The Rooney Rule should diversify football's managers

Craig Beeston

The FA’s announcement on 9 January that it would be adopting the principles of a voluntary Rooney Rule in relation to all coaching positions in the England setup met with a warm welcome in some quarters and cries of tokenism in others.

The rule will mean that at least one candidate from a BAME background will be interviewed for each vacant role, provided that one has applied and meets the qualification criteria. The chair of Kick It Out, which campaigns for equality and inclusion in football, described the move as a ‘watershed moment’.

The Rooney Rule originated in the NFL in the United States in 2003 to tackle a lack of diversity among the league’s coaching personnel.

Research by The Sport People’s Think Tank in November showed that BAME coaches accounted for just 4.6% of senior positions in professional English football (two-fifths of whom work in a cluster of four clubs). Just five of the 92 clubs have a BAME manager. These figures are at odds with a playing base of up to 30% from BAME backgrounds and have been referred to, interestingly, as indicating a form of professional neglect, depriving the game of talent.

The FA’s announcement came as part of a series of measures intended to improve its organisational culture after what has been a bruising time for the governing body. It also follows the move by the English Football League to extend its own implementation of the principle to senior appointments after applying it to academy roles since June 2016.

Predictably, many of the headlines focused on the rule being used in the future to select Gareth Southgate’s successor. Whilst the implementation of the rule is a positive development, its effects are unlikely to be seen for some time. And it is probable that its impact will be more keenly felt in the short term in other squads under the FA umbrella.

Neither of these are grounds for dismissing its usefulness. But it must be seen as part of an ongoing attempt to tackle the woeful under-representation of BAME communities in the game’s management and leadership.

In truth, when the FA considers its next Gareth Southgate (hopefully not as soon as the group stages of this summer’s World Cup), it is likely to insist that the candidate has top flight experience. Currently there is only one Premier League manager from a BAME background. And there have only ever been six. This raises the question of whether the English Premier League needs to be on board in order to maximise the effectiveness of the move.

Premier League clubs, however, are notoriously short-termist when making managerial appointments. Those at the top end of the league, with aspirations of silverware and Champions League involvement, tend to recruit mangers proven at delivering those things.

Clubs at the wrong end (and nothing makes the trigger finger of a board or owner twitch like the prospect of relegation) have a tendency to seek out those with Premier League experience and a track record of survival: witness the same names trotted out for every vacancy. An article at the end of last year asked whether the biggest obstacle to more young British coaches in the professional game wasn’t the old British coaches currently in it.

Until the Premier League is more open to widening its pool of go-to managers – or until young coaches are prepared to seek experience further afield – the FA will struggle for suitable individuals from any background. Should it be prepared once again to look overseas for candidates, it will fare little better in securing BAME applicants: the top flights of Europe’s Big Five leagues are as depressingly homogeneous, ethnically speaking.

But the importance of this initiative should not be measured solely by appointments to the men’s senior team in the near future, as important a signal as that would send. Rather, it will demonstrate, over time, to those who currently see a closed shop that a coaching or managerial career is a viable option for them across the range of FA squads: men’s, women’s, age-group and disability football.

The next Southgate could even come from within. The more people are inclined to pursue such a career, the more talent will be available for clubs and teams at all levels. The by-product of success for an intervention like the Rooney Rule should be to render itself obsolete. The uptake just needs jump starting.

This can be provided by a number of measures, of which the Rooney Rule is just one. Equally important will be the education, diversity awareness and mentoring schemes provided by the game’s stakeholders, including the FA and the League Managers Association, alongside improved organisational cultures which promote and embrace inclusivity and diversity in all their manifestations. This goes for boards, management, workforces and volunteers.

Craig Beeston is policy officer (not-for-profit) at ICSA: The Governance Institute

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