Michael Emenalo: Changing the EPL narrative

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One of the reasons I stayed discreet during my time at Chelsea was because I was in a unique situation,” Michael Emenalo says on a grey morning as he reflects on his work as the only long-standing black technical director in English Premier League soccer history.

“I had to choose whether I would let my activism be a distraction or allow my presence to be an inspiration. Some people were waiting for me to become an activist so that was very difficult for me.”

Twenty-eight years have passed since the world’s richest league emerged and only Emenalo and, briefly, Les Ferdinand have breached the citadel of white privilege and power.

Ferdinand, QPR’s director of football, was appointed in February 2015, with the club already doomed to relegation three months later.

Emenalo’s sustained breakthrough was very different.

He helped steer Chelsea to great success during incessant turbulence – and the club won the Champions League and three Premier League titles under a trio of managers when Emenalo was at the heart of their operations between 2009 and 2017.

Moving from chief scout, his initial job in 2007, to assistant first-team coach and then technical director in 2011, Emenalo worked with 10 managers in 10 years.

Apart from one searing television interview, when he confirmed the sacking of José Mourinho in 2015, Emenalo avoided the spotlight.

But the “palpable discord” he described between Mourinho and his players provided public evidence of the steely insight that meant he was trusted for so long by Roman Abramovich.

Emenalo cut through the opaque running of Chelsea to produce a long-term vision that still shapes the club.

Managers came and went but Emenalo transformed the academy, revolutionised the loan programme and brought in a stream of great players, epitomised by Kevin De Bruyne, who were not always appreciated by managers.

His intelligence and eloquence are evident again during a riveting interview that stretches across three hours.

I have interviewed visionaries such as Johan Cruyff, Jürgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola and time with Emenalo is just as illuminating.

There has been widespread support for the way players have taken the knee before games and worn Black Lives Matter on their shirts since football resumed.

Marcus Rashford has shown more compassion and clarity than most politicians. Raheem Sterling spoke powerfully on Newsnight about the dearth of black managers.

But a distinct silence grips the game when addressing the total lack of black directors at Premier League clubs.

Emenalo sounds as if he does not expect other black directors of football to emerge any time soon.

“The narrative has to change. The narrative right now is always that white is good. So it doesn’t matter what Chris Houghton produces as a manager. There’s always someone saying a white guy can do it better.

“People need to do the right thing. Like Martin Luther King said: ‘Judge me by my competence – not my skin colour.’”

Emenalo looks relieved to be talking openly.

“It was very hard and I have … a white South African, to thank. Tim Harkness was the club psychologist and my friend. We had many difficult but fruitful conversations. Tim understood I had to suppress a part of myself so I can have an impact by being a presence.

“When I sit behind the bench at a game, I want to be close to my work. But it’s also so that people of my colour could say: ‘I can do that.’ People in the parking lot would say: ‘Oh my God, you don’t know what you mean to us.’ Then I feel even worse because I want to say more.”

Racism doles out many cliches – including the “quiet dignity” of the respectable black man. Emenalo smiles wryly.

“Absolutely. It eats at you. When I was appointed (as technical director) some journalists didn’t think I spoke English. They said I had never played the game (Emenalo won 14 caps for Nigeria and marked Diego Maradona and Roberto Baggio in the 1994 World Cup).

“Some people said: ‘Why did this Russian owner, who knows thousands and thousands of people, confide in him? He’s African so he must have killed somebody for the owner.’ No one stopped to think it could possibly be because of my intellect or experience.”

Abramovich did stop and think. He soon made up his mind about Emenalo.

“Mr Abramovich validated me after two and a half months,” Emenalo says. “I didn’t apply for any of my roles. I came in as head of opposition scout, to help Avram Grant, and met Roman a few times. Apparently what I said made sense to the owner.

“After we lost the 2008 Champions League final Avram was let go. I told Avram I will go with him. Avram said: ‘No. He likes you. He believes in you.’ When I talked to the owner my only request was that I should be relevant. The interpreter smiled when Roman said: ‘Tell him he will be very relevant.’”

It is hard for Emenalo, as a very private man, to talk about his attributes. But, encouraged by me, he continues.

