The former Nigeria international helped steer Chelsea to great success but despite his pioneering efforts, there remains a glaring absence of black directors of football in the Premier League.
“One of the reasons I stayed discreet during my time at Chelsea was because I was in a unique situation,” Michael Emenalo says on a grey summer morning as he reflects on his work as the only long-standing black technical director in Premier League history. “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.”
Twenty-eight years have passed since the world’s richest league emerged and only Emenalo and, briefly, Les Ferdinand have breached the citadel of white privilege and power. Ferdinand, QPR’s director of football, was appointed in February 2015, with the club already doomed to relegation three months later.
Emenalo’s sustained breakthrough was very different. He helped steer Chelsea to great success during incessant turbulence – and the club won the Champions League and three Premier League titles under a trio of managers when Emenalo was at the heart of their operations between 2009 and 2017. Moving from chief scout, his initial job in 2007, to assistant first-team coach and then technical director in 2011, Emenalo worked with 10 managers in 10 years.
Apart from one searing television interview, when he confirmed the sacking of José Mourinho in 2015, Emenalo avoided the spotlight. But the “palpable discord” he described between Mourinho and his players provided public evidence of the steely insight that meant he was trusted for so long by Roman Abramovich.
Emenalo cut through the opaque running of Chelsea to produce a long-term vision that still shapes the club. Managers came and went but Emenalo transformed the academy, revolutionized the loan program, and brought in a stream of great players, epitomized by Kevin De Bruyne, who was not always appreciated by managers. His intelligence and eloquence are evident again during a riveting interview that stretches across three hours. I have interviewed visionaries such as Johan Cruyff, Jürgen Klopp, and Pep Guardiola, and time with Emenalo is just as illuminating. It also feels more important because we begin by remembering how the murder of George Floyd forced the world to watch a black man being suffocated to death by a white policeman’s knee.
“I couldn’t watch the footage at first,” Emenalo says. “There have been so many over the years that it’s like a tape recorder running through your head. You see all the ones that happened before.”When I eventually made myself watch it was destructive to see George Floyd calling out for his mum while another human being puts his knee on his neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds.
“This person feels entitled to commit a slow murder – because of the color of his skin and because other people have not been held accountable for their actions. The precedent entitles you to do what you do. That thought chills me.”
There has been widespread support for the way players have taken the knee before games and worn Black Lives Matter on their shirts since football resumed. Marcus Rashford has shown more compassion and clarity than most politicians. Raheem Sterling spoke powerfully on Newsnight about the dearth of black managers. But a distinct silence grips the game when addressing the total lack of black directors at Premier League clubs. Emenalo and I meet at the Oatlands Park Hotel in Surrey and we are welcomed into a boardroom, which seems the right place to discuss the absence of diversity in football’s corridors of power. Emenalo leans forward when I ask if his success at Chelsea could encourage other Premier League clubs to appoint black directors.
“I don’t think my story was told the right way to influence 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.”
It sounds as if he does not expect other black directors of football to emerge any time soon. “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 color.’”
When he worked in silence for so long he must have endured a distressing internal challenge? Emenalo sinks into his chair. He looks relieved to be talking openly. “It was very hard and I have one of your countrymen, a white South African, to thank. Tim Harkness was the club psychologist and my friend. We had many difficult but fruitful conversations. Tim understood 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 color 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.”
Racism doles out many cliches – including the “quiet dignity” of the respectable black man. Emenalo smiles wryly. “Absolutely. It 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 [Emenalo won 14 caps for Nigeria and marked Diego Maradona and Roberto Baggio in the 1994 World Cup]. 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.”
Abramovich did stop and think. He soon made up his mind about Emenalo. “Mr. Abramovich validated me after two and a half months,” Emenalo says. “I didn’t apply for any of my roles. I came in as head of opposition scout, 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.’”
It is hard for Emenalo, as a very private man, to talk about his attributes. But, encouraged by me, he continues. “When I became technical director Bruce Buck [Chelsea’s chairman] organized for me to meet numerous journalists at a roundtable [interview]. The club knows my value. They said: ‘Now is the time for you to become a more visible presence.’ So we had this 90-minute conversation and afterward, the journalists said: ‘Wow. We didn’t know all that.’ It’s a back-handed compliment. I came from Africa so how could I know about football? But my success at Chelsea, especially with the academy, comes from my experience in Nigeria.”As a young player at one of the most famous clubs in Nigeria, Rangers International, he stood up to the governor of the Ibo region and the minister of sport. When they lambasted the team, Emenalo was the only one who detailed the reasons for their poor run.
