John Salako, the former Crystal Palace right winger, could have played for Nigeria and possibly have earned more than the five caps he got with England, but he turned Nigeria down. He was born in Ibadan of a Nigerian father and an English mother.
After many years of rejection for coaching vacancies, he got a break from his former team-mate Alan Pardew, who offered Salako a position as the first team coach.
This article was originally published in the Guardian.
John Salako begins journey to fight English football’s glaring injustice
Crystal Palace’s first-team coach believes that, despite recent opportunities for Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, Chris Hughton and Chris Powell, race is still a major issue which scars football and society
Wednesday 28 October 2015
At the age of 46, John Salako would have been forgiven for thinking his chance of ever becoming a manager had passed him by. After retiring from football in 2005 following a long career that took him from Crystal Palace to Brentford via spells at Coventry, Charlton, Fulham and Reading, the former winger, who won five England caps under Graham Taylor in the early 1990s, was keen to remain in the game.
“When I finished playing, I was very much on a track of wanting to coach and manage,” Salako remembers. “I tried a couple of avenues – made a few calls, put my CV in for a few jobs like Brighton and Colchester, but I never got an interview. So I asked Steve Coppell if there was a position on the coaching staff coming up at Reading, where he was managing at the time. To be fair to him, he politely said ‘no’ and that’s how I ended up doing some work for Sky.
“At first, I got a little bit bitter and twisted about it because of all the people that I knew and worked with who became managers. You know, sometimes I’d sit there and think: ‘I am a little bit surprised that I haven’t had a phone call.’ But when you get into management you have a lot of people knocking on your door.”
Part of the Palace side who, under Coppell, lost the 1990 FA Cup final to Manchester United after a replay, Salako was undeterred. He had completed his first coaching badge aged 23 and gained more experience while still playing, helping out under Alan Smith at Fulham and with the then future Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers at Reading’s academy.
But it was not until Salako returned and began coaching Palace’s under-16s in 2009 alongside his former Eagles team-mate Mark Bright that his coaching career finally began in earnest. Combining that with his media duties, as well as a spell coaching at non-league Bromley under the former Palace owner Mark Goldberg, Salako was finally handed his big break last summer when Alan Pardew, another team-mate from the famous 1990 side, offered him the role of first-team coach.
“It was funny because I did some coaching with Alan before Julián Speroni’s testimonial so that brought us back together,” he says.
“At the same time [the former first-team coach] Ben Garner moved on and Alan asked me if I’d like to come down and help out. He also asked Shola Ameobi about the role but he wanted to carry on playing. We had a week at St George’s Park to begin pre-season and, at the end of that week, Alan said he wanted me to come on board full-time.
“It was a big transition but the whole thing has been absolutely brilliant for me. It’s exactly where I wanted to be. Sometimes you have to be in the right place at the right time.”
With Palace now enjoying the upwardly mobile status that a third successive season in the Premier League brings, Salako could not have chosen a better time to return. Yet after figures released last week indicated that it is as hard as ever for former players from a black and minority ethnic (BME) background to be handed an opportunity in coaching, he claims race remains an issue in the boardrooms of English football.
“A lot of high-profile black players aren’t as interested in moving into coaching, perhaps because they don’t think they’ll get a chance,” he reflects.
“Seeing people like Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, Chris Hughton and Chris Powell doing well is encouraging but we’re still nowhere near where we should be. There is a lot of focus on it but I think everyone has to look at themselves. A lot of the boardrooms are old-school and chairmen don’t tend to give enough opportunity to black guys, even for an interview.
“It’s like that in any walk of life – if you look at MDs and owners of businesses then they still tend to be straight white guys who will have an idea of who they want and how they want their companies to be run. But we’re slowly breaking that down and it won’t be long until we have a black James Bond, for example.”
The report by the Sport People’s Think Tank suggested that it could take more than 30 years for coaches to achieve parity with the proportion of BME players, although Salako hopes the Football League’s decision to introduce a version of the NFL’s Rooney Rule that guarantees a BME candidate a place on the shortlists for new jobs from next season can help to redress that imbalance.
“I’m all for it because at least it provides opportunity to be considered,” he says. “There are a lot more black and ethnic coaches coming through but there is still a lot of work to be done. It’s a difficult one – there are so many black players in the game that the blockage will slowly be addressed. It will take time though.”
Salako, who was born in Nigeria before moving with his family to Kent aged 10, knows all about being patient. It is more than 20 years since he gained his first coaching badge after suffering two serious knee injuries.“I was out for 10 months, came back for six months and then was out for another 10 months. The second time round I thought I had to think about an alternative just in case the knee didn’t hold up and I started thinking about media work as well, so that two bases were covered.
“I’ve always thought that coaching in academies is very important and trying to understand how players work, but obviously, until you sit in that chair, you will never understand the pressure that it involves. But where I am now can only give me the best insight into what it takes to be a good coach and eventually, if it’s something that comes up, maybe even management.”
One of the main beneficiaries of his experience so far has been the winger Wilfried Zaha, who was also born in Africa before, like Salako, joining Palace’s academy aged 13.
“One of the things that I say to Wilf is that he’s got the world at his feet. I only got five caps but he’s got an opportunity to go and establish himself as an England player. Playing in the European Championship
and a World Cup has got to be the dream. He’s still only 22 but the time is now. He will be 27 or 28 before he knows it.”
Two successive defeats have slightly dented the early-season optimism at Palace, although the ambitious Pardew still retains hopes of qualifying for Europe rather than looking down at a potential relegation battle. But even seeing how nearly 16 years in management has turned his good friend’s hair colour from bottle blond to a whiter shade of pale, Salako insists he has not been put off.
“Deep down I’d love to be a manager, although it can be a scary thought and I keep thinking of the phrase: ‘Be careful what you wish for,’” he says.
“A lot of people who I’ve spoken to have told me to stay in the media because it’s cut-throat and ruthless. But I’ve spoken to others who were very positive and said if it’s a dream and an ambition then just go for it.”