“‘It is shocking and the more we speak about it, and reflect on it, the more it hits home that there’s an incredible imbalance,” Chris Hughton says as he addresses the grievous lack of black managers in English football. His only current managerial contemporary is Keith Curle, in charge of Carlisle United in League Two, and Hughton’s quietly spoken words carry even more impact now that he has led Brighton & Hove Albion into next season’s Premier League.
Brighton’s inspiring promotion, after decades of strife in which the club became homeless, bankrupt and on the brink of losing their place in the Football League, was guaranteed last week. Their 58-year-old manager has two games remaining of this Championship season, starting with Bristol City at home on Saturday. But first, on a cold evening at the Amex Stadium, before his players participate in their annual awards, it is striking how he sidesteps beaming celebrations or personal vindication. Hughton, instead, confronts more important issues with a social conscience that is often missing from English football.
The “incredible imbalance” has long been, as Hughton says, “between those of ethnic backgrounds playing football, often at very good clubs, having good careers, being captains of their teams, and an absence in senior management. There have been some changes and it has been encouraging at academy and grassroots level – but still not at the top level. The game has a responsibility to redress the balance.”
Hughton looks up. There is no bitterness in his voice but that stark sentence echoes a bare statistic. Only two out of 92 managers in English league football are not white men. Twenty-five percent of players in English football’s four divisions are from a black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) background – but no worthy acronym is pinned to the fact that over 97 percent of managers are white. It makes Hughton, an astute and calm manager, seem exceptional.
He also talks with a clarity and conviction that matches his achievements – despite having dealt with owners ranging from Mike Ashley at Newcastle United to Carson Yeung at Birmingham City. Few men, after all, have made the same journey through English football as Hughton. In a playing career stretching from 1977 to 1993, he featured in 297 games for Spurs and became the first mixed-race footballer to represent Ireland, winning 53 caps despite being born in east London. Hughton also played for West Ham United and Brentford. Attitudes towards black footballers changed during that period but Hughton winces at the raw memories.
“I was brought up in a football environment where we saw a lot of racism – whether it was abuse from other players or huge groups of supporters in away matches. I remember going to stadiums and huge sections of the stand gave you racial abuse. It was never nice but it wasn’t a surprise – particularly when I was first at Spurs. I was the only black player in the team followed by Garth Crooks [three years later]. You were used to it if somebody made a racial comment to you on the pitch. I wouldn’t say you accepted it, but you had to get on with it.
“It was in society too. There were some places where you didn’t feel comfortable because of racial overtones. Those were also the days where the perception of black players was that, ‘they can play on the wing, and they’re really quick, but they’re not captaincy or organization material.’ Even now it’s about getting away from that myth to the exact opposite.”
Hughton is ready to raise his voice – not in anger but with renewed resolve. Football might appear more tolerant yet black managers and directors evoke memories of the Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison’s poignant novel about racism in the 1950s. “Some forms of racism evaporate over time, even if there are still stigmas and people that take longer to change. But there is no doubt the environment is far more open and multicultural. There also seems much more enthusiasm [for change]. But that enthusiasm has to be turned into action. We need real change for that to lead to bigger positions [for black people].”
Does Hughton believe that new legislation should redress the inequities for prospective black football managers and directors? He nods: “We need a harder push.”
Would he even support the idea of quotas – to ensure the emergence of more black managers and directors? “Yes I do. The Football League [but not the Premier League] came out and said with any [coaching or management] position the club must interview at least one black or ethnic candidate. I certainly believe in a type of Rooney Rule – in legislation that doesn’t give black and ethnic individuals a job but, at least, puts them in the frame.”
In 2003, American football’s NFL introduced a stipulation that all teams must include black or ethnic minority candidates in interviews for any senior coaching or operations vacancy. The Rooney Rule is named after the former chairman of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Dan Rooney, who also led the NFL’s diversity committee.
The Football League adopted a variation of the Rooney Rule in 2015 when making it compulsory for clubs to interview at least one BAME candidate, where an application has been received, for youth development roles requiring a minimum of a Uefa B coaching license. They also encouraged a voluntary recruitment code for first-team football which Hughton says is now accepted from the Championship down. “I agree with that type of legislation,” he says. “The Football League has got that now.”
Yet the status quo remains. Two weeks ago Marcus Bignot was sacked by Grimsby Town and the number of black managers in the Football League shrank from three to just Hughton and Curle. Hughton believes legislation might be most effective if it challenged football’s almost exclusively white boardrooms.
“We’re in an age of big business and I’m sure there will be future legislation about the workplace. All of the stakeholders in our game appear to have an enthusiasm for change. You see it with the big broadcasters. We’re broadcasting English football all over the world – including many African countries. I feel people in the game want to see diverse players and multiracial cultures – which means [black] people in better positions at the stadium, doing the actual interviewing in the boardrooms, because the game on the field is multiracial.”
