Tuesday 16 June ~
"The fact that I am here does not mean we are going to turn things around," said John Barnes, asking for patience from supporters on being appointed manager of Tranmere yesterday. But then Tranmere fans might not be anticipating immediate success given that the new appointee has had one previous club management job, which ended in ignominy nine years ago. Since being sacked by Celtic after they were beaten at home by Inverness Caledonian Thistle in the Scottish Cup, John Barnes applied unsuccessfully for several managerial jobs and feels that prejudice was the root cause of his failure to be given another chance: "I don't think that my experience with Celtic explains why I couldn't get a job in the fourth division."
There is surely no doubt that institutional racism has long been a problem in English football. But Barnes's appointment has received a mixed reception from Tranmere supporters for reasons that have nothing to with his skin colour. The extent to which things need to be "turned around" at Tranmere is debatable given that they got their best points total in four years in 2008-09 and only missed out on the play-offs due to a last-day draw with rivals Scunthorpe. To general surprise manager Ronnie Moore – a highly popular figure at the club where he had spent most of his playing career – was then sacked, ostensibly because the board were concerned about falling attendances, which were down by 11 per cent on the previous year.
Barnes is now urging caution in part because he has inherited a thin squad with just a dozen senior players under contract. But that is an effect of owner Peter Johnson scaling back on his financial involvement at the club as a prelude, it has been suggested, to selling up. As is the case with Alan Shearer at Newcastle, an inexperienced manager with little knowledge of the transfer market is not the best person to take charge of a club operating on a tight budget.
Barnes's appointment has generated plenty of national press coverage for Tranmere this week – the Sun even researched the menu at Birkenhead's best known gastro pub – and heightened media interest in the club in the early months of the season will be of use to a board looking for a buyer. But Barnes could also become a fall-guy. In among the various astute observations made by Barnes about the number of black ex-players who haven't been offered management jobs, he was unwise to draw a comparison with a former England colleague: "Look at how Paul Ince wasn't given enough time at Blackburn."
The fact that Ince had to begin his managerial career with Macclesfield at the bottom of League Two is no doubt due to prejudicial attitudes among some club chairmen. But he subsequently moved up three divisions in going from MK Dons to Blackburn – an almost unheard-of leap, not least for someone with only 18 months' experience in management. The fact that Ince was a famous player contributed substantially to his being appointed at Blackburn, in much the same way that Barnes the managerial novice was given a plum job at Celtic working alongside his former Liverpool boss Kenny Dalglish. Every success for a black manager chips away at what remains of ingrained prejudice in football, so we should hope that Barnes is able to make a positive impact at Tranmere – and that he isn't fatally undermined by manoeuvrings in the boardroom. Rob Weston