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Black History Month - A conversation with Damian Willis Hutchinson

Shardlow Utd Rams coach discusses issues of racism of football and why celebrating Black History Month is important.

This month is Black History Month. Held annually every October, it is a month dedicated to honoring the triumphs and struggles of black people throughout history.

It’s important to celebrate Black History Month because the event is intended to recognise the contribution and achievements of those with African or Caribbean heritage. It's also an opportunity for people to learn more about the effects of racism and how to challenge negative stereotypes. Racism and negative stereotypes still very much exist present day and are a big problem in football and sports culture.


Damian Willis Hutchinson, coach of Shardlow United Rams, discusses the ongoing issues of racism in football, why there is an underrepresentation of black coaches in the game, whether black players are supported enough, and what Black History Month means to him as a black coach.


Watch the video below for the full interview with Damian Willis Hutchinson or continue reading the article to read his answers to certain questions.


Q: What is your background in football and coaching?

“My name is Damian Willis Hutchinson. I coach for Shardlow United Rams and my role is developing young players and providing exit routes from grassroots to academy football for the ones who show potential.

Like most young people, I started playing football at around 5 or 6 years old. That was due to the PE teacher I had at Dale Primary School, who was a big believer that kids should be active. So, every morning before school I’d do football, cricket, and various other sports. I’ve just had a passion for all sports from a very young age, playing for the school team, and then my first club which was Sherwin Football Club which is based in Pear Tree. That was quite a diverse club in the city, so you had people from Afro-Caribbean backgrounds, Irish, Pakistanis, Sikh’s. It was a really good club to be around. I was just playing grassroots football. I had a lot of ability but because I was doing other sports, I didn’t really pursue the football route. I played a lot of five-a-side as well, went to university, played university football and like most people when you get to the age of 20/21, you try to still play but your body kind of shuts down.

So, I’ve always just played recreational football with friends and competitive football. I probably didn’t achieve what a lot of people expected me to, but I’ve still enjoyed it, and it’s led me to being involved in coaching, so I’m still involved in the game, so it’s a win-win really.”


Q: Why do you coach?

“As I mentioned earlier, I’ve always had a love for various sports. My natural route after school, when I realised that I probably wasn’t going to be a professional sportsperson, was to do a B-Tech in Sports Science, and then I went on to university and did a degree in Sports Science. I soon realised that the topics I was interested in involved the practical side of things, teaching people and coaching people, so I got a few qualifications in sports leadership, football coaching qualifications, cricket, any sport, you name it I had the qualification.

So, from leaving university, I went on to become a Social Inclusion Officer with Derby City Council and that involved working with people who were at risk from being excluded from sport, so that was ethnic minorities, women, and people from low socio-economic backgrounds. So, I was putting on sports sessions for them and just getting them active. Football being one of my main sports, I got involved in the local football team called Normanton All-Stars at the age of 20, and I’ve just been involved in football and cricket ever since.

 I’ve been coaching for about 19 years and I realise that, in the area I come from and grew up, it’s important that the young people see somebody who’s from that area that is doing positive and productive things. It’s enjoyment, but it’s also being a role-model and trying to inspire the younger generation, and that’s all I’ve really wanted to do, just to inspire people and show people that no matter where you’re from, you can achieve good things and you can make a good reputation for yourself.”


Q: What has been your experience as a black coach?

 “Being involved in sport, football and cricket, coaching, I don’t know, when you get to a certain age, I don’t think you really think about your colour. I think you just do what you feel is right. When you’re working with young people, I don’t even think they see colour. If they’re enjoying it, they just see the person, so if I’m honest, I don’t think I’ve had any negative issues since I’ve been coaching but I’m aware that some people have had negative experiences. For me as a coach, I’ve found it really good and enjoyable and I think as long as that continues to happen, I’ll always be involved.

Whether I could coach higher up; Is my skin colour preventing me from having a higher coaching role in a different position? I don’t know. Maybe it’s down to me not really wanting to do it. I think as an individual, I’m happy with what I’m doing, and I know my path. Even though I always get told that I should be coaching at a higher level, I think I have to take some responsibility in terms of what level I’ve been coaching at for the last 15/20 years. I think this is what I enjoy, I enjoy working with people who are lower down and not really got the opportunities.

 I’m not really too fussed about the elite level of coaching, because that’s where the minority are. Not many kids or young people are going to reach that kind of level, so for me it’s all about working with the kids who are on the ground that you can see at the local multi-games use areas, the kids you can see kicking a football on the park freely with their friends. They’re the people I want to inspire, and if I can inspire them, and they can at some stage get to an elite level, then I feel that’s important because a strong foundation and a strong, positive first experience will give them the motivation and desire to want to increase and participate at a higher level. So, I believe when I’m touching the people that are on the ground, it’s a good stepping-stone for them to have a good first experience, so I’m happy with that.”


Q: Do you think there’s an underrepresentation of black coaches in football, and if so why?

