Black History Month: Chris Powell, Bukayo Saka and the black England role models inspiring a generation

By Alex HowellBBC Sport
Illustration of Chris Powell supporting Bukayo Saka after England's Euro 2020 final loss
"I'm standing with you, I know what's to come" Chris Powell on the viral moment he offered Bukayo Saka support after the Euro 2020 final defeat to Italy

When England lost to Italy in the final of Euro 2020 on penalties there were several iconic images that will remain permanently etched into the narrative of that summer.

But the moment England's Chris Powell put his arm around Bukayo Saka as they watched Italy collect their winners' medals, told another story.

Powell is one of the most visible black coaches in the country and has been part of England's recent tournament success under Gareth Southgate, after he joined the set-up on the Elite Coach Placement Programme.

Immediately after the loss to Italy on penalties, the players who missed their spot-kicks - all young, black men in Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Saka - were sent racist abuse online.

At that moment Powell's experience, leadership and role as part of Gareth Southgate's backroom team took on extra significance.

"I remember just standing there thinking, he's going to need support," Powell, a former England international himself who played more than 500 career games for club and country, tells BBC Sport.

"And who do you want around you? You want your family normally. Well he can't get to them yet, so I just felt - I'm standing with you. I know what's going to come, unfortunately."

As part of Black History Month, BBC Sport speaks to some of the inspirational black leaders within the England men's set-up about the importance of their roles.

Leading by example

Powell says the change over six months from the England team being booed for taking a knee in pre-tournament friendlies, to being applauded at Wembley before this month's World Cup qualifiers, is clear evidence of progress.

And when rival Tottenham fans clapped Arsenal's Saka onto the pitch in August, Powell says it showed "love, support and emotion" can transcend historic rivalries and abuse from "a minority that try and speak the loudest".

It's well documented that Southgate, Powell and the England leadership group discussed taking a knee and decided to carry on their stance through the Euros and beyond.

Powell says: "We thought it was the best thing for us and the nation. And we knew it would be a powerful moment and look what happened over time, all of a sudden, people are clapping now."

Powell says the regular questions on societal issues such as race are no longer a burden for this generation of "eloquent" England players, who - under Southgate's leadership - have "reconnected" with the media and the public.

"I don't see it as a weight anymore - it used to be. Raheem Sterling, Marcus Rashord, Tyrone Mings... I actually said to them 'you don't realise how powerful you guys are now, and your behaviours and what you say resonate with so many people'.

"For my generation, I was fortunate enough to play this wonderful game, but we couldn't really have the voice we wanted. We couldn't really speak up, because it wasn't accepted.

"Now people of all backgrounds are happy to speak about the treatment of others, they're quite happy to speak out and not be afraid and I think that's hugely impactful for my children, and their children."

"The bigger picture is now - can we seize this moment?

"There's always going to be opposition. What you've got to recognise is it's normally a minority that try and speak the loudest - I think we've got to forget that.

"Listen to it if you have to, but still have that strong belief in what you're about as an individual, as a race, as a team, as a squad - and I think we recognise how powerful their voices are."

Our nation came together this summer - Powell

The senior pro

Manchester United forward Jesse Lingard has been a senior England international for five years and played in Gareth Southgate's first game as manager.

In that time he has seen his status grow from young player to experienced head in the dressing room. That change and time has seen him become one of the leaders within the England squad.

He said: "The way that Gareth works he has a really good set-up. Everyone wants to come to England camps, everybody enjoys coming to England.

"The things we do off the pitch, team bonding, everybody knows each other and it helps on the pitch. It's so diverse and there's so much culture in the team it helps a lot.

"You know we speak about everything as a team. It's never individual if anyone is going through something off the pitch, whether that's racial [or not], we always speak about it for the best solution.

"That's what's happened over the years, times have changed. We're such a tight-knit squad, we come together whether it be an on-the-field issue or off-the-field issue."

The young Lion

Crystal Palace defender Marc Guehi is the England Under-21 captain - a responsibility not only because of the title, but also as one of the few black England captains.

He has shown leadership beyond his 21 years of age. His club manager Patrick Vieira has called him a natural leader and he is playing regularly in the Premier League.

He said: "I wouldn't say it's something that I think about but it's definitely something that I realised has an impact.

"[I'm] carrying a torch for loads of kids out there - seeing someone like me, or someone that they look like, in a position of privilege and responsibility. I think it's a really massive thing."

Guehi's idol was Chelsea legend and former Ivory Coast captain Didier Drogba - on and off the pitch.

"He was a massive voice at Chelsea and a fantastic player. He was captain of Ivory Coast and he helped stop the civil war that was going on in Ivory Coast so he's done a lot of massive things, a real role model, a real leader, and someone that I really did look up to.

"To see anyone really of any ethnic background or diversity just epitomises what this nation is about.

"Seeing so many people that are black and in positions of responsibility and leadership [in the England set-up] is really great to see."

The decision maker

Michael Johnson works at the FA supporting the organisation in how best to engage with the Premier League and EFL clubs. He also played in the Premier League and is a former England youth international.

His journey is not the typical one taken by ex-professionals after retiring. Johnson has got an accreditation in corporate governance, he did a diploma with the League Managers Association, holds two masters degrees and studied business as well.

He said: "You have to be able to see something, to believe that you can achieve it.

"It's the same in terms of when you see people in senior positions. What that does is, it gives a lot of inspiration to those that may be playing the game.

"But also I think there is a real skill in terms of we know where the game's going now and how diverse it is.

"I think it's important for that to be reflected at the senior level because that's where the decision-making process of those senior leaders then impacts and goes down through your organisation to affect those right the way through it.

"I think it's great for inspiration - it's fantastic for those people to see people that look like them and then be motivated to go on that journey."

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