Are multiracial boardrooms feasible in the next 10 years? “That’s what I would like,” Hughton says before asking himself another question. “Am I hopeful? The stats over the last 10 to 20 years don’t suggest [much hope]. But the stakeholders seem to say we need a harder push.”
Without black candidates in the boardroom or black managers being interviewed for Premier League roles, a more subtle corporate racism will remain in place of the terrace abuse that once blighted football. “Yes, and it’s the same battle women have had. We don’t see enough women in the boardroom. There was always a saying that a woman or a black person needed to work twice as hard to get a position someone else would reach far more comfortably.”
Football management is brutal and sackings are inevitable. Hughton did commendable work at Newcastle, helping them gain promotion before he was fired by Ashley when the club were 11th in the Premier League in December 2010. Norwich enticed him away from Birmingham but, following another sacking in April 2014, he was unemployed for eight months. Hughton became Brighton’s manager on New Year’s Eve 2014 but he spent some of his time in the wilderness doing a course in corporate governance.
“I was delighted to do it – even if it impinged a little on my job here. It’s a 10-month course and I had three months to do after I got this job. So it overlapped but I was really pleased. The course is about getting more diversity in the boardroom – and learning about boardroom structures and how they’re run. It was very interesting but tough. I have a thirst for knowledge because you’re always trying to have the best relationship with the directors. I also won’t always be a manager. It might open up another future pathway.”
Has he allowed himself to savor Brighton’s promotion? “Not really. Your problem as a manager is you need an element of control. If we’d already won the title it would be different. We want to win it [on Saturday] but I’m looking forward to a break in the summer.”
Hopefully he enjoyed Brighton going up, following a 34-year absence from the top flight, after beating Wigan Athletic last week? “I did,” he smiles. “There was a nice moment in this room. After I’d been in the changing room, and done lots of press, I came in here. My family were waiting for me and it was lovely. We watched the end of Derby-Huddersfield and, at first, it was difficult because mathematically we hadn’t done it. But then it was lovely to be promoted officially with my wife, four children and six grandkids all around me. Most managers dedicate their lives to the job – so it’s wonderful for the family to share some success.”
Less than a year ago, having missed automatic promotion on goal difference, Brighton were knocked out in the play-offs by Sheffield Wednesday who had finished 15 points behind them. Yet two days later the owner Tony Bloom, a Brighton fan who has pumped £250m into the club, gave Hughton a new four-year contract. “That was a statement from Tony – and hopefully his decision to back me will appeal to more owners and offer some stability.”
Bloom might have made money as a professional gambler but he seems pragmatic when running Brighton. “Before I came here I obviously didn’t know the owner,” Hughton says. “But now we’ve had many conversations and lots of dealings. He runs the club very sensibly. Of course there have been huge outlays in the new stadium and an outstanding training facility. He has spent his money wisely. Last season we had some tough emotions but within a couple of days I was thinking about this campaign. ‘What do we need? Who can strengthen the squad?’ We were smart.”
Hughton brings a very human touch to his management. When his best player, Anthony Knockaert, lost his father, Hughton cancelled training and arranged for the whole squad to travel to France for the funeral. “We’d had a bigger tragedy the season before with the Shoreham disaster. That brought the community and the club very close together. This was much more personal and Anthony had a fair amount to do with it. I’m not saying we wouldn’t have done the same for everybody but Anthony is very well-liked by the whole group. He’s a very good player for us but everybody just wanted to be with him. He’s quite an emotional young man and we knew how close he was to his father.”
Did Knockaert expect everyone to arrive in his home town of Leers, near Lille? “He only thought myself and Bruno, the captain, were going. When he saw all the boys it was very emotional. I was so pleased. You saw what it meant to Anthony, his family and friends in a very working-class, humble area.”
Such humility is bolstered by belief that Brighton can thrive in the Premier League. “Burnley and Bournemouth are very good examples for us. I hope our squad does well but I’m very conscious of how tough the Premier League is – so we need to keep our strong work ethic. But it would also be nice to tweak the squad and make some improvements.”
Hughton pauses, considering the question with some fascination, when I ask which manager, anywhere in the world, he would most like to meet to discuss tactics and management? “Pochettino,” he eventually says of the Tottenham manager – admiring his success and philosophy rather than just their Spurs link.
He remains a member of the Labor party but, even with a June election looming, Hughton is consumed by football. “I’m certainly not able to pay as much attention to politics as I did in the past. But it’s still very much an interest and social issues always mean a lot to me.”
The Guardian Sport