“I think it depends on how you look at this question because when you look at society as a whole, I think black people only make up 3% of the population. So, if you’re looking at society as a whole, then you can potentially say there isn’t an underrepresentation. But when you look at football, just as a sport, you realise that over 40% of the players that play in this country are ethnic minorities or black, then I would definitely say there is an underrepresentation of black coaches in football in this country.

Like I touched on with my own personal experience, is it down to them not wanting to coach at the elite level or is it because there are certain barriers? I know from studies that I did when I was younger, that black players play in certain positions such as up-front or on the wing, and they’re positions that don’t really get you to think about the game. Whereas a central position, which are mainly taken up by white players, they’re the ones that get you to think about tactics. A study I did when I was at university said there’s a relation between the positions played when having a career and going into coaching. The ex-professionals that went into coaching, they played in those positions that were central on the football field, so as I’ve just said, those positions are mainly taken up by white players. So that means as a black player, your chances of being a coach afterwards is less likely.

I think there’s various stereotypes across the board about black people in terms of having the power, speed, and flair, but have they got the intelligence? I think if that’s a stereotype that surrounds black people, they’re not going to be trusted to coach at the elite level or manage at the elite level. I think it’s a mix between not wanting to do it, and the racial stereotypes that are still there today about black people, regarding if they’re intelligent enough to coach at the highest level.”


Q: How do we encourage people from diverse backgrounds to get involved in grassroots football?

“Awareness need to be there. I think we need to actively target these groups. Because if you think about somebody with a certain disability, let’s just say Cerebral Palsy for example, we will target that group with a Cerebral Palsy football team. So, if we want to get people from diverse backgrounds into football and other sports, we need to actively target these groups and think of ways how we can help get them involved. Because if you look around Derby, the demographic makeup, there are a lot of diverse backgrounds all over the city. So, I feel like, why couldn’t we have a programme that was just for ethnic minorities, which might make them feel a lot more comfortable in terms of they’re not going to be discriminated against. Also, it could be a project that is also run by someone that is an ethnic minority, so they feel part of something. Because I think, if you’re aware of discrimination against your religion or culture, then you’re going to be anxious about wanting to take part in certain things.

 I think it’s all about actively targeting groups. Showing them that you care about their groups of people and that this is for them and to encourage them. And as you know, if you’re from a diverse background, that comes along with poverty a lot of the time, so things need to be affordable and accessible. I think sometimes we put on things, but we don’t think about the logistics, in terms of, how are people from diverse backgrounds who may not own a car, how are they going to get to these activities? If an activity is twice a week, and it’s costing £5 a time have they got £10 spare money, because if you look at that over a couple of months, that’s £80, over a year that’s near a £1000. Can people from diverse backgrounds afford that kind of money? I know from being involved with a grassroots club and we’re asking parents for £20/£25 a month. That’s not feasible for a lot of people, especially from a diverse background. I think we really need to think about how we can support different groups because it’s not just about the colour of people’s skin, it’s about their social background. If you watch the news, there’s a lot about people struggling to pay the bills and things like that so, I really think the bigger picture is how can we provide more funding for grassroots sports, which will help the communities.

 I’ve worked on various projects in Normanton, Chaddesden, Sinfin, Allenton, which were through Derby County in the Community and charity groups from their local communities, and the young people used to come out in numbers, 30’s and 40’s in the rain. So, young people want to take part in sport. They just need the opportunities, and we need to help them as much as we can in terms of finance, show of support, emotional support, and logistical support in terms of getting to the activity, and making things as safe as possible and as friendly as possible for them.”


Q: What are your thoughts on the existing issues of racism in football, and are black players supported enough?

“I feel like when they’re playing and they’re doing well, then the support is there from the fans and various governing bodies and organisations, but I will always judge support when things aren’t going too well. Like anything in life, like friendship, you know a true friendship when you’re not getting on too well. So, I feel when black players are having a hard time, how are we stepping up for them, how are they being supported by The FA and other organisations? We’re all aware of Show Racism the Red Card, we’re all aware of Kick It Out. These are incentives that are there in the game but are they just there to tick a box or do we really care about the arena? The stadium has been a platform for people to express their racial views because we’ll do something for a few weeks, take the knee or whatever it is, but for me, those things don’t mean anything if the intention isn’t from a pure place. So, I think it’s down to the people higher up in really figuring out why are they doing these things. Obviously, I can’t ask these questions, but it’d be nice if there was somebody out there that could put a lot of pressure on them and ask why you’re doing these things, because you might be ticking a few boxes, but it doesn’t seem to be changing things.

As we know with players like Sol Campbell, he’s been banging on for years about opportunities that he doesn’t seem to be getting as a former black footballer, in terms of going into management. He just seems to be falling on deaf ears at the moment because the numbers aren’t going up. They’re not getting more opportunities. So, until we see an increase in certain numbers, I have to say that I don’t think they’re supported that well. If change happens, then we can say, yes you listened, and you’ve acted on what you’ve been told.

