high number of black role-model players eager to stay in the game after retirement, and irregardless of this being, you know, 2015.
While the debate has focused on a lack of openings for newcomers, is it time to talk about a shortage of second chances, too?
“A white manager loses his job and gets another job, he loses his job, he gets another job. Very few black managers can lose their job and get another job,” former Liverpool and England winger John Barnes says on a TV documentary set to be broadcast in the UK.
Barnes has been a regular commentator on soccer and race down the years: he was arguably England’s best black player in the Eighties, which saw him subjected to vicious abuse. In 1988, with Liverpool, he was famously photographed backheeling a banana that had been thrown at him from the stands during a game against Everton.
In 1999, his high profile helped him enter management at the top, as Celtic head coach. But results were poor and he lasted just 29 games, eight of them losses, most infamously a Scottish Cup defeat to minnows Inverness Caledonian Thistle.
Barnes didn’t get another managerial job until 2008, when he took charge of Jamaica, the country of his birth. Here he did well, winning seven and drawing four of his eleven games, before he left to take-charge of then-third tier club Tranmere Rovers in 2009. This move was a dismal failure: Barnes lasted only twelve matches, eight of them losses.
So while it’s perhaps surprising that a figure as famous and clearly intelligent as Barnes hasn’t had another chance, it’s also worth noting that his two spells in British management were short-lived failures that damaged his reputation. And failing at Tranmere, or any other lower-league club, is not exactly going to have chairmen beating down your door with job offers.
Rob Edwards was sacked by Tranmere last October after accumulating a similar record to Barnes: played 14, lost 8. He’s not yet found another managerial role. In fact, of Tranmere’s previous ten permanent managers, dating back to John King in the mid-Nineties, only four went on to find other managerial jobs after leaving Prenton Park. (We’re counting Ronnie Moore twice, as he was twice Tranmere manager then found work elsewhere.)
Of the six black or ethnic minority managers currently employed in the top four divisions of English soccer (this paltry number is actually sky-high compared with recent seasons), all are on at least their second managerial job and four have previously been fired.
A pioneering black British manager, Keith Alexander – who died of a brain aneurysm in 2010 – managed six lower-league clubs over 17 years, and was known as one of the shrewdest operators at that level. It’s easy to believe that but for his untimely death, he’d still be a manager today, because he had a track record of success.
One of Barnes’ England contemporaries, former Inter Milan and Manchester United manager Paul Ince, has managed six English clubs. He built his reputation at lowly Macclesfield Town, then enjoyed more success with Milton Keynes. In 2008, Ince became the first black British Premier League manager with Blackburn.
That went badly, but he’d done well enough previously to return to the Dons. Despite indifferent performances in that second spell he moved on to Notts County, then Blackpool, seemingly trading off the memories of the impressive results he secured early in his managerial career, as well as the name recognition from his stellar playing days.
It’s true that some managers seem to get chance after chance, while others, even if they are promising talents but just at the wrong club at the wrong time, never receive a second opportunity. Towards the bottom of the food chain, many one-time managers have to accept roles as assistant coaches, youth coaches, or scouts, to stay in the sport.
Is Barnes’ situation down to skin color, results, reputation or contacts? It’s very plausible that all four play a factor. But the sample size of black managers in English soccer is too small to be able to draw definitive conclusions about whether they’re less likely than white managers to be given more chances. Which probably says it all, really.