Hidden away in a leafy borough of South London, Dulwich Hamlet have been making waves in non-league football this season. Enjoyable, attractive, attacking football has put the club and its feverish supporters on the cusp of a second consecutive promotion, this time to the Conference South – almost unprecedented in the club’s proud history.
Gavin Rose is coming towards the conclusion of his fifth season at Champion Hill, and barring any last-minute changes he will end it as one of only seven black managers in the top eight divisions of English football. The other six are, like the 37-year-old from Peckham, managing in non-league football.
Ambition marks Rose out from many of his contemporaries at this level. Does he see himself as a manager in the Football League in the next five years? “Definitely,” is the immediate, assertive response. But it should not be mistaken for arrogance, he recognises that he has no divine right to make it that far. It’s a philosophy that underpins his personality, and shines through in his beliefs about the game he loves.
What would be holding him back from that, barring the A license coaching badge that still needs to be earned? Other than himself, he sees no stumbling block.
But with the sackings of Chris Powell and Chris Hughton in the last month, there are now no black managers in charge of the 92 clubs that comprise the Premier League and Football League. He is well versed on the subject, this stain on English football, but perhaps surprisingly unfazed.
“I’ve read about people complaining, but I’m just learning my trade. I’m not yet entitled to ask why I haven’t been given an opportunity. I’m not able to be sympathetic with it.
“I don’t know the circumstances of former black footballers who haven’t been given an opportunity, whether they have the qualifications or whether they’re the right person for that job. There may well be guys with all the credentials who have been overlooked. That’s something only club owners can answer. I’m not in a position to force anyone’s hand. It’s a question that, to me, is out of our hands. I don’t want to give up what I love doing because of it. It’s not on my radar.
“I don’t want to jump on a bandwagon. If you don’t get a job, keep going. Don’t just beat the drum straightaway. If you don’t get the opportunity, go lower. Marcus Gayle is at Staines, he’s an ex-professional and he’s cutting his cloth at the bottom. He’s proving he’s willing to work hard.
“I think maybe at a board room level they’re not used to black managers. It might be something that they need to get used to. Instead of complaining, be humble, take a step back and try to improve yourself. Complaining gets you nowhere.”
What then, marks Rose out amongst the other black managers operating beneath the Football League threshold? Quite simply his Dulwich Hamlet side, who have proved to be a revelation in their first season back in the Ryman Isthmian Premier, the division below the Conference South, following their promotion from the Division One South in 2013.
Rose has seen more goals from the touchline than any other manager in the division, 153 of them. Free-scoring and free-conceding, but Dulwich have plundered 92 of those goals, which sees them at the upper-end of the spectrum.
Hamlet have spent most of the season vying for top spot, but a downturn in form over the last two months has hurt their hunt for automatic promotion. Wealdstone were promoted as champions last week and the play-offs likely await a team who have been, for all intents and purposes, punching above their weight this year. They sit in fifth, and victory over second-place Kingstonian in the final game of the league season on Saturday will guarantee their presence there.
Their over-achievement may well have caught up with them. A run of 12 wins in 14 games during September and October contrasts strikingly with a run of two wins in their last 10. The beauty lies, though, in the football style that Rose transmits to his players, which has seen attendances increase almost eightfold since he took over as manager in 2009.
“Our supporters at our level think it’s a bit different. Non-league football is usually quite direct. We’ve lost a few competitions to teams above us by trying to play football. They might have had a few more physical players than us and so been able to run a bit more, but we concede that because we want to enjoy ourselves. We want to win but we want the boys to express themselves, give everything they can. There’s a way to win and a way to lose, but when you boot it long and you don’t get any gratification out of it and you lose, what’s the point? If you’re going to lose then lose the way that you think you should play.”
Rose is one of a growing number who have not trod the normal path into football management. Injuries curtailed his playing career and he side-stepped into coaching. His story bears more than a passing resemblance to that of Brendan Rodgers, and Rose identifies him as something of a role model in this regard.
“It shows you that it doesn’t have to be done a certain way, that there’s no blueprint. It definitely gives me hope. These guys speak about football as if they’re not bored of the game, whereas some of the guys who’ve played to a high level sound like they’ve been doing it for so many years it’s a bit of a chore. You get the feeling that these guys cherish every moment that they’re in the game.”
Rose’s work with the ASPIRE academy that he set up in 2002 has guaranteed Dulwich Hamlet a production line of young footballers, unfortunate enough to have been rejected by professional clubs, but talented enough still to continue their development.
The success is such that he was invited to Lyon’s academy in February, to share ideas and present to them how he has produced professional footballers from such a low level, an opportunity that arose after Rose brought right-back Mathieu Boyer over from the French academy last summer.
The Dulwich Hamlet manager is a big advocate of learning from the way young footballers are developed in foreign countries, and believes that there is a problem with the mentality of coaching in this country more than the quality of it.
“I don’t understand how you would see any difference between a 14-year-old in England and one in Brazil or France. To me, we’ve got natural talent in England, so I don’t understand what happens when they get to 18 or 19. What we do understand is that they don’t get the opportunities to play football, and then they hit a brick wall. There’s definitely insularity. I think we want short-term things in England.
“If there’s an exceptionally talented kid in England who we don’t have to do too much work with, by and large that player is going to get his move. But if there’s a player who needs a little bit more work, I don’t think there’s a commitment to bring it out of him. In Spain and France they seem to like the challenge of making a player and getting the best out of him. Barcelona, Ajax, even lower clubs in Holland do it, the coaches maybe have an ego to want to make that difference but I don’t see that we’re doing that.
“You can mirror all the coaching drills in the world, that they do in Spain and Brazil, but if the mentality to get the product right isn’t there then I don’t think it matters.”
“It’s quite clear to see that he’s an exceptional talent. Every time I speak to professional clubs they say he’s too small. It’s an interesting one that, and it’s another insular thought. Too small? It’s about effectiveness. He puts a fair bit of graft in, he’s not a luxury player who waits for the ball, he works hard.
“The question is “why should we change for someone so small?” That’s what the mindset is. But the height of a player doesn’t matter, if he’s effective – which he clearly is – he should at least be given the minimum of an opportunity. He’s shown on the poor standards of pitches in this league that he can do it.”
Rose’s passion in his coaching and his players is abundantly clear. The roots of this came when he was growing up in Peckham, coaching a group of five year-olds on his local estate, among them Anton Ferdinand.
Since, Rose has been a pivotal figure in the development of George Elokobi and Simeon Jackson, who have graced the Premier League in recent years. Both came through Rose’s ASPIRE academy, and Jamaican born Canadian international Jackson credits him with revitalising his career.
ASPIRE is a net that catches those players and gives them the platform to make it, because there’s a lot of great talent out there. It’s something that’s close to my heart. Throughout my career, any situation I’ve been in I still ring Gavin to get a different view, he never fails and always gives me wise words. I know Gavin and he does that for every player, and ASPIRE is a credit to him and what he’s trying to achieve.”
Dulwich fans sing of “Gavin Rose’s Pink and Blue Army”, and it’s impossible to imagine separating him from the club and the fans at present. As the players mingle with the supporters in the club bar after games, it’s not hard to admire the work that Rose has done in making Dulwich Hamlet one of the most likable clubs in the non-league game.