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Michael Emenalo on being a Black leader in football, reshaping Chelsea, and the future

The former Chelsea technical director opens up

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Using “Black leadership” as a point of discussion in moments when Black struggle turns into an unavoidable debate has been a common feature of public discourse for decades.

The “power of change” resides in the “community” choosing the “right leaders” to lead said change for the better in the long term. This is certainly helpful to divert attention from the very real structural problems facing Black people in many parts of the world not just America, with institutions that, if unchanged, will only keep reproducing and re-enabling racism and lead us towards further civil unrest.

But even when in “power” and with acknowledgement of the issues that plague us, Black people often still do not feel that we can use our platforms to speak up about struggles that have been part of our day-to-day lives for centuries. And that’s true on stages big and small.

Case in point, former Chelsea technical director Michael Emenalo. Faced with a choice between being an example for others as one of the very few Black executives in football, or becoming a more visible and active presence, one of the most powerful men in all of football felt forced to choose the former.

“One of the reasons I stayed discreet during my time at Chelsea was because I was in a unique situation.

“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.”

George Floyd’s death has opened up the opportunity to discuss not just police brutality and the inherent role of the police force (rooted in racist intent, in many cases), but also the role of Black people in the United States and abroad.

This includes renewed emphasis on and examination of diversity in such institutions as football coaching and management. Of course football isn’t the only sport overlooking the talents of Black people — often while preaching absolute sport ideals like “true meritocracy” — and even when a rare success story like Emenalo’s is found, the coverage can be less than generous.

“I don’t think my story was told the right way to influence the attention. I feel my aptitude and competence has not been presented correctly. And now people are co-opting my work and trying to mask my contribution.

“The narrative has to change. The narrative right now is always that white is good. So it doesn’t matter what Chris Hughton 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.’”

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As Emenalo’s time at Chelsea wore on, rising in power and influence from scout to assistant to director, he felt more and more stifled, more and more consumed by the choice.

“It was very hard [to contain the “activist” side but 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.”

It is unfortunately one of the lessons you learn as a Black person rising as a professional in any field: suppress, and conform.

That suppression plays into the stereotype of the soft-spoken Black man, who, unlike the “others”, is able to control his primordial rage even when things aren’t going his way — even when injustices take place.

Of course, even when you conform your manners to what your “leaders” expect of you, the racial questions of whether you are truly fit for purpose never go away.

“[The ‘quiet dignity’ stereotype] 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 (even though Emenalo was one of Nigeria’s national team best players during the 1994 World Cup, where he played against Argentina’s Diego Maradona and Italy’s Roberto Baggio).

“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.”

Luckily, Emenalo found at Chelsea a place where he would be highly valued for his intelligence and vision, and given a stage by owner Roman Abramovich onto which very few, if any Black men had ever stepped before.

“Mr Abramovich validated me after two and a half months. I didn’t apply for any of my roles. I came in as head of opposition scouts, 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.’”

And indeed, he would be.

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Working with Abramovich was not an easy, as the ten managers who came through the revolving door during Emenalo’s tenure at Chelsea can attest to. The reclusive owner’s exacting demands of all his employees are quite famous, and that certainly extended to Emenalo as well.

His task? Oh, just to reshape the entire organization, turning our youth academy into a world-class system that would help develop some of the best talents England and the world. Is that all?

And of course, he had to stock it first, too, which fortunately coincided with a golden generation of players in Belgium.

“But creating a new identity at Chelsea, rooted in the academy, while his ambition is to win trophies, was difficult.”

“At first, 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.’”

Unfortunately for us, those guffaws turn into jokes played on ourselves, as KDB and Lukaku became world class elsewhere. Emenalo may have been a powerful influence at the club, but he wasn’t the only one.

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And some Special relationships take a lot of heartache and effort to break. And sometimes, it even takes a little lucky charm from Barcelona as well.

“[Losing those players] was more painful for the owner. He suffered. But he saw that everything we had discussed was true.”

“We signed Pedro from Barcelona for £30m. It was a good opportunity for me to say: ‘That’s why we need the academy. Either you put £12m into the academy and develop Ruben Loftus-Cheek or you pay £30m to Barcelona for a 28-year-old.’ It was the end of the discussion. The academy became even more important to Chelsea.”

Pedro was a typical José Mourinho signing that ran against any notion of trusting the youth — nothing against Pedro himself of course, who had little to do with the whole thing crashing spectacularly down around José just a few months later.

Emenalo, who had offered to resign when Mourinho came back in 2013, now felt it was his responsibility to step up to the plate and wrest back not only control, but the narrative as well.

Enter, “palpable discord”.

“After the game, in the Leicester boardroom, we see José doing this interview. The narrative was not good. José was hard done by again.

“It was not about José. It was letting people understand you can’t twist the narrative of a big club which had won the title the season before with the same players. Now we are 15th, a point off relegation. I found the right phrase where the players are shocked the person they’ve served so well is criticising them so heavily.”

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That one of the most amazing 12 months in club history followed the next season is credit to all involved, including Emenalo, who was pulling the strings and greasing the wheels with seasoned veteran efficiency at this point.

“(Emenalo told Conte) ‘If you succeed here you will be the most loved coach in the world. But it’s a lot of pressure. It can be exhilarating, but it can be absolutely painful. I’ve seen grown men in tears. But if you do it, and I think you will, you’ll be loved the way you’ve never been.’ I’m not sure he believed me.

“After he lost to Liverpool and Arsenal there was unnecessary pressure. Everywhere he looked he’s getting sacked. But we’d only played five games and won the first three. His presentation to the players after we had lost 3-0 to Arsenal was fantastic. The way he detailed the reasons why we lost, and what he planned to do, was unbelievable. I told the owner: ‘Conte’s work is good. This is a blip. Trust me.’ Of course we went on to win the title and there was so much adulation for Conte.”

Unfortunately, Conte’s second season involved far less adulation, which as we’ve come to learn over the years, had a fair bit to do with Emenalo decided to head out.

After a decade at the madhouse, he was exhausted. He needed a change, lest he lose himself.

“Yes, [I was worn out]. I was trying to do things creatively. I had to be calm and listen to everyone because one of my most important tasks was being a presence for Roman while staying my own person. I represented him, but took nothing from his authority. It was exhausting.”

Emenalo’s has spent the last year on sabbatical, after leaving a brief appointment at AS Monaco. But he’s ready to return, and make an impact in football once again.

“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.

“It’s time for the narrative to change.”

-Michael Emenalo; Source: Independent

Yes, yes it is.

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