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Standing tall: thanks to a major overhaul of the Charlton squad last summer, Chris Powell has put his team on course for promotion. Image courtesy of Evening Standard

Chris Powell may measure his words carefully but the Charlton manager is not afraid to make it crystal clear that football has failed to handle the race issue.

We are in his office at the training ground where he has just accepted the manager-of-the-month award for the second time this season with his side top of League One.

I have just asked him whether the Football Association were right, two weeks ago, to strip John Terry of the England captaincy, the decision that triggered Fabio Capello’s sudden departure as manager. The allegation – which Terry denies – surfaced four months ago when he was accused of racially abusing Anton Ferdinand.

Powell’s reply to my question is prompt: “They [the FA] shouldn’t have waited this long. It should have been dealt with straightaway back in October between England, Chelsea, John Terry and the Premier League. It’s just carried on and it will carry on now well into the summer. It’s affected what’s happened to our national team and it’s affected one or two things that are happening in the Premier League.”

This is a reference to the Luis Suarez affair, which flared up again on Saturday when he refused to shake Patrice Evra’s hand, having returned from an eight-game ban for racially abusing the Manchester United defender.

Powell says: “Similarly with the Suarez-Liverpool thing, it should have been dealt with straightaway.”

On the race issue Powell, who alongside Birmingham City’s Chris Hughton is one of only two black managers in the four divisions, is echoing views held privately by many black players. But he goes further, puncturing the myth that racism had been eradicated only to suddenly resurface this season.

“The mistake is that we thought we’d finished with it,” he says. “You can’t ever think that. It’s not strictly just football’s problem. We know it was part of football in the bad old days but it’s a problem that emanates from society.

“I look at football as a game, it should be available to anyone regardless of where they’re from. You should be free to go and sit in a stadium and watch the game, support your team regardless of people thinking you shouldn’t be here because of the colour of your skin. I’m loath to talk about it. I shouldn’t be talking about it in 2012, I should be talking about football.”

But, surely back in his playing days – Powell made his debut with Crystal Palace in 1987 – it was a more a case of fans’ abuse of black players rather than players abusing each other as they are this season.

“Oh, there was,” he sighs. “Don’t be fooled by that, without a doubt there was. We all knew it was happening, both from the terraces and between the players. Nothing was done.

“Don’t kid yourself it didn’t happen. Back in the 70s, 80s, 90s, nothing was reported because nothing was happening with the authorities. So player-to-player abuse was almost, sadly, accepted in those days. You got on with it but the players fought their corner.”

So was he racially abused by other players? He looks at me in some surprise and says: “Come on, what do you think? I don’t want to talk about then. I want to talk about now. I want players to feel comfortable playing and feel free to report if things happen. That’s what we’re seeing. People won’t accept it these days. It’s being dealt with now regardless of how long it’s taken. In days gone by we wouldn’t even be talking about it.”

But, if race is such a problem for the national

game, are the FA able to get another big issue right: the appointment of a successor to Italian Capello? He says: “To have an English manager would suit the nation. It may not suit the team.”

The nation may be calling for Harry Redknapp but Powell believes the FA should not rush into a decision.

“First, I would look at all the other candidates,” says the former left-back. “They’ve got to draw up a shortlist. You could look at Jose Mourinho, you could look at Guus Hiddink. They’re very good managers in their own right. We’ve gone down that road [of foreign managers] twice and a high percentage of the footballing supporters of our country now want an English manager.”

Powell made his England debut under Sven-Goran Eriksson and sees England’s first foreign manager as his mentor. But, whoever takes over, Powell feels it is an impossible job. “We expect too much. The minute something goes wrong in one game people think everything is wrong with our entire game and that’s not the case.”

What Powell would like to see is for the governing body to lay some roots for the future. He says: “[The FA need to] have a longer-term view of our manager, our coaches and the role that everyone plays: the media, the supporters, the players. We’ve got to look at it from a wider spectrum now. But will that happen?” His tone suggests not.

The people he has real confidence in are his own board for giving him time to reshape Charlton. Appointed in January last year following the sacking of Phil Parkinson, 42-year-old Powell could only guide the team to 13th by the end of the season.

“It was a tough baptism. After winning my first four games, I learned what football management’s all about. We weren’t improving on or off the field, there was despondency around the club and I felt it every day in and around the training ground and going to games.

“It would have been easy for people to say, let’s move on to yet another manager, but I’ve got a good owner [Michael Slater] and a board who know that sometimes you have to take a step back before you can move forward.”

The board backed Powell’s radical surgery in the summer, with 18 players leaving and 23 arriving. The results have been dramatic, with Charlton leading the division since September 10.

Powell says: “Looking back, I’m really pleased that it did happen because it gave me a clear view on what was needed. To have lost only two games out of 28 – to Stevenage and Orient and both away – is testament to my players. The ethos of the players is to keep going for 95 minutes, to keep looking to pass the ball when we can, to create chances. Our attacking record’s very good and our defensive record is second only to Manchester City in the four divisions. We’ve conceded 20 goals, they have conceded 19.”

Slater is still a City season ticket holder but, unlike the owner’s first love, Charlton spent barely a million, which is in effect the money raised by selling Carl Jenkinson to Arsenal.

But before any supporter complains that the board have not taken out their cheque book, Powell says: “The new people that have come in have put a lot of money in to save this club. We were possibly heading into administration. I want our supporters to know that because it’s very easy to think they had money to spend. We didn’t.”

The players he has brought in know League One. “They were not shocked by the intensity of the matches. In League One it’s constantly a battle even against the good teams. A lot of teams do play kick and rush but they also pass it from the back. You have to mix it and we’ve shown we can do that.”

While he is loath to single out any player, he is happy to talk about his back four. Three of them – Michael Morrison, Matt Taylor and Rhoys Wiggins – came in the summer while Chris Solly is an academy player. “They’ve got a good understanding and I keep drumming into them not to feel hard done by when you concede a goal. At the other end we’ve got players who will create and score goals.”

All this has helped Charlton get to 64 points, well on course to the promotion target of 92 that Powell set in August. Nevertheless, he lapses into characteristic manager speak when I utter the word promotion. “No, don’t even say that. We’re on our way but we’re not there yet. I don’t allow the players to talk of promotion.”

As for his mission to recreate the Alan Curbishley years, when Charlton seemed a fixture in the Premier League, he says: “A long way off. He was here 15 years, I’ve been here a year. We’ve been tested as a club and we’re on the slow road to recovery.”

But, however long that takes, Powell is determined not to abandon good English values. “From the grass roots right up to professional football, we don’t like it as supporters, as players, coaches or managers when we see certain incidents that don’t portray our game in an honest way.”

It is this that makes Powell very critical of Roberto Mancini for holding up an imaginary red card following a foul on his players. It gave the impression that City’s Italian manager was seeking to influence the referee. “He’s come from a culture where it’s not seen as being a bad thing.

Roberto’s a good manager, who’s done good things at Inter Milan and is building a good team at City. He’s been told that here we don’t look at it as the right thing to do.”

For Powell, success must not be at the expense of values.

      

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