Chris Ramsey is a successful black English manager – but he's working in South Carolina, where Gavin Willacy found him bitter at his treatment in his homeland
Chris Ramsey spreads his arms out wide, palms up to the cloudless sky, and looks around him at the neat yellow stands of Blackbaud Stadium. “Just think about it,” he asks. “Where would I want to be? Here or Rochdale?” The coach of Charleston Battery, arguably the best club in America’s A-League (one level below the MLS), expects the answer to be “here”, in idyllic South Carolina, where the air rarely dips below 70 degrees. But challenge him and he admits he would love to be coaching back home in England. The problem is, he’s black. “Being black has certainly been a stumbling block in my career,” he claims. “Put it this way, I’ve had obstacles to overcome that other coaches haven’t.”
Ramsey is loving life in Charleston, lording it over a tremendous little club, run by an English multi-millionaire with enough clout to have signed Terry Phelan last season. However, he feels that if he was white, he would be manager of a Nationwide League club now, perhaps Luton Town where he and former Hatters legend Ricky Hill formed a managerial partnership that lasted just three months in 1999.
“There is a common denominator,” says the former Brighton full-back, who played against Manchester United in the 1983 FA Cup final. “A lot of black players have retired from playing but there are very few black managers. More and more black players are retiring now, so this is a big test for the game coming up. Will we suddenly get loads of black managers? I doubt it – and, anyway, it should have happened already.”
Only Jean Tigana of the Premiership’s 20 managers is black, and only Ruud Gullit – another foreigner and appointed as an international superstar rather than a well qualified coach – has been in charge of a top-six team. Look down the divisions and the story is equally bleak. No black manager has survived much more than a season at one club. Worryingly for the near future, there are very few black assistants either.
“If there is a managerial bandwagon, why isn’t Ricky Hill on it? Or Cyrille Regis? Why hasn’t John Barnes got another job? He shouldn’t have been given the Celtic job in the first place, but loads of white guys have walked straight into big jobs – look at Bryan Robson at Middlesbrough. White managers fail time and again and keep getting given another chance because they are in the ‘club’.”
After 15 years of playing professional football, Ramsey went about getting as many qualifications as possible, from the top coaching awards to two degrees in sports science and management courses. “If I didn’t get a job because there was someone better, fine. But there was no way I was going to allow anyone to tell me I was not qualified enough.”
With a CV few could match, Ramsey started applying for coaching jobs in England. After several bitter experiences, he gave up and crossed the Atlantic, coaching in Florida and New Orleans before applying for the job at Charleston, a club with – ironically, given what he was trying to escape – an extensive English flavour, including a Three Lions pub behind the main stand and a framed signed shirt from every league club. But unlike at most English clubs, Ramsey feels comfortable, happy and wanted there.
That Ramsey ended up at Charleston is thanks to Howard Wilkinson, his old boss at the FA. Wilko appointed Ramsey, then head of coaching in the South-East, as manager of the England Under-20 side for the World Youth Championship in Nigeria in 1999. “The team that everyone pulled out of”, as Ramsey describes it. A lot of publicity surrounded his appointment as the FA’s first black male coach of a national team, but when most of his best players stayed at home with their Premiership clubs instead, Ramsey ended up the scapegoat when a third-string England were brushed aside. A conspiracy theorist may make something of the whole episode.
Wilkinson was not fooled and suggested Charleston give Ramsey a chance. In his first season, his Battery side, which included US national team record goalscorer Eric Wynalda and former Carlisle and Northampton striker Paul Conway, lost just four games out of 30 to finish third. His credentials should see him mentioned as one of Britain’s best young coaches. Instead he is an outsider.
“Things changed during my playing career. There were more and more black players until we didn’t stand out anymore. But it remains very, very difficult to get into the old boys’ club, no matter what you’ve done. As a player in the dressing room you are no different. You just get on with it. But when you step out of that dressing room, you are treated differently. Even though we had pretty much the same backgrounds and experiences as the white former players, we were not one of ‘them’ in the minds of the boards. We’re all prejudiced in different ways – all men are sexist, for example – but that is subconscious racism.
“I don’t believe in positive discrimination. If a black man is not up to the job, he’s going to get the sack anyway and that looks even worse. You must pick guys on merit. But racism has reared its ugly head again and that gives chairmen the perfect excuse for not appointing black managers. They can say that if the clubs give the reins to someone who the crowd don’t like for reasons other than not doing their job well, that’s a risk because there is a lot of money at stake.”
It is perhaps most alarming that Ramsey’s bitterest experience of what he considered racism came at Luton Town, a club who have had probably more black players and a richer history of black stars than any in the country, but who maintain an almost exclusively white fan base.
“At Luton I got 12 games to show what I could do! The players were unprofessional and overpaid. When we told them that they went running to the board, who were star-struck. They gave us no backing against the players whatsoever. I had just come from coaching better players than them [with England Under-20s] – players like Stephen Wright, Ashley Cole, Stuart Taylor – and if they know what the right way is to behave, why don’t players at Luton? They had 30 games left to stay up when Ricky left but they still went down and most of them are in Stevenage’s reserves now. So they clearly knew what was right!”
Ramsey is still not in the promised land. Despite a massive black population and two-thirds of gridiron footballers being black, only one of the 32 head coaches in the NFL is African-American, and just three in 125 Division 1-A colleges. “Generally, black men are not treated any better here than back home,” says the 41-year-old, who looks a decade younger despite his exposure to the Charleston sun. “I’m very cynical – I believe that people treat successful people well, so at the moment everything is great. When I first came, they stood with their mouths open when they heard a black man with an English accent, especially the black guys! I’m from London so I expect to be treated equally. The racism is worse here – blacks and whites just don’t mix. But because it is blatant, rather than under the table like in the UK, I prefer it.”
Even if continued success at Charleston brings new opportunities back home, Ramsey will not jump at the chance to return.
“I don’t need it. I’d only work for an English club again if it was worthwhile financially and professionally, in that order. If they are only paying you 30 grand, for example, a club won’t hesitate to get rid of you. They’d think twice if it meant a £2 million pay-off. You need to be valued and respected and I’m not sure black managers are right now.”
He did come back to the UK for Christmas, though, to see his family and film a BBC documentary, not a 20th anniversary of Brighton’s amazing cup run and relegation double, but about racism in British football management.
From WSC 192 February 2003. What was happening this month