As a young player at one of the most famous clubs in Nigeria, Rangers International, he stood up to the governor of the Ibo region and the minister of sport.

When they lambasted the team, Emenalo was the only one who detailed the reasons for their poor run. He changed the narrative because, as he says: “When you are on the side of truth you feel empowered.”

Emenalo showed similar conviction in 1994 when, after playing in the United States and Belgium, he was badly injured. Without a club his World Cup hopes seemed ruined.

But he joined Eintracht Trier in German regional football. His aptitude was rewarded and at the World Cup he was Nigeria’s best player against Argentina. He and Maradona ended up in a testing room and while they spoke Emenalo forgot to swap shirts.

Maradona’s international career ended after he failed his drugs test – and Emenalo signed for Notts County.

He was told he was going to Nottingham and assumed he was joining Forest, whose European Cup-winning history appealed. But his short time at County, and exposure to English football, shocked and intrigued him.

At Chelsea it was assumed he had come from nowhere. Even the 10 sophisticated managers during his tenure needed convincing Emenalo was equipped for his demanding job.

“Everybody has a misconception of my knowledge, insight and experience. I did it 10 times with 10 managers. Each time I climbed the hill and convinced them of my worth.

“I have a university degree in international relations and diplomacy. I know how to deal with people and with situations. I had World Cup experience and been part of this industry on five continents.

“I said: ‘I’ll give them an opportunity to understand me.’ They all did but it’s not easy starting from ground zero every time.”

While he sacked many of those managers, Abramovich trusted Emenalo to shape his vision for Chelsea.

“My argument was that all big clubs had great academies. Ajax, Barcelona, Real Madrid. But creating a new identity at Chelsea, rooted in the academy, while his ambition is to win trophies, was difficult.”

Apart from improving the academy Emenalo added rigorous innovations – such as the idea that older boys would play 45 games a season so they became used to the gruelling demands of professional football.

He also introduced an initially maligned loan system, which meant that more than 30 players a season were sent to different clubs to help them mature.

Chelsea did not always understand and they lost Mo Salah and De Bruyne, whom Emenalo championed, and it took years for the fruits of his academy system to emerge.

But the success of the academy and the loan system has been evident in the emergence of Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Tammy Abraham, Callum Hudson-Odoi, Mason Mount and other young talents.

“At first,” Emenalo recalls, “everybody said: ‘Nobody’s come from the academy.’ But a kid who comes to the academy at seven won’t be ready to challenge Frank Lampard when he’s 19.

“It became key to look at that space between 19 and 22 where we can prepare him to be a Chelsea player. We did that with De Bruyne.

“He was 18, a super talent, but the first time I mentioned that De Bruyne can eventually replace Lampard there was a guffaw of laughter. (Romelu) Lukaku was the same. He’s 18 and I say you have to put five years into him.

“My scouts had identified something was happening in Belgium. Hazard, De Bruyne, Lukaku, Chadli, Vertonghen, Courtois.

“The manager looked at me and said: ‘When did Belgium become Brazil? Who’s this Kevin De Bruyne?’ I told him: ‘I don’t look at passports. I just watch the player. And this player doesn’t miss a pass. I don’t know if he will be a superstar but there’s something here.’”

De Bruyne was loaned to Werder Bremen but in 2014 Chelsea sold him to Wolfsburg. Did it make Emenalo howl with anguish when Chelsea jettisoned De Bruyne, Salah and Lukaku?

“It was more painful for the owner. He suffered. But he saw that everything we had discussed was true.”

Emenalo left Chelsea in November 2017.

Three weeks after leaving Chelsea, despite being burned out by 10 years on a blue rollercoaster, Emenalo joined Monaco as sporting director.

He was still exhausted and the complexities there were even more labyrinthine. He appointed Thierry Henry as manager but the problems at the club were deep-rooted and it was not a surprise when Emenalo left by mutual consent last August.

“The future for me is to get back in the industry. I’ve just turned 55 and I have 12 years of experience at director level. I can perform the job even better now. I would like an opportunity to get back with a serious club – ideally in the Premier League.”

This time, hopefully, Michael Emenalo will be judged on his competence and experience rather than the colour of the skin.

He smiles. “Yes. It’s time for the narrative to change.” – Excerpted from The Guardian (UK)

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