There were many times where I would go to games and of course it would be perceived that I was the physio or any role where I couldn’t possibly be the lead coach,” Manisha Tailor says as she remembers arriving at opposition grounds with her Queens Park Rangers boys’ academy teams. Tailor is now the lead foundation phase coach at QPR and she says that “being a South Asian Indian woman, and the only person of South Asian heritage, male or female, in this kind of full-time coaching role at any of the 92 clubs in English professional football is a testament to QPR”.
Yet, when she first began working as the head coach of the under-nine boys, the opposition automatically assumed she was the QPR physio. “Myself and my colleague had conversations about it,” Tailor says with a smile and a shrug. “We’d say: ‘How many times has this happened? Is it three in a row? We laugh about it but you have to be in a position to influence change. You need to be in a position where you have the qualifications – but you also need an opportunity to coach on a level playing field. I was given that at QPR but I know that there are other South Asian people, male and female, who have the qualifications to do my role. So why are so few people of colour, who have pro licences, getting opportunities to become head coaches?”
Tailor has forged a brave and lonely path in male football over the past five years. QPR have been exemplary in backing her but she has still had to fight against prejudice. “There have been times where I would give out instructions and these would be dismissed. The same instruction would be given by a male counterpart and the response would be very different. That’s happened on several occasions. It’s happening less because I have a supportive head of coaching in Chris Ramsey and a supportive academy manager in Alex Carroll. That support comes from the very top where Les Ferdinand is the director of football. They all appreciate there is an unconscious bias and underlying stereotyping that needs to be addressed. But you have to be bold and resilient to have these challenging conversations.
“It’s been a tough journey but I built lots of resilience and perseverance through my life experience. Maybe if I had not gone through some of those things I wouldn’t have been able to get back up when you get knocked down. Perhaps I wouldn’t have been as open to learning and having that mindset of wanting to get better.”
The 40-year-old Tailor’s resilience is obvious when she talks about her twin brother, Mayur, who has had a mental illness for the past 22 years. He has struggled to communicate verbally for most of the past two decades and the entire family has been scarred by a mysterious condition that has yet to be fully diagnosed. But Tailor found a new purpose in her life, which fuses her love of football and a desire to help Mayur, when she gave up teaching at a primary school to forge a new path in 2011.
“We were joined at the hip,” she says of her relationship with her twin growing up in London. “We did everything together. We both loved sport, especially football, and it was a huge part of our life. We’d play in the garden and we were both in the school team. It brought us together – although he was a Liverpool fan and I was an Arsenal fan.
“I was going into teaching and my brother was very clever at maths and science and he was going into computer science. We found it bizarre, and he was really upset, when his school results went from predicted A grades to Ds and Es. He still got into university through clearing so we thought: ‘OK, he didn’t get his first options but he did get into a course he will enjoy.
“We hadn’t noticed any behavioural changes but when we were 18 we went on a family holiday to America and all of a sudden it started. We were in Universal Studios and he just turned round and said: ‘I can see things. I can hear things. There are people with guns.’ That’s when we recognised that he was hallucinating. We came back to London and his condition deteriorated. So, because of the stigma around mental illness, particularly being South Asian, we thought as a family we would help my brother. However, it came to a point where he had to be sectioned.”
Tailor’s face clouds as the memories tumble from her. “It was heartbreaking. Our 21st was spent in the psychiatric unit. You’re standing there and everybody’s trying to engage as much as possible and make it a happy occasion but I’m thinking: ‘He doesn’t even know who I am.’ We’d learnt that he was bullied at school and he never told us. He kept it all inside because it was so traumatic. He spoke less and less and maybe that helped him feel, essentially being in trauma, that was a safe place within himself.”
The family resolved to eventually care for him at home and, even though he remained unable to talk to them, Mayur’s condition stabilised. Tailor’s own life changed for ever 10 years ago. “I was on a lucrative salary, in a great job as a deputy head and trainee head, but I wanted to finish my master’s in leadership and take care of my mum who’d had a triple heart bypass. So I changed career and the opportunity for football came. Rachel Yankey [the former England international] said: ‘Now that you’re not working full-time, why don’t you work on my grassroots football programme part-time?
“So I did and that involved me storing football equipment at home. Mayur kept staring at the equipment and he finally said: ‘Manisha … football.’ Those words felt like a moral calling for me and it got me thinking. ‘What am I here to actually do?’ This whole journey with my brother has given me a moral purpose. Being able to reconnect with football has helped me connect with him but also connect with myself and what I believe I am here to do – which is to work in football and offer change. Adversity builds character and resilience and if you’re in a position that you can influence change, and create pathways for other people, you have to do it. Otherwise things remain exactly how they are.”
Tailor was tenacious and innovative as, to her own surprise, she found a way to break the glass ceiling that encased men’s football. “I never thought about professional football as a career pathway. Being a South Asian Indian female, it seemed impossible. But I started volunteering at QPR’s academy around April 2016 and it came about because I reconnected with Chris Ramsey at Troy Townsend’s Kick It Out event. I had met Chris in 2014 at St George’s Park when he, Chris Powell and I were on a panel. Chris [Ramsey] asked me what I was up to and I told him how I had given up being a deputy head and I wanted to pursue football because of my love for the game and the way it helped me reconnect with my brother.
“Chris said: ‘I haven’t got any jobs at QPR but I’m more than happy for you to come in and volunteer because you have your [Uefa] B licence’ which is the prerequisite for a part-time academy coach. I took that volunteer opportunity with both hands because somebody of his calibre was providing me with a rare opportunity in the professional game. That led to a part-time role with the academy and a paid role with the under-nines in September 2016. I worked with them for a couple of seasons. And then an opportunity came through the Premier League’s Elite Coach Apprenticeship Scheme which was put in place to redress the balance with gender and black, Asian and minority ethnic coaches in the professional game. Chris and Alex Carroll said: ‘Would you be keen for us to apply on your behalf? It’s an opportunity for you to be full-time.’
“Having been unsuccessful before, this time I got on to the course and it led to this position, of lead foundation-base coach, where I oversee the under-nines, 10s and 11s. I’ve also worked with the under-13s for the last two seasons. My responsibilities have evolved and I now help oversee the coaching operations of the under-nines to under-16s and work very closely with Chris and Alex, assisting with the admin side of the head coaching role. It’s great for me because I’m definitely improving – and learning how to manage an environment that’s very male-heavy and has an imbalance of women and people of colour in full-time coaching roles.
“I’d like to develop longevity in the game, becoming more credible, while continuing to learn from Chris and Alex and other great people at the club. I’m studying for my A licence and one day I would love to become an assistant head of coaching or assistant academy manager and be a great number two.”
Is she now recognised as a lead coach rather than the physio at away matches? “There is familiarity because they’ve seen me a number of times. I also think things are changing because I see more and more people of colour within part-time coaching roles. But the change needs to be more radical because it’s not big enough. The more open the decision-makers are, and the more transparent recruitment processes are, the more we’ll start seeing greater change within the staffing network. Ultimately, decision-makers have the power to employ people like me.”
Tailor smiles when I ask about Mayur. “There are little moments when we ask him: ‘Are you hungry? Would you like this chocolate?’ We sometimes get a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’. A lot more work needs to be done on language development because Mayur has been that way for 20 years. It has been difficult to diagnose because it’s a very unique case but sometimes we can give him a newspaper and point to each word. He can read the words out loud. So there is progress.”
Does Mayur sound like he once did? “Yes,” Tailor says as her face lights up. “Honestly, he does. It’s the voice I remember when we were 18.”
More information: THE GUARDIAN.