‘I’ve been told to cut my hair’: Gifton Noel-Williams on the barriers facing black football managers

Gifton Noel-Williams is wearing his hair up. He does not normally. But as an aspiring black manager he is hyper-conscious of bias, be it unconscious or otherwise. “I’ve been told before to cut my hair, to take my gold tooth out and maybe someone will take me seriously,” he says.

Of the Premier League’s eight permanent black managers since its inception 31 years ago, only Ruud Gullit had long hair. “I don’t really see what that’s got to do with what’s happening in the changing room, or playing or coaching my team,” continues Noel-Williams, who played in the top flight for Watford.

Then, the saddest part: the source of the advice to hide his dreadlocks. “It’s not from a place of hate,” he says. “That’s the most damning thing. These are people who genuinely believe in me, who are genuinely trying to advise me about how to get to where I want.”

Noel-Williams craves opportunity. He will go anywhere to achieve his dream, evidenced by a recent spell with Real Kashmir in India’s second tier. Why go to a region in conflict, where armed soldiers line the streets, just for football? Simple: in England, the odds are against him.

Gifton Noel-Williams in 2021 while coaching Watford Women
Gifton Noel-Williams in 2021 while coaching Watford Women. Photograph: Richard Heathcote/The FA/Getty Images

Only five of the top 116 men’s managerial posts in England are held by black managers. Patrick Vieira’s recent sacking means there is not one black person managing a men’s or women’s top-flight club. Vieira’s dismissal by Crystal Palace cut Noel-Williams deep. “It will take a black manager to do well for people to start to take more chances,” he says. “I thought Patrick was the one.”

He answers frankly when asked about the underlying statistics: “I don’t think we are up the road as much as we should be, or are pretending to be. I think everyone wishes the problem would go away.”

A Black Footballers Partnership report last October stated that 43% of Premier League and 34% of Championship players were black. Yet only Vincent Kompany, Paul Ince and Liam Rosenior now hold managerial posts across those divisions. “It’s like we are good enough to be an assistant or a striker coach, but to be a manager, to control the budget, the structure and the culture of a team … it’s almost like we are not trusted enough.”

Noel-Williams is engaging company: relaxed, articulate and unwaveringly positive. He is not bitter. The pride with which he talks about helping youngsters is inspiring. And the prevailing sense is that this conversation is not difficult because of the topic, but because he knows that speaking out may affect his ultimate aim.

Mandatory appointments would not, to his mind, be beneficial. Having an outside recruitment firm draw up shortlists is more viable, he says. “You see the same managers who get relegated get another job. Haven’t won promotion for 10 years; get another job. Take a team from first to 12th; still get another job. And you just wonder: ‘What do I have to do to get a chance like that?’”

Noel-Williams has been striving for that opportunity since he retired as a player 13 years ago. At first, they said he lacked the requisite qualifications. Now, having gained his Uefa pro licence, perceived inexperience counts against him.

But that does not stack up. Noel-Williams spent five years mentoring aspiring coaches for the Professional Footballers’ Association. In any given week, he could visit five clubs, picking brains, analysing the game. Many of his mentees now hold coaching jobs.

Gifton Noel-Williams battles with Patrick Vieira during Watford’s FA Cup tie against Arsenal in January 2002
Gifton Noel-Williams battles with Patrick Vieira, sacked last month as Crystal Palace’s manager, during Watford’s 2002 FA Cup tie against Arsenal. Photograph: Stu Forster/Getty Images

He has dabbled in non-league management, with Burnham and Codicote. His boardroom experiences were telling: “People would say to me: ‘Gifton, I don’t have a black friend. I don’t know how to communicate with black people because I’ve never been around them.’ They are just being real. They are not racist people. I realised that if they are interviewing a black guy and a white guy, they’d most likely pick the white guy because it is where they are more comfortable.”

In early 2022, Noel-Williams managed Watford’s women’s team on an interim basis, and during last month’s international break he was away with England men’s under-17s in the Netherlands. He, Jamal Campbell-Ryce and Quinton Fortune are the current cohort of the PFA’s and Football Association’s joint flagship initiative, the elite coaching placement programme. Noel-Williams is loving it. But there is a flipside. “You have your year and you’re done. I feel a little bit sad. Where is the employability after? I’ve been told that people don’t think I’m an FA-style person.”

What does that even mean? That you are not a middle-aged white man in a suit? Noel-Williams laughs. He pauses. He stresses that the message did not come from within the FA. “I think I’m just different. But I think for the players, they really get me. I get them. I think I’ve been able to give them a different outlook.”

Noel-Williams the player was flying at Watford before a knee injury in 1999, sustained the day after his first England Under-21s call-up, hindered his career. He developed rheumatoid arthritis. He was told multiple times he would never play again. Watford’s then owner, Sir Elton John, heard about a new treatment in America. That took Noel-Williams into temporary remission but he knew he would never “get any sharper, any better. It was just about survival. But it helped get my brain thinking and changed my perspective on football.”

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Gifton Noel Williams at Watford’s Women’s Championship game against Charlton during his spell as interim manager
Gifton Noel Williams at Watford’s Women’s Championship game against Charlton during his spell as interim manager. Photograph: SPP Sport Press Photo./Alamy

Other notable spells came at Stoke and Burnley, and in Spain and the United States, where he first coached. Casual park sessions rapidly escalated to running his son’s team. He soon established training camps, an academy and a youth side.

Noel-Williams is drinking coffee in the Emirates Stadium’s shadow and his eyes glisten at the thought of Arsenal. Memories of watching his first match flood back. The Clock End. A north London derby. Perry Groves with the winner. “I fell in love with football.” Then his eyes water. His cousin Michael, whose death still feels raw, took him to that game.

The loss hit Noel-Williams hard. At 13 his dad died; at 16 he became a father; he was soon tipped for stardom; then it was ripped away. Michael was his confidant throughout. “Everyone around you is in the bubble, and there are those who want to hang on to you. They just tell you the good stuff. You need that person to burst a few of those bubbles. To him, being a good human being was more important than being a footballer.”

Noel-Williams’s face beams again when talking of the late Graham Taylor, his Watford manager. “People are making a science of stuff now,” he says. “Graham was telling us it in 1997.” David Vidal, his Real Murcia coach, inspired him. Pep Guardiola is his hero, Kenny Jackett his “football daddy”.

His first full-time managerial role feels closer yet still distant. A recent interview with a non-league club brought another rejection, but the chair remains in contact. He is beginning to get seen. He was relaxed as a player, “but people don’t realise I don’t sleep because I’m thinking about formations, systems and creating environments.

“Many times, I’ve felt like giving up. That I’ll never get where I want to. But football is my life, it’s my love, it’s what I want the most. My philosophy with everything is just keep going. I’d rather say I tried and failed, than have been too scared to try in case I got sacked.”

With that, Noel-Williams grabs his backpack and departs. He is never without that bag. It contains his laptop detailing his philosophy, his coaching plans. Just in case.

source: theguardian.com