Whichever way Andy Preece looks at it, the numbers do not add up. He is thinking back to 1999, when he cut his teeth in management as a 32-year-old at Bury, and wondering exactly what people think has changed.
“You’ve just got to look at the figures,” he says. “How many black managers were there then and how many are there now? How many black British players become managers? Whatever level they’ve played at, the opportunities just aren’t there for them.”
There are six black managers in the top four divisions this season. Preece, a former Crystal Palace striker, is not one of them: although he helped keep a stricken Bury afloat for four years, reaching the League Two play-offs on a tiny budget while still turning out up front, his career since 2003 has been spent either in non-league football or with Airbus UK in Wales. He often wonders why. Friday will bring a return to the spotlight, at least: these days he combines the assistant manager and director of football roles at National League North club Chorley, who hope to bridge a five-division gap and embarrass Wolves in the FA Cup fourth round.
When Preece looks along the touchline towards Nuno Espírito Santo, he will see one of those colleagues who have transcended football’s racial constraints and made it at the top. But there is plenty to be proud of when he surveys Chorley’s diverse technical staff. Another coach, Irfan Kawri, will stand alongside Preece and their white British manager, Jamie Vermiglio. In Kawri’s case the odds against a successful coaching career have been stacked even more heavily: he has a south Asian background and there are few groups represented less proportionately in the English game.
They have all reached the last 32 of the FA Cup on merit and so have Chorley, who improbably won at Wigan and Peterborough before dismissing a young Derby side in the third round. “Everyone who will be out there on Friday is good at their job and has earned it,” Preece says. “Nobody’s been given a job because of their colour or race.”
The point is that so many from minority groups are not afforded the chance. Kawri’s 13 years in football have taken in a scouting role at Wigan, the chief scout position at Bolton and the assistant manager post with Zambia, where he coached the Red Bull Salzburg pair Patson Daka and Enock Mwepu. It is entirely possible he is the only south Asian to have coached at this stage of the FA Cup and he has higher designs than that, given he is due to complete his Uefa A Licence in the first part of this year. He says he has needed “resilience and a thick skin” to forge a career in the sport while cutting such a rare figure.
“It’s an amazing achievement but it doesn’t reflect the community, does it?” he says. “There is a mixture of problems. We don’t have enough role models in football, people to relate to and be inspired by. Then some preconceived thoughts and stereotypes possibly come in, subconsciously rather than intentionally. On top of that, the south Asian community love football but do they know how to get involved and are they educated to know what’s required in terms of becoming a player at any level?”
Kawri explains his sporting role model as a boy was the Sheffield-born boxer Prince Naseem Hamed, whose parents were Yemeni, simply because in the mid-1990s the boxer was the only person of whom he could say: “He looks like me, he’s one of us.” Although he believes people of his ethnicity “stick out like a sore thumb” in football, he is at pains to point out the friendship he has had from numerous established figures along his journey. He has not experienced overt racial prejudice while going about his work; the overriding issue in this case appears to be one of access to what he calls a “ringfenced network”, rather than what happens for those who do get on the ladder.
For Kawri, the battle was to make a living out a football in the first place. Preece had no problem doing that during a prolific playing career. When he left Bury there was every reason to suggest he could push on but Worcester City and Northwich Victoria were his two employers – both spells bringing runs to the FA Cup second round – before Airbus called. Airbus reached the Europa League qualifiers three times on his watch but, while he was grateful to join his friend and former Northwich player Vermiglio at Chorley in 2018, the phone has largely been silent.
“Sometimes I’ll have down days where I do think the door is pretty firmly closed,” he says. “I think I’ve shocked a lot of people when I’ve gone for interviews, when they go into depth and see what I’ve done. It’s getting more difficult, more frustrating and the opportunities are getting fewer, but I feel I’m probably better than ever.”
Preece says his experiences have bred doubts in his son, who has designs on a coaching career. Budding black coaches have no option but to put themselves out there, he believes, and press home there is talent available. For all the brick walls he has run up against, he has only recently given the notion of institutional racism in football deep consideration. In November, when the then FA chairman Greg Clarke resigned after using the term “coloured footballers” and stereotyping the career interests of south Asians and african-Caribbeans, a lightbulb sparked in his head.
“It kicked me in the stomach,” he says of Clarke’s comments. “I started thinking so many football clubs’ chairmen are of his generation. Whether it’s conscious or subconscious, what are they thinking when a decision has to be made between two candidates? Is part of them thinking, ‘Black people can’t lead and white people can?’”
A point Preece and Kawri want to press home is that, time and again, talk has proved cheap when it comes to improving diversity in the technical area. “There’s been no action,” Preece says. “It just drifts, drifts, drifts until the next big incident comes along and people say we need to talk about it.” Kawri says: “If people are not going to listen or take onboard advice then change isn’t going to happen quickly.”
Nonetheless, the pair’s presence on national television on Friday night shows it can be done. Preece believes Chorley can progress to the Football League, whatever happens against Wolves, and knows he is valued highly there. “If I can help black coaches believe there is an avenue, that they have a value in football, then it’s making a difference,” he says. “I’ve been trying for 20 years and if anything things have got worse. But I’m in a position where I can keep going, hopefully people will see that and recognise there is a chance.”