Joleon Lescott won four major trophies during his 20-year playing career in football, but these days, he's chasing a dream he feels is far more important. As we talk over Zoom, on the wall behind him are the replica Premier League titles from Manchester City's 2012 and 2014 triumphs, the FA Cup from 2011 and then a League Cup from 2014 thrown in for good measure.
But now as he looks to the future, those accomplishments and his 26 England caps have been part of this journey rather than its crowning achievements. After struggling to find a place and purpose after retiring in 2017, he is targeting a role as a sporting director in a top club but knows he will have to break down certain barriers.
The statistics regarding diversity in football management and/or positions of power within football clubs make for dismal reading. There are just five Black, Asian and Ethnic Minority (BAME) managers out of the 92 clubs in England's top four divisions, while there is just one BAME sporting director or director of football across England's top two leagues.
"There has been some kind of unconscious bias in regard to appointing coaches and sporting directors, and putting people of colour in power positions," Lescott tells ESPN. "I definitely believe that has been the case.
"Now people are talking about that a lot more. But has there been change? No. Is there room to encourage change? Yes.
"If, in five or six years' time, people remember me for being the sporting director of this or that club, and perhaps as the first person of colour to get such a role in that club, then that's just a huge achievement. That's my motivation."
In the months following Lescott's decision to retire in 2017, following an impressive career at the highest level with Wolves, Everton, Manchester City, Aston Villa and Sunderland, he remembers struggling to fill the new void in his life. For the previous 20 years since leaving school aged 15, he'd been told where to be and at what time, what to wear, what to eat, what to drink and who to mark. He tried to find a place in football.
Most former players, keen to stay in the game, look to coaching. His first steps were in a player liaison role with Manchester City, where he would be the conduit between the club and their various players out on loan. The role gave him a chance to observe the inner workings of the club as he fine-tuned exactly what pathway he wanted to take. He would watch intently on occasion as Pep Guardiola trained and prepared his Man City squad week after week.
"[With Pep] the obsession of being a coach is visible. I haven't got that obsession."
He could have gone down the representation/agent route, but that didn't feel right either. "There are people that would make decisions that's not the best for the player -- I can't ... that would consciously keep me up at night -- that wouldn't work," Lescott says. "I can't be that guy."
Lescott loved the analytical side of football and learning about the person behind the player, so a sporting director role felt like the ideal fit. Instead of seeking Guardiola's counsel, Lescott has been learning from Brian Marwood, managing director of the City Football Group's global football department, and Michael Emenalo, the ex-Chelsea and Monaco sporting director. He is also doing a Master's degree in sports directorship at Manchester Metropolitan University. It's all heading in the right direction, but there's a bigger picture to all this: Through his own success, he wants to provide a pathway and role model to young black, Asian and minority ethnic kids hoping to hold similar roles in the future.
Lescott knows the BAME coaching/sports director stats well and knows that feeling of being an outsider based on his race.
"I was at Everton and was involved in an issue ... and then I went to the FA and the committee and I didn't see any people of colour involved in the decision process. That is wrong. I still believe that, and I can't imagine it's changed much since.
"I remember hearing about the incident with Jonathan Leko, where he was on loan at Charlton and the Leeds goalkeeper was found guilty of racially abusing him. In the hearing, he was made to sit next to the goalkeeper. There's no compassionate thought there."
Lescott hopes players continue to kneel when fans return
Joleon Lescott says fans' reactions to players kneeling will show how effective the protests have been.
Since the Premier League restarted after the COVID-19 shutdown, its return brought with it a greater urgency to confront and correct inequality in society and sport. The death of George Floyd in May sparked a global movement for change. There were the public-facing messages, like players taking a knee before top-flight matches kicked off. There were others, too: T-shirts, slogans, charitable organizations. Lescott has been encouraged by this but emphasises the need for this to be a continual process, rather than something short-term.
"The momentum was good, everyone was speaking about it, but I hope it doesn't kind of dilute now," Lescott says. "I still want to see the kneeling when the fans are back in the stadiums, because then you're going to see how much people really want change. I'm sure you'll hear boos or jeers when players are kneeling, and I want to see what is done about that. ... That's when we know if there's going to be change."
And in the boardrooms, away from the fans and television cameras, he sees what the game is doing to encourage progressive change, like the FA and Premier League's new BAME player-to-coach placement scheme -- a project that offers six BAME former players a 23-month placement at EFL clubs as they transition into coaching roles. This is fine, but Lescott wants to see actual tangible progress. He is against football bringing in its own equivalent of the Rooney Rule, as it "just means clubs have to interview" a person of colour, but applauds what Manchester City are doing to "eradicate discrimination" for any vacancies; they weigh up candidates' credentials for open positions without knowing names, genders or ages.
"There [are] so many people of colour that play football [but] then after football [they] don't get the same opportunities -- it's like there's this conveyor belt that keeps on going around and round. I definitely believe that to be the case, but hopefully we're now in a transition where, if you have the qualifications which I'm hoping to get, and the experience that you can't get, it qualifies me more than someone that hasn't had a career I've had."
And it's against this backdrop that Lescott is working towards his goal of being a top-level sporting director. After he played his final professional match, the only thing that came close to replacing that buzz of playing in front of packed crowds was DJing. He remembers playing an anthem in a small club in Manchester in 2018 and receiving the sweaty adulation. It temporarily scratched an itch, but the desire to become a sporting director has reignited the fire in him.
"I can empathize with a player," Lescott says. "I've worked with analysts in the past who are watching a game, and they make comments about this or that. And I'm like 'you don't know ... you don't know what that feels like in front of crowds when you're trying to control a ball, and people are booing.'"
Lescott isn't expecting doors to fly open immediately, but he hopes his experience and acumen will speak for itself. He will do this in his own way, and through empathy and honesty.
"You can rule people by respect or fear... I think you get a better response out of people if they respect you.
"Do I feel like a pioneer? Yes, and no. Do I think there's more of an opportunity now? 100%. To help give that opportunity to the younger generation would be amazing. Regardless of medals or not... that would be an honour to be remembered for that."