At the moment, I feel like certain things are decreasing, like what we hear in the stadiums, but for me the style of racism has changed anyway. It’s a lot more covert these days. That overt racism is decreasing because society is more diverse, but the covert racism that we are experiencing now in terms of policies that are written and the procedures that are out there. I think that’s where they’re doing the damage to black players and potential black managers. It’s the covert racism, so I feel that’s a massive issue. It’s probably just as bad as the overt racism that we witnessed in the 70’s and 80’s, so until the managing directors change their ways, until we see more black people in roles where we are making decisions, and when I say this, I mean management, club owners, heads of recruitment at academies, pre-academy recruitment officers. We need to see more black people in these decision-making roles. It’s okay to have one black coach or an Asian coach amongst 30/40 but it’s not enough. As I said earlier, 40% of footballers in this country are black, so for me if there’s 10 coaches at an academy, four of them should be black, it’s as simple as that. Not one or two, it should be a minimum of four.”


Q: Do you think social media platforms need to do more to prevent racial online abuse?

“What more can they do, that’s the question. It’s not the social media platforms that are the issue, it’s the people using the social media platforms, so until the government actively comes out and tries to make a change in how people in society are thinking about each other, then you can try to ban people from social media, but they’ll just come up with another account. There’s always a way around certain things, so for me, society doesn’t reflect social media, social media is reflecting society. Like I said earlier, the people’s arena was the football stadium, but now we’ve got all this technology, their arena is a mobile phone. It’s Twitter, it’s Instagram, it’s whatever platform they can be heard. If they can be heard by millions of people and they can say whatever they want to say, then that’s what they’re going to do. We might have decreased racism from the football stadium, but it’s just moved over to another platform. It’s always evolving, it moves with the times. As we know humans are smart, they’re not stupid. You know how to get the attention. Attention is a massive currency at the moment and people know how to get attention from other people. They know how to manipulate; they know how to change people’s mindsets. I just think society needs a massive reshape.

We’re all aware of slavery and that’s probably why there’s certain views about certain cultures. I just feel like people ignore the fact. They will turn around and say, ‘well that was however many years ago’. But like we know, everything’s a vicious cycle. You learn from your parents; they learn from their parents. So, what kind of messages are fed down? If I’m teaching my kids not to like a certain group of people, I can guarantee you that my grandkids are going to have the same views. We just need to actively try to change people’s minds, and how we do that, I really don’t know. Like I was always told, I feel like black people are tolerated in a lot of places, and they’re not celebrated. People are smart, so they know how to bite their tongue. So, if you’ve got certain views, a smart person will probably keep it to themselves, they won’t say it to your face. How do you change somebody’s inside and how they truly feel about another individual?

 I think a lot of things need to be worked on in terms of people’s mindsets and what’s in an individual’s heart. I think it’s a lot deeper than social media. That is just a way to express your feelings without being face-to-face, it’s a cowardly way really.”


Q: How important is it to recognise and celebrate the successes of black people for Black History Month?

“It’s really important. Over the decades, black people have achieved a lot of things, in many different walks of life, not just sport and entertainment. They’ve invented things. They’ve done a lot of humanitarian work. They’ve inspired a lot of different groups of people. If you look at society today, we can see the influence that black culture has on the young people. It’s important that they are celebrated. I know in football, it was Mr Wharton who was the first black footballer in 1889, so he was the first one through the wall and he took all the bumps and bruises and built the foundation for the likes of John Barnes, Ian Wright, and Cyril Regis. It’s important to celebrate the first ones through because it inspires us to know that no matter where you come from, no matter what people’s opinions are about you, if you’ve got the courage, desire, and determination then you can achieve whatever you want. As long as you’re focused, you can achieve a lot of things.

 It’s all about that awareness, not just amongst black people themselves, but the awareness that Black History Month gives other religions and communities. If someone did have any negative views, and if they were to do their research and be aware of Black History Month, it might change their views. That’s what we want to do. We want to change stereotypes and views that are out there about different groups of people. So yes, it’s important we have Black History Month, because there’s a lot of pioneers out there.

I know that when I was growing up, I looked to my black role models. Whether it was John Barnes, Gordon Greenidge the cricketer, Brian Lara, Nelson Mandela, Malcom X, Martin Luther King. That’s what was in my household and that was what I looked up to. A lot of people have certain things on their wall when they were growing up, but I admit when I was a 12-year-old, I had a Nelson Mandela speech on my wall, and it was his ‘no easy walk to freedom’ speech. So, as a 12-year-old, reading things like that, my mindset was completely different to a lot of young people. It was a very inspiring speech that I used to read most days and it just makes you realise that they can try to lock you up, they can try to shackle you, but there’s light at the end of the tunnel, and you can always reach that mountain top. I believe Black History Month gives people a lot of inspiration from lots of different backgrounds, not just black people.”