More ac­tion needed to make foot­ball for all

The Herald on Sunday - - WHAT'S THE SCORE? -

STA­TIS­TI­CALLY speak­ing, Al­bion Rovers are the worst se­nior team in Scot­land. And by some dis­tance, too. After only 13 matches Rovers al­ready trail se­cond-bot­tom Stir­ling Al­bion by seven points at the foot of League Two hav­ing lost their last six matches.

They are a team in des­per­ate need of an up­turn in for­tunes if they are to avoid the pos­si­bil­ity of slid­ing out of the se­nior set-up on what would be the cen­te­nary of them re-join­ing the Scot­tish League. That would be the cru­ellest of an­niver­saries.

Such a sce­nario would be the ob­vi­ous talk­ing point with most new man­agers parachuted in to try to res­cue it but, in the myr­iad in­ter­views con­ducted with Kevin Harper since he took of­fice a fort­night ago, few have ref­er­enced Rovers’ plight.

In­stead, Harper’s ap­point­ment as the first black man­ager in Scot­tish foot­ball for 15 years has reignited the de­bate on whether Scot­land as a na­tion – and its pro­fes­sional foot­ball clubs by ex­ten­sion – could be do­ing more to pro­mote the cause of play­ers and man­agers from non-white back­grounds.

Scot­tish so­ci­ety likes to view it­self as pro­gres­sive, open-minded and in­clu­sive, and there is un­doubt­edly a sense of su­pe­ri­or­ity among some that they are more wel­com­ing and gen­er­ous than their neigh­bours across the Bor­der.

And, while there may be some truth in all of that, Harper’s com­ments about his ap­point­ment be­ing a long time com­ing does pose some un­com­fort­able ques­tions. If Scot­land truly is a rain­bow na­tion open to all, a place where ev­ery­one is af­forded equal sta­tus, then why is that not re­flected in the colour of the faces that fill the shirts of our foot­ball teams or sit in the dug-outs?

That Harper is the first non-white Scot­tish man­ager since Dave Smith’s ten­ure at Mon­trose is per­haps less of a sur­prise given that man­age­ment roles tend only to be given to those who have played the game and, in re­cent years, there has hardly been an abun­dance of Scot­tish­born or raised play­ers of BAME (Black, Asian or mi­nor­ity eth­nic) ori­gin fea­tur­ing at the high­est lev­els.

Chris Iwelumo pro­gressed from the youth ranks at St Mir­ren to be­come a Scot­land in­ter­na­tional, and there are sim­i­lar high hopes for tal­ented young play­ers such as Karamoko Dem­bele,

Ethan Erha­hon and Jai Quitongo. And yet, given the wel­come af­forded to mi­grants, refugees and oth­ers seek­ing asy­lum over the years, it still seems cu­ri­ous that those who have come to these shores – and their de­scen­dants – have not made more of an im­pres­sion on the Scot­tish foot­ball land­scape. Be­yond Jazz Jut­tla, once of Rangers and Morton, it is dif­fi­cult to re­call an­other player of Scots-Asian de­scent fea­tur­ing for one of our lead­ing sides. And it is a sim­i­lar story when it comes to those from Mid­dle East­ern back­grounds, or who have fled from atroc­i­ties in other parts of the world in search of a bet­ter life. The hope must be that the lack of non-white in­volve­ment in Scot­tish foot­ball is en­tirely through choice. Per­haps among In­dian and Pak­istani com­mu­ni­ties, for ex­am­ple, there is sim­ply no de­sire to forge a ca­reer in pro­fes­sional team sports. Maybe, in­stead, the fo­cus is on at­tain­ing ed­u­ca­tional ex­cel­lence or pur­su­ing other hob­bies, or pos­si­bly fam­ily com­mit­ments take pri­or­ity.

The al­ter­na­tive, how­ever, presents a grim prospect. Incidents of wide­spread, overt racism seem mer­ci­fully to be on the wane, a far cry from the days when Mark Wal­ters and Paul El­liott were greeted by mon­key noises and had ba­nanas thrown at them. It would be naive, how­ever, to think the prob­lem has com­pletely gone away.

As re­cently as this year, Rabin Omar, the Dutch-born, Scots-raised player of Kur­dish de­scent, was sub­ject to racist abuse from Clyde’s Ally Love who sub­se­quently served a five-game ban.

There will no doubt be other tales of play­ers who have suf­fered sim­i­larly – prob­a­bly un­der the guise of “dress­ing-room ban­ter” – that have never made it into the pub­lic do­main. Oth­ers from eth­nic back­grounds may be put off even at­tempt­ing to launch a foot­ball ca­reer just by the thought of what they might have to con­tend with.

Harper was an­other who had to en­dure a lot sim­ply for hav­ing a dif­fer­ent skin tone to the rest of his team-mates. He finds it mad­den­ing and dis­heart­en­ing that it is still an is­sue and doesn’t think it will ever go away en­tirely.

“Play­ers still get [abuse]. That’s a fact,” he said in a re­cent in­ter­view. “It’s changed a hell of a lot, but we’ve not come far enough. Are we ever go­ing to have a time when there is no­body in a stand or on the side of a pitch who is go­ing to say some­thing? I don’t think so.”

Racism will be one of the many top­ics dis­cussed at The Foot­ball Col­lec­tive, a gath­er­ing at Ham­p­den Park this week of aca­demics and other “crit­i­cal thinkers”. El­liott, on his re­turn to Glas­gow, will be one of those pre­sent­ing on the chal­lenge of “reimag­in­ing race, di­ver­sity and op­por­tu­nity in foot­ball” and the panel’s find­ings and rec­om­men­da­tions on how to level the play­ing field ought to be in­struc­tive.

Could the Scot­tish FA, for ex­am­ple, be per­suaded to go down the route of in­tro­duc­ing a “Rooney Rule” of pos­i­tive dis­crim­i­na­tion when it comes to op­por­tu­ni­ties in foot­ball for those from BAME back­grounds?

It would seem a dras­tic move but per­haps the time has come for Scot­tish foot­ball to be nudged in the right di­rec­tion when it comes to cre­at­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties for all.

Kevin Harper is the first black man­ager in Scot­tish foot­ball for 15 years

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