Andrew Cole had to put up with the perception that when the weather was too cold then the black players didn’t fancy it. He had to endure the stereotype that black players were arrogant or had a chip on their shoulders.
“There’s always been something put in front of you,” he says. “You’ve got to get through the barrier, start again and something is always thrown at you.”
Andrew Cole has decades of insight, knowledge and expertise from a life lived at the highest level of football. Just don’t hold your breath waiting for him to become a coach.
Cole believes the coaching pathway remains blocked to black and ethnic minority coaches, whatever their calibre as a player, and that the disparity between the number of black and ethnic minority (BAME) coaches going into the system and the number earning jobs with league clubs is clear evidence that they are still being held back.
“People looking at what I achieved in the game might say: ‘why am I not in coaching?’; that I’ve got too much to offer,” he says. “I might believe I’ve got too much to offer but can I go through that system that a lot of the guys have been through? I don’t think I can.
“I said to myself I think there’s going to be far too many obstacles for me. I’m at Manchester United working in an ambassador role. I’m fortunate that they’ve been able to do that for me. Other players who are black and ethnic minority might struggle getting into one of those kinds of roles. It’s very, very tough.”
For Cole there remains an old boys network in the English management game and none of those old boys are black. It means that white coaches continue to land the overwhelming majority of league jobs and find another more easily if they’ve failed. Contrastingly for Cole, when black coaches fall they fall hard.
“Unfortunately, that’s the way it goes,” he said. “We try and deal with it as best as we can do.
“It’s not nice to lose your job at any level. Not being able to get back on the merry-go-round so to speak when you do lose your job that’s a bitter pill to swallow.
“I would like to see we should all be judged as equals. Forget the colour of your skin. ‘He’s my best mate that’s why I’m giving him the job...’ for me that’s wrong straightaway.
“If he’s not the right man for the job, or credible enough or you don’t think he’s a good enough coach he can’t have the job.
“Let’s put the best man for the job in. Until we start changing things like that we’re going to be stuck in a time warp.”
Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink became just the third BAME manager in the entire league system of 92 clubs when he was hired by Northampton Town this week.
A 2016 Sports Peoples’ Think Tank report found just 20 of 491 coaches in senior coaching positions in England came from a BAME background, equating to just over 4 per cent. That contrasts against the 25 per cent of players in the system coming from a BAME background.
“Everyone goes in believing they might be the one and rightly so,” he says. “I’m no different to anybody else. I’d like to change things as well.
“When they do go in and find how difficult it is, a lot of them turn around and say it’s not for me and end up doing something else which is naturally very disappointing. Generations are lost.”
And Cole believes that many black ex-players are so put off by what they perceive to be a rigged game that they are walking away from the game altogether when their playing days come to an end.
“There’s loads of ex-black players that would love management or would love to coach,” he said. “They might have the same thought process as me.”
Adjustments are hard to make once a professional career ends and if the coaching pathway was clearer then Cole believes fewer BAME players would struggle to adjust to life after the game. And as it stands there are no great coaching role models for BAME communities.
Cole the young player took inspiration from Cyrille Regis and concluded that he too could do what the WBA striker was doing. For potential coaches, there still hasn’t been that iconic figure.
“I want to see the people who’ve played before me be given the opportunity,” he said. “If I look at those people who have gone before me given the opportunity then I would consider it.
“Some fantastic black players before me tried their hand at management but have been knocked back for whatever reason. Until I see changes do I see any point in doing it? I don’t know.”
Talk of quotas or targets or a football version of the NFL’s “Rooney Rule” - whereby at least one BAME candidate has to be interviewed for a coaching vacancy - is worthless in the opinion of Cole. The EFL currently requires that one candidate for every senior coaching role should come from a BAME background.
“When people talk about the Rooney law I scratch my head,” he said. “Quotas, targets, it’s still a farce. If people want to do things, they’ll do it. That’s the world we live in.”
“We can all have an interview. But what does that interview actually mean? It doesn’t mean a lot. We can all sit down and speak as individuals but it’s only an interview.”
The Sports Peoples’ Think Tank set a goal of having one in five coaches from BAME backgrounds by 2020. Current data and anecdotal evidence suggests that has little or no chance of being achieved.
“Fair enough in the last 12 months there might have been a little progress,” says Cole. “But we’re not talking 12 months. We’re talking about a numerous amount of years. Twelve months is good to go by in their eyes but I can’t see it.
“Twenty black managers? I don’t think it’s going to happen in my lifetime. I would be very surprised.”
Even at a youth level, Cole doesn’t see much progress. His son Devante is 21 and plays for Fleetwood Town but his father cannot recall him ever having had a black coach.
“At the lower level, it’s tougher,” says Cole. “The lower level gets disregarded a little bit more because not as much of the limelight is on it.”
He feels it has been more straightforward for foreign black coaches like Ruud Gullit or Jean Tigana to find employment in English football as they are perhaps seen as more glamourous or cultured than homegrown British ex-players.
“It would have been easier for a European black ex-player to come into England and get a managerial position than a British-born player who’s played in the Premier League to get a manager position,” he said.
“For me it made no difference. Black is black, whatever club he’s played for previously for it still equates to the same skin colour. But they looked at it as a bit more glitz and glamour around that.”
Cole still has plenty to offer but would prefer not to do it in a formal sense. In his ambassadorial role at Manchester United, Cole is often asked to conduct a session with young strikers, to help along the next generation in that regard.
“I’ve always said if I have the opportunity to work with the younger generation I’d never turn it down,” he said. “If people believe I’m good enough to give something back to the younger generation of course I’m going to do it.
“If I said no I’d believe I was being selfish. Knowing my struggle to get to the highest level, how tough it’s been, if I could help someone else to get to that level I’d do it all day long.”
Cole ignored Sir Alex Ferguson’s repeated pleas to complete his coaching badges and walked away from that scene altogether when a former policeman attempted to show him how to play centre-forward in a training drill.
He saw Manchester United team-mates like Roy Keane and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer go into coaching at league clubs but will not be pursuing any opportunities of his own.
“Those guys went in with their eyes open, they were fortunate enough to get jobs, they’ve all done well in those jobs,” he said. “I’m not going to stand here and say those situations would have been denied to me. I don’t know because I never put myself in that position.”
The English coaching system needs an overhaul in the eyes of Cole in order to better exploit the depth of knowledge in black former players. Until then he’s content to stay out of the limelight.
“When black players play at the highest level what they expect is to be given the same opportunity as their white counterparts,” he said.
“It’s as simple as that. Where we find difficulty in leaving the game and trying to get into coaching and trying to get into management, it’s very disappointing.
“When you see so many black ex players turn their back on football everyone asks the question why have you done that. It speaks volumes if you’re not given the opportunity.
“People need to open their minds. We’re not just black players or black coaches. We’re individuals. I never thought of my manager or coach as a white coach or a manager. I thought he’s my coach, he’s my manager.
“The perception about us is totally different. Until the mindset changes on individuals then we’re stuck.”
Andrew Cole took part in "Addressing Underrepresentation with Action: The Sports People's Think Tank" at the Soccerex Global Convention