At last weekend’s Queens Park Book Festival I had the pleasure of hosting a football panel with Pat Nevin and Ricky Hill, who both had books published earlier this year. A common theme that unites the two former internationals is that, for different reasons, both were considered as outsiders within the football world, for example Nevin’s nickname at Chelsea was ‘Weirdo’. The Scotsman’s memoir is entitled The Accidental Footballer to reflect his initial reluctance. “I tried really hard not to be a professional footballer, and failed,” Nevin said. By contrast Hill always wanted to be a footballer, inspired by watching Albert Johansseson, the first black player to play in the FA Cup Final when he appeared for Leeds United in 1965. But he came up against significant barriers because of racism and as he points out in Love of the Game – The Man Who Brought The Rooney Rule to the UK those barriers still exist.
Both books reflect frustrations with elements of the sport alongside their deep-rooted passion and love of the game itself and amongst the topics discussed are racism and the pernicious impact of social media. Nevin’s main motivation behind writing his book some twenty years after he retired as a player, was anger. “Somebody said something to me and it infuriated me so much that I went away angry because they told me to stop writing what I felt and start going online and copying what was online, see what was tweeting, see what was trending at the time and write that. I went ‘Really? You don’t want to hear my opinion?’ They said no, no, no that’s how you get the punters in and get more advertising, look at what they’re saying and then repeat it back to them.”
“I was so angry, I was fuming. I said to myself no forget this, I’m going to write what I want to write and nobody is going to tell me what to do. I was flying back to Scotland and had a five-hour wait. By the time I got on the plane I had written 10,000 words and three weeks later I’d written 120,000 words. So that anger lasted a wee while.”
Initially Hill was driven by sorrow. The death of his childhood friend and fellow England international Cyrille Regis in January 2018 affected him very deeply. “I was in Chicago on work when I heard that he had died. It was the middle of the night and I cried myself to sleep. I thought about the fragility of life, it could happen to me at any time. Have I left my story? Do people really know who I am? That was the first reason so I actually started the book on that trip, similar to Pat, writing away on the computer. As I saw through my lens.”
The need to tell his story was sharpened by the shoddy treatment Hill received in 2000 when he was manger at Luton Town for only a few months before being dismissed. “That was an issue for me, having spent fifteen years at the club. I was probably one of their most renowned players of that era, managed to play for England. After all those things I was given just four months. The public didn’t know what had taken place at that time, I slipped away like a thief in the night as if nothing happened. I was really disrespected and ill treated. Let me get that part of the story out so people at least understand what took place. So that was the beginning and in my estimation the reason why I wrote the book. From my perspective I feel great that it’s out there and it’s cathartic to a degree.”
In his post-playing career Hill is still encountering racism but rather than chants from the terraces it has developed into covert inequality whereby BAME coaches and managers have limited opportunities to get into the echelons of football management. When Patrick Vieira was appointed to succeed Roy Hodgson at Selhurst Park in July he became the 247th manager in the history of the Premier League but only the tenth BAME manager, of whom half are from British Isles.
Paul Ince became the first black manager in England’s top division when appointed at Blackburn Rovers in June 2008, he was dismissed before the year was out. In 2012 Terry Connor took over from Mick McCarthy at Wolves, his reign lasted thirteen matches. Both Chris Ramsey at QPR in February 2014, and Darren Moore at West Brom in April 2018 were brought in as caretakers but could not save their clubs from relegation. Although both were appointed on a full-time basis neither lasted more than a year. Hughton is the only one of that quintet who lasted more than nine months and did so at three different Premier League clubs Newcastle, Norwich and Brighton.
Those damning statistics underpin Hill’s concerted efforts to introduce The Rooney Rule from the NFL to these shores whereby there is a requirement for clubs to include ethnic minority candidates in the interview process for head coaches and senior management positions. To put it mildly there has been a limited response from clubs and football authorities and Hill cites his own personal experience as further evidence. Despite impressive credentials from a successful coaching career in the USA and Trinidad the door over the last two decades the door has rarely been open.
“I have had one interview. It was in 2002 with Sir Alex Ferguson at Carrington [Manchester United’s training ground] for two hours for the reserve team post. I had a great two hours with Sir Alex and at the end he said: ‘I would like to offer you the position but Maurice Watkins, our solicitor is away but when he comes back we’ll sort out the terms’.” In the meantime Ricky Sbragia applied for the role and ultimately he was chosen. “That is the only interview I have had in the 20-odd years since I left Luton in 2000.”
Nevin agrees wholeheartedly with the concept of bringing something akin to The Rooney Rule over here but he sees a common misconception. “Everyone thinks The Rooney Rule is pure positive discrimination and that way you’ll upset people. What it has to be is exactly what Ricky says – it gets you on the interview list, treated seriously if you have the will and the talent. I haven’t met yet anyone from any sphere who wants to get a job because of their colour, because of who they are, they want it because they are capable of doing it and that is the point you absolutely made and it is a point that is often overlooked.”
Footnote – A recording of this discussion is available on YouTube – https://bit.ly/3lE3gkk