BY ALESSANDRO SCHIAVONE
Paul Ifill has urged the FA to find solutions concerning the shortage of black representation in football management.
The former winger, who had a six-year spell at Millwall before linking up with Crystal Palace, is in charge of Hawke’s Bay United in the New Zealand Premiership and doing his coaching badges.
The 2004 FA Cup finalist with Millwall is happily settled in New Zealand with his family. Ifill joined Wellington Phoenix after leaving the Eagles in 2009.
Ifill is earning his first stripes as a manager 12,000 miles away on the other side of the planet and insists that nothing less than a managerial job at the top end of English football will lure him back.
He said: “Returning to the UK? Never say never. I have been coaching for six years now, I am working through my badges and I am really enjoying myself. The way I look at it I am kind of doing my apprenticeship.
“If the right offer came up then certainly I would consider it, but it will have to be right – not just for myself but my family as well. We love life in New Zealand. I don’t think we will go back to the UK. We came out here just to do one year and we are still here 12 years later.
“We found somewhere that felt like home and all my family and my wife’s family have moved out as well. We are very, very settled here.
“I do miss some things about England – one is the football. Because of the way things are set up here there is only one professional club in the country, so there is no tribalism and no supporting your club at all costs. If you like football here you support the club and if you don’t like football you watch rugby or do something else.
“In England, on the other hand, you can be from one town and there could be three football clubs in that town. You have a good week at work if your team wins and a bad one if your team loses.
“Football is pretty big in New Zealand. It took off after the 2010 World Cup after New Zealand came away with three draws and were unbeaten. Our participation numbers in the juniors has actually gone past rugby, which is unheard of. The game is growing.”
Ifill is calling for change in terms of the way that key jobs are filled in the English game.
Arsenal legend Sol Campbell was one of the first players to raise the issue in 2013 as he claimed there was a prejudice against black coaches in England.
“Black and ethnic minorities are under-represented in football in England,” said Ifill. “If you look at the numbers of black players that have played in the Premier League, other top leagues or represented their countries – compared with the amount of people that are selected to coach – we are definitely under-represented. But I don’t know how you can fix it.
“They talked about having a Rooney Rule, like in the NFL, where a certain number of black and ethnic minorities are interviewed. But just because you are interviewed that doesn’t mean you get the job.
“It’s difficult enough being a British manager to get into the Premier League. But if you are British and black, the doors are barely ajar.
“There are a lot of black people that won’t even be looking at management as a career path, because of the way it has always been.
“It does need to change but whether it will change in my lifetime, I am not sure. There’s things that need to be changed but in Campbell’s case he has had some jobs in the lower leagues and he needs to make it work there.
“Harry Kewell, who had a fantastic career, has had to do it the hard way as well. He’s been at Crawley Town and now he is at Oldham. He is not complaining that there is an issue there with not getting hired at higher-profile clubs. He’s just getting on with the job at hand.”
Ifill made 238 appearances for Millwall after being signed from Saltdean United in 1998. After the FA Cup defeat to United he joined Sheffield United in an £800,000 deal.
“It is a club that will always be close to my heart,” said Ifill. “They gave me my first opportunity and they were the team that took a chance after I got released by Watford.
“I was playing non-league and it was a difficult time. But Millwall sort of picked me up from obscurity and taught me about the game, giving me my first chance as a pro before they sold me a few years later.
“The best day in my career was when I signed at Millwall. The day I realised I had made it as a pro, that was amazing. Then obviously the FA Cup final, because people still talk about that to this day.
“To be able to play against Manchester United for little, old Millwall was pretty special. The saddest day was the day they decided to sell me to Sheffield – because I didn’t want to leave.
“I actually begged them to keep me but unfortunately the club needed money at the time.”
Less than two years later, in January 2007, the British-born Barbadian was back in South London. Ifill swelled the number of ex-Lions on Palace’s books – with Darren Ward and Matt Lawrence already in SE25.
He said: “I expected some stick from the Palace supporters, I thought they wouldn’t take to me and accept me. But they were magnificent, especially considering that I was injured a hell of a lot.
“They gave me a lot of leeway. I started okay but, being brutally honest, the Palace fans didn’t see the best of me because I was just never fit, I had so many injuries. I started okay but I only played around 60 games in two-and-a-half seasons.
“I was always injured, missing matchday squads. I just never could get fit, it was difficult. But they gave me the benefit of the doubt which was great. I don’t think the Millwall fans were too pleased but they understood that I wanted to be back in South London and got on with it.”
Ifill says playing at the intimidating Den shaped his character and boosted his resilience.
He said: “It was ridiculous. Growing up playing there, everywhere after that is easy. It’s a hostile place for opposing fans but it’s a hostile place for players too.
“Especially early on in my career, I had many a game where the fans didn’t feel that I was putting in the work and they let me know. They would be whistling, insulting and booing me – everything. There were some racist comments. The club and supporters have made massive efforts to eradicate the problem.
“It really helped with my resilience and later in my career I could call upon that. You always knew and felt that going out on a home game that the other teams would be going to the ground worried about what was going to happen. And that always gave you a little bit of a boost.”
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