Black History Month: Chris Powell, Bukayo Saka and the black England role models inspiring a generation

The first black England player to represent his country at international level, Chris Powell has been a role model for the next generation of footballers.

Black History Month is about celebrating the achievements of black people in history, but it’s also a time to look back and reflect on how far we’ve come.

Illustration of Chris Powell supporting Bukayo Saka after England's Euro 2020 final loss“I’m with you, and I know what’s coming” Chris Powell discusses the viral moment he gave Bukayo Saka encouragement after Italy’s loss in the Euro 2020 final.

When England fell on penalties in the Euro 2020 final against Italy, there were many memorable moments that will be forever carved into the story of that summer.

However, the moment England’s Chris Powell wrapped his arm around Bukayo Saka as they watched Italy get their medals revealed a different tale.

Powell is one of the country’s most prominent black coaches, having been a part of England’s recent tournament success under Gareth Southgate after joining the set-up on the Elite Coach Placement Program.

Following the penalty shootout defeat to Italy, the players who missed their spot-kicks – Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho, and Saka – received racial abuse online.

Powell’s expertise, leadership, and position as a member of Gareth Southgate’s backroom staff became even more important at that point.

Powell, a former England international who played more than 500 games for club and country, tells Sport, “I remember just standing there thinking, he’s going to need assistance.”

“And who do you want in your midst? You want your family to be as normal as possible. Well, he hasn’t been able to reach them yet, so I just felt compelled to say – I’m standing with you. Unfortunately, I know what’s going to happen.”

Sport talks to some of the inspiring black leaders within the England men’s set-up on the significance of their jobs as part of Black History Month.

Setting a good example

Powell believes the shift in the England team’s fortunes over the last six months, from being booed for kneeling in pre-tournament friendlies to being cheered at Wembley ahead of this month’s World Cup qualifiers, demonstrates improvement.

Powell believes that when Tottenham supporters applauded Arsenal’s Saka onto the field in August, it demonstrated that “love, support, and passion” can overcome past rivalries and insults from “a minority that tries to speak the loudest.”

It’s been widely reported that Southgate, Powell, and the England leadership team considered kneeling and ultimately chose to stick to their guns through the Euros and beyond.

Powell explains: “We believed that was the greatest option for us and the country. And we thought it would be a dramatic moment, and look what occurred over time: people began to applaud.”

Regular inquiries about societal problems like racism, according to Powell, are no longer a hardship for this generation of “eloquent” England players, who have “reconnected” with the media and the public under Southgate’s leadership.

“It’s no longer a burden for me – it used to be.” Tyrone Mings, Marcus Rashord, Raheem Sterling… “You don’t realize how strong you guys are now,” I told them, “and your behaviors and what you say connect with so many people.”

“I was lucky enough to play this great game during my generation, but we couldn’t truly have the voice we desired.” We were unable to express ourselves since it was not tolerated.

“Now, individuals from all walks of life are willing to speak up about how others are treated, and they’re not scared to do so, and I believe it has a tremendous effect on my children and their children.”

“Can we grasp this opportunity? The larger picture is now.”

“There will always be resistance.” What you must recognize is that it is always a minority that tries to shout loudest – I believe we must ignore this.

“Listen to it if you have to, but don’t lose sight of what you’re about as an individual, a race, a team, or a squad – and I believe we recognize how important their voices are.”

This summer, our country came together – Powell

The seasoned pro

Jesse Lingard, a Manchester United striker, has been a senior England international for five years and was part of Gareth Southgate’s first game in charge.

In that time, he has progressed from a youthful player to a seasoned figure in the locker room. With that shift and time, he has established himself as one of England’s leaders.

“The way Gareth works, he has a very excellent set-up,” he added. Everyone wants to go to England camps, and everyone loves their time there.

“The things we do off the field, like team bonding, benefit us on the field since everyone knows each other.” It helps a lot since the team is so varied and has so much culture.

“You know, as a team, we talk about everything. If someone is going through anything off the field, whether it’s ethnic [or not], we always talk about it to find the best solution.

“That is what has occurred through time; times have changed. We’re such a close-knit group that we stick together whether it’s an on-field or off-field problem.”

The Lioness in Training

Marc Guehi of Crystal Palace is the England Under-21 captain, a position he holds not just because of the title, but also because he is one of the few black captains in the country.

He has shown leadership far beyond his age of 21. His club manager, Patrick Vieira, has described him as a natural leader, and he now plays in the Premier League on a regular basis.

“I wouldn’t say it’s something I think about, but it’s certainly something I’ve realized has an effect,” he said.

“Seeing someone like me, or someone who looks like me, in a position of luxury and responsibility, [I’m] holding a torch for a lot of kids out there. It’s a huge deal, in my opinion.”

On and off the field, Guehi idolized Chelsea icon and former Ivory Coast captain Didier Drogba.

“At Chelsea, he was a huge voice and a great player.” He was the captain of Ivory Coast and helped put an end to the country’s civil war, so he’s accomplished a lot. He’s a true role model, a true leader, and someone I truly admired.

“To see anybody of any ethnic origin or variety encapsulates what this country is all about.”

“It’s very wonderful to have so many black individuals in positions of responsibility and leadership [in the England set-up].”

The person who makes the choice

Michael Johnson works with the Football Association, advising them on how to effectively interact with Premier League and EFL teams. He’s also a former England youth international and has played in the Premier League.

His is not the usual post-retirement path of ex-professionals. Johnson has a corporate governance accreditation, has completed a League Managers Association certificate, has two masters degrees, and has studied business.

“You have to be able to see something in order to think that you can accomplish it,” he said.

“When you see individuals in high positions, it’s the same.” This serves as a source of inspiration for people who may be playing the game.

“However, I believe there is a genuine talent in seeing where the game is heading and how varied it is.”

“I believe it is critical for it to be represented at the top level because the decision-making process of those senior leaders then influences and affects others all the way down through your organization.”

“I think it’s wonderful for inspiration – it’s fantastic for people to see individuals who look like them and then be encouraged to continue on that path,” she says.

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