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09 Oct 2020

CHRIS POWELL: NOW OR NEVER

Chris Powell’s first full season as a manager was, he says, ‘empowering’. With Charlton Athletic in League One, having been in the top tier only three years before, Powell succeeded in winning the league, securing promotion back into the Championship. A decade on and he has been a manager, at Huddersfield Town and Southend United, a caretaker and an assistant, the latter at Dutch side ADO Den Haag. Now U17-U23 coach at Tottenham Hotspur and part of Gareth Southgate’s England coaching staff, Powell speaks frankly about his career and his hopes for greater diversity in the game.

I’ve never had any qualms about asking for advice.

During my first six months at Charlton, the learning curve was incredibly steep, but I knew I could call Nigel Pearson, Chris Hughton and others I’d worked or studied alongside for their opinion or support. Early on in your career, you have to learn on the job, and quickly. You’re facing questions and problems constantly and, while your courses, diplomas and coaching qualifications are invaluable, they won’t provide you with all of the answers. Nothing beats learning from fellow managers in the game because if one thing is for sure, whatever you’re going through, other managers will have been through it. 

I’m not afraid to take on different roles. 

Some people only want to be the manager, but I want to expand my skillset, to learn about different roles in the club, to see things from different perspectives and build relationships. I think the fact I’ve had that experience can only benefit me in the long run, because I’m able to better understand where other people in the club are coming from, what they might be thinking about and what they need in order to perform at their best.

Not enough UK coaches work abroad.

I adored working in the Netherlands. I loved the lifestyle and the culture, and it was great to be pushed out of my comfort zone, to have to adapt my coaching and man-management. I had to learn very quickly what is and isn’t negotiable in their culture and in how they play and think about the game, because the mentality of the players is quite different. I also learned to speak some Dutch, albeit terms relating to football, because small details like that are important.  It demonstrated my willingness to learn and a commitment to the role. It was a shame my time there was cut short because of Covid. It wasn’t easy, but I learned so much and I’d strongly recommend working abroad to anyone who has the opportunity to do so. 

I had to be successful, because the statistics don’t lie. 

There are many good managers out there who never get a second opportunity to make a good impression, so I knew I had to make a success of it. There were other reasons, too. Charlton was a club I was synonymous with as a player, so I was really keen to make a positive impact there. But also there was the fact that I was a young black manager. I wanted to do my absolute best to inspire other black coaches to stay in the game and apply their qualities in coaching. Black players have always been part of the fabric of the game and the same should be true off the pitch. I’ve always wanted to make a difference. There aren’t many black managers and coaches for people to look up to. I was lucky to have Chris Hughton, Keith Alexander, Terry Connor and Noel Blake.

I had self-belief and you need that as a manager.

Many people go into media or agency work, or simply walk away, but I always wanted to stay closely involved with the game after I retired as a player, regardless of my colour.  I was fortunate that someone gave me an opportunity as player-coach at Leicester City; it was then up to me to prove that I was knowledgeable, and that I could learn and improve. We should all have the same access to opportunities like that, whatever our race or gender.

I’m a manager who happens to be black.

I’m English, this is my country, irrespective of where my parents and grandparents come from.  I’m incredibly proud to have played for the England senior team, and now to work with them as a coach. I can’t tell you how powerful it is for me to be seen working with them, to be closely involved with their preparation. To me, this is what modern Britain is about – tolerance and inclusion. Organisations can be so much better for diversity. We’re at a point in the game where there’s real respect and enthusiasm for diversity in coaching and I’m really emboldened by what I’m hearing and seeing at the moment. When you have people who have been through diverse life experiences, you’re better placed to solve problems, and in many cases the organisation becomes more representative of the community it serves. 

I see a real appetite for change in the game now. 

There are so many coaches out there with great potential, male and female, and I think they’re feeling more empowered than ever. I hope that football takes the lead in instigating change, because sport can be an incredibly powerful force for good. But the changes required go beyond just creating opportunities here and there for black candidates. Without a doubt, ongoing education will play an important part in ensuring lasting change. There’s now much greater awareness of unconscious bias and of the need to understand people’s cultural differences and what they may have been through, but it’s time to act on it. Ultimately, everyone should have equal opportunities and feel comfortable doing their job regardless of the colour of their skin colour or their background. 

There have been too many false dawns.

We have such an opportunity in the game now to create lasting change, and we must not let that pass. What tends to happen is there is lots of noise around diversity, a few small changes are made and then things pretty much go back to how they were until the next time the topic raises its head. This time, it has to be different. The changes need to be made public and there needs to be transparency. If not, if it all goes on behind closed doors, there’s a real risk that we’ll be discussing this issue again in five years’ time. We need to implement lasting, meaningful change, and if we don’t do it now I fear it may never happen.

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