Lincoln’s Keith Alexander, back at work after brain surgery, is one of only three black managers in the league. Grahame Lloyd asked him why he thought this was so
Keith Alexander knows he’s very lucky to be alive. Just three months after undergoing major brain surgery following a collapse at his home, the Lincoln City manager was due back in the dugout for the home derby against Boston on February 7. Alexander could hardly have chosen a more volatile atmosphere for his return but, with Lincoln’s next three matches pitching them against neighbours Scunthorpe and Hull as well as promotion rivals Huddersfield, all their games this month are high-profile and high-octane.
Although there are understandable fears that in such a pressured profession, a controversial incident – such as a bad tackle or disallowed goal – could trigger off a recurrence of Alexander’s illness, the man himself doesn’t share that concern: “According to the specialists, my problem wasn’t connected to the pressures of being a football manager. It was just one of those things. I came home, I went to bed and I was ill. All jobs have pressure – I don’t mind the pressure of mine and it had nothing to do with my illness. Having been told that, I was happy to go back.”
Until he guided Lincoln to last May’s play-off final – where the Third Division’s best defence conceded five goals against Bournemouth – Alexander was a little-known figure in the lower reaches of the Nationwide League. In fact, he had already claimed a place in the game’s history books a decade earlier.
Although Edwin Stein had succeeded Barry Fry at Barnet before quickly becoming his assistant again at Southend, Alexander became the first permanent black manager in English football when he was promoted from first-team coach at Lincoln in May 1993. With Leroy Rosenior (Torquay) and Keith Curle (Mansfield), he now represents a tiny minority: just three per cent of the 92 Premiership and Nationwide incumbents are black – compared with 20 per cent of footballers. There were five until the departures of Andy Preece (Bury) and Carlton Palmer (Stockport) but the number of black coaches – such as Terry Connor at Wolves – can be counted on the fingers of one hand.
Born in Nottingham but hailing from St Lucia, the 6ft 4in Alexander played for 20 clubs including Grimsby, Stockport, Lincoln and Mansfield. “I was called all sorts of names and had things like bananas chucked at me – it was just one of those things. You chucked them back or just laughed and got on with the game. It only happened if you weren’t playing well and I responded by trying to play better. It used to happen at quite a few grounds, but it’s all changed now.”
Last October, anti-racism group Kick It Out and the Professional Footballers’ Association organised a conference on the role of black players in the game. As well as Alexander, John Barnes and Chris Powell were among those who attended. The case of Paul Davis, who, despite being the best-qualified candidate, was apparently passed over for the Under-17s coach’s job at Arsenal, was one of the topics discussed. After his brief spell as Celtic’s coach, Barnes is still looking for another job within the game while Powell, the only current player at the conference, is hoping to break into management when he retires. One of the main issues to emerge was the limited number of opportunities afforded black players as managers: they are sometimes given a chance but not often a second one. Alexander admits he’s been very fortunate. He was sacked after a single season in charge after Lincoln had finished 18th in the Third Division but, after managing Ilkeston and Northwich Victoria, he returned as Alan Buckley’s assistant and replaced him as manager when the Imps went into administration in May 2002.
“There must be a reason why John Barnes hasn’t had another chance,” says Alexander. “Surely he deserves one? Maybe he made such a pig’s ear of the Celtic job that people just don’t want him – I don’t know – but why hasn’t a club in a lower league been prepared to give him another chance? At that conference, I remember saying to Barnsey: ‘Buy your own club – that’s the way to do it.’ He laughed at the suggestion. I can’t blame him because you need a lot of money and you must be prepared to lose a lot as well.
“There’s still a lot of the old-school brigade in the boardroom, but that’s changing and chairmen are starting to pick the best people for the job. It’s not for me to say if there’s a bias against employing black managers but the statistics speak for themselves. Then again, we don’t know how many of that 20 per cent of players want to be managers or coaches. I’m sure a few would – from former internationals like Viv Anderson right down to people like me who played at a lower level.”
When Alexander managed Lincoln the first time, he wasn’t aware of being racially abused by supporters, but the novelty of being English football’s first black manager did create more than occasional embarrassing moments. “People weren’t used to seeing me in the boardroom and I would often be asked for some sort of ID or pointed in the direction of the players’ bar.”
Alexander was reminded of those bad old days on a visit to Boston earlier this season. Having briefly played for the Pilgrims, he had always received a warm welcome at York Street, but as he made his way to his seat at half-time, a steward in the vice-presidents’ lounge asked to see his pass. “But she didn’t bother with anybody else in my group,” he says, “and they were all white. Because there were a lot of people about, I got out my ticket and showed it to her. I said I’d be checking whether she was asking for other people’s passes after the game but I didn’t go back that way because I left before the end. To be fair, that sort incident is rare nowadays.”
As is the bizarre practice of fans racially abusing the opposition’s black players even though there are black players in their own team. The situation has been improved by the number of ethnic-minority players in the English game and, since returning to Lincoln for his second spell, Alexander has signed half a dozen of them – such as Francis Green and Marcus Richardson – “because they’ve been better than what we’ve got and they’ve become available at the right money”. Although he thinks more has to be done to attract black spectators to the game, Alexander believes the Kick Racism Out of Football campaign is working.
“Things have improved over the last ten years but you’ve just got to battle on. The more successful you are, the more chance you’ll have of getting something better – whether you’re a player, manager or coach. If players do well, they can get a good move. It’s the same for us because it’s a results business. We just have to keep on applying for jobs and hope we’re given a chance on what we can do and not on the colour of our skin.”
Alexander’s main concern now is to maintain Lincoln’s promotion push – assistant Gary Simpson did a fine job, keeping the Imps in the play-off frame. Alexander was heartened by support he received from the League Managers Association, the Lincoln board, who stood by a new-contract offer made before his illness, and the wider football community. Among the first batch of get-well cards to arrive at his hospital bed was one from the Manchester United manager. “It was very nice to receive the card from Sir Alex. I’ve only met him once at a sportsman’s dinner when I was manager at Lincoln the first time and it was good of such a high-profile person to take the time out to send it.”
From WSC 205 March 2004. What was happening this month