The PFA-backed On The Board programme is designed to tackle under-representation in football governance. With a growing list of high-profile black current and former players graduating, we examine the valuable role the course plays – and the lack of opportunities that is still endemic in the game
In 2011, during a highly charged Liverpool vs Manchester United match, a notorious incident of racism occurred when United’s Patrice Evra was subjected to racial abuse. The most shocking aspect of this was that the abuse came from the pitch not the terraces. Liverpool’s Luis Suarez was found guilty by the FA of racially insuting Evra and given an eight-game ban plus a £40,000 fine. It also sent the clear message that football still had a racism problem.
The incident triggered a call to action for measures to address systemic inequality in the game – and the PFA-funded On The Board programme, aimed at players and ex-pros, became a key part of the plan. The aim: to get more black and minority ethnicity representation into the corridors of power by equipping them with the high-level skills, knowledge and experience to contribute to the oversight of the football industry.
On The Board as a concept emerged when key black figures in the game, such as Jason Roberts, Darren Moore and Michael Johnson, approached leading corporate governance specialist Karl George seeking solutions to tackling racism in football. The consensus was that to bring about progressive change there needed to be more representation at the top of the game, not just on the pitch or in the dugout. When they approached PFA Chief Executive Gordon Taylor he gave the initiative his immediate backing – agreeing funding for the six-month pilot programme specifically developed on behalf of the PFA by Karl.
The pilot scheme took place in 2013 with leading black PFA members taking part – alongside Roberts, Moore and Johnson were the likes of Les Ferdinand and Chris Ramsey. The programme provides candidates with experience and understanding of governance within the football industry and beyond. During the intensive six-month programme, participants gain an insight into the operation of major organisations inside and outside the game, setting themselves up to serve as board members.
Eight years after it launched, the scheme is still a regular fixture and has continued online throughout Covid-19. Sadly, however, boardrooms still lack visible diversity.
This continued lack of opportunities is hugely disappointing according to one of the scheme’s original cohort, PFA Assistant Director of Education Oshor Williams, who said: “It’s a major source of frustration. The OTB programme has an alumni of talented, trained, governance practitioners committed to progressive change within the game. They now deserve, and have every right to expect, opportunities to represent and participate in the decision-making processes within football.”
Despite this, the programme itself has gone from strength-to-strength. While the course is normally delivered face to face, the pandemic has, ironically, helped to boost participation. Normally numbers are limited to 15 per year, but this has doubled for the cohort set to graduate in April 2021 thanks to the flexibility of online learning. The likes of former England goalkeeper David James and striker Carlton Cole are two members of this year’s high-profile intake.
Bristol Rovers defender Mark Little also signed up, eager for guidance that could help him with the running of his property business. The 32-year-old found out about the course during an educational visit to his previous club, Bolton. “I had a chat with Oshor when I was at Bolton,” remembers Mark. “He just came in to see the lads to talk generally about what was on offer from the PFA. He talked about a range of programmes, including trade skills options, but I said I wasn’t looking for a trade, I was interested in building my business and would like to see if there was anything to help with that.”
Osh mentioned the On The Board programme, with its focus on corporate governance and insight into how large companies operate and are structured. But Mark still took some convincing. “At first I wasn’t sure but I did a bit more digging. I didn’t realise how important governance is. I went from not being sure to really diving in with two feet, enjoying the course and enjoying learning,” said Mark.
MAKE A DIFFERENCE
The PFA actively promote the On The Board programme but a number of players discover it through word of mouth – usually from a former graduate. Most of the 2020/21 cohort are motivated to take part out of a drive for personal development or to make a difference in the game. And it’s surprising to Oshor that there isn’t more demand for graduates of the scheme from the football industry.
“Football’s stakeholders have not been tapping into this talent pool,” said Oshor. “These players were scouted far and wide at grassroots level because the game wants the best and recognises that the best come from a diverse pool. Now we have people who are trained, competent and committed, yet football stakeholders do not seem to be applying the same principles of talent identification at boardroom level.”
Jamille Matt is banging in goals for Forest Green Rovers in League Two. With one eye on life after football, he’s in the current crop of On The Board students too. The 31-year-old, who has a degree in psychology, is very mindful of the representation gap between pitch and boardroom.
“There’s a big cultural mix of players but we need to have more diverse boardrooms,” he said. “I’ve read books and looked at different studies that say about the more diverse a board, the better. You have to tap into different people’s ways of thinking.
“I want to work to affect change and I need to have the right information behind me to make those changes, so that is part of the reason for me going in this direction.”
Both Jamille and Mark have revelled in the environment of the course.
They welcome the opportunity to learn online and debate issues of the day with players, coaches, and even some participants from other sports. By all accounts the WhatsApp group is abuzz with discussion in the wake of major media talking points. Forming these bonds is key to establishing a support network as members face up to some hard work to earn their qualification.
“The intensity is the most challenging part of the course,” said Matt. “We’re all gearing up for our final exam and there are lots of things to cover in a short space of time.
“I’m not an academic, I’ve never done anything like this before,” said Mark Little. “I would never have had a chance to do this at school – I didn’t have the attention span. I understand what I’m being taught and it is really fascinating. But I need to remember and study on my own. It’s really tough. I’m enjoying it. It’s just about putting aside a few hours each month to get your work done.”
Like any training, you get out of it what you put in. And it’s important to remember this is not just about football. “The knowledge is transferable to any board,” said Matt. “It’s learning the skills and knowing what organisations have to go through. For example, you might look at the reasons behind why a company failed. I can bring my knowledge of football but you also have a different point of view to look at any kind of organisation.”
For all the breadth of knowledge the programme delivers, the central aim remains a key driver: improving diversity in boardrooms, and thereby helping to banish all forms of racism in the game. To that end there is a sense that the course has come full circle with the class of 2021. That’s largely because this year’s graduates will include Anton Ferdinand, who has been through his own struggles with racism.
Anton spoke in a recent documentary about his experiences with a protracted court case around abuse and FA investigation back in 2011. He laid bare the personal toll it took on him. And now, through On The Board, he is training to take an active part in pushing for equality and diversity in football’s corridors of power.
“We cannot continue to pay lip service and go back to our day jobs,” said Oshor. “We have to be proactive and push for change. I’m not saying every one of our alumni should have a place on an EFL or Premier League board, but there are clubs across all tiers of football where they could cut their teeth and add value to the governance process. They’ve shown they’re ready, now other people have got to step up to the plate.”