More action needed to make football for all
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