He changed the narrative because, as he says: “When you are on the side of truth you feel empowered.”Emenalo showed similar convictions in 1994 when, after playing in the United States and Belgium, he was badly injured. Without a club, his World Cup hopes seemed ruined. But he joined Eintracht Trier in German regional football. His aptitude was rewarded and at the World Cup, he was Nigeria’s best player against Argentina. He and Maradona ended up in a testing room and while they spoke Emenalo forgot to swap shirts.
Maradona’s international career ended after he failed his drugs test – and Emenalo signed for Notts County. He was told he was going to Nottingham and assumed he was joining Forest, whose European Cup-winning history appealed. But his short time at County, and exposure to English football, shocked and intrigued him. At Chelsea, it was assumed he had come from nowhere. Even the 10 sophisticated managers during his tenure needed convincing Emenalo was equipped for his demanding job.
“Everybody has a misconception of my knowledge, insight, and experience. I did it 10 times with 10 managers. Each time I climbed the hill and convinced them of my worth. I have a university degree in international relations and diplomacy. I know how to deal with people and situations. I had the World Cup experience and been part of this industry on five continents. I said: ‘I’ll give them an opportunity to understand me.’ They all did but it’s not easy starting from ground zero every time.”
While he sacked many of those managers, Abramovich trusted Emenalo to shape his vision for Chelsea.
“My argument was that all big clubs had great academies. Ajax, Barcelona, Real Madrid. But creating a new identity at Chelsea, rooted in the academy, while his ambition is to win trophies, was difficult.”
Apart from improving the academy, Emenalo added rigorous innovations – such as the idea that older boys would play 45 games a season so they became used to the grueling demands of professional football. He also introduced an initially maligned loan system, which meant that more than 30 players a season were sent to different clubs to help them mature. Chelsea did not always understand and they lost Mo Salah and De Bruyne, whom Emenalo championed, and it took years for the fruits of his academy system to emerge. But the success of the academy and the loan system has been evident in the emergence of Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Tammy Abraham, Callum Hudson-Odoi, Mason Mount, and other young talents.
“At first,” Emenalo recalls, “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 that 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.’”De Bruyne was loaned to Werder Bremen but in 2014 Chelsea sold him to Wolfsburg. Did it make Emenalo howl with anguish when Chelsea jettisoned De Bruyne, Salah, and Lukaku? “It was more painful for the owner. He suffered. But he saw that everything we had discussed was true.”
It was reported widely that Emenalo had offered to resign to smooth José Mourinho’s return to Chelsea in 2013. There was speculation that Mourinho would not enjoy working alongside a technical director, but Abramovich apparently refused to accept Emenalo’s departure. After Mourinho’s arrival, Emenalo says: “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.
“When Mourinho was sacked in 2015, Emenalo took responsibility in his role and confirmed the news in an interview with Chelsea TV. A poor run of results had escalated when Mourinho accused the players of betraying him following a defeat to Leicester.
“After the game, in the Leicester boardroom, we see José doing this interview,” Emenalo says. “The narrative was not good. José was hard done by again.”
Emenalo, in a stark and powerful interview, referred to Mourinho as “the individual”. He also chose the term “palpable discord” to describe the breakdown between manager and players. “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.”
When Antonio Conte took over in 2016, Emenalo advised him: “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.”
As happened often at Chelsea, Conte’s mood changed within weeks when he felt the club did not support him in the transfer market. Emenalo had already decided he would leave the club first. Was he worn out?
“Yes. I was trying to do things creatively. Like changing the scouting platform or creating our loan system while managing a very intense environment. 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 left Chelsea in November 2017. During his final game, he showed rare public emotion. He jumped up and applauded when Andreas Christensen, an academy graduate who had benefited from a loan at Borussia Mönchengladbach, made a telling interception against Manchester United. It followed a heavy defeat against Roma. “I had spoken in the dressing room in Rome,” Emenalo says. “It was only the second time I did but I told the players: ‘This is unacceptable. It’s easy to blame the coach but today the responsibility goes to you guys.’ There was rapt attention.”
Three weeks after leaving Chelsea, despite being burned out by 10 years on a blue rollercoaster, Emenalo joined Monaco as sporting director. He was still exhausted and the complexities there were even more labyrinthine. He appointed Thierry Henry as manager but the problems at the club were deep-rooted and it was not a surprise when Emenalo left by mutual consent last August. After three hours Emenalo is fizzing with renewed energy.
“The future for me is to get back in the industry. I’ve just turned 55 and I have 12 years of experience at the 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.”This time, hopefully, Michael Emenalo will be judged on his competence and experience rather than the color of the skin. He stands up and smiles.
“Yes. It’s time for the narrative to change.”