Football is an unusual bubble. We enter this escapist and eccentric world and undergo a personal form of reverse metamorphoses where we walk to the stadium as colourful butterflies who palpitate around our usual positions in society, leaving illuminated markings wherever we go. When we take our seats we do it often as caterpillars, slower, less dynamic versions of our conventional selves. We become narrower in vocabulary and less bothered about the more unsightly sides of our characters that our families or work colleagues rarely see. We get stuck on a limited mini-sentence cycle that includes such beauties as: ‘Into them!’ ‘Get stuck in man!’ ‘Tight! TIGHT!’
Temporarily we belong in a world of intense illusion where our football selves act and speak in ways we never normally would in the mundane nature of our humdrum daily lives. Then once the spectacle is over, we return to our dwellings in relative peace having enjoyed our out of body sojourn in the spectral world of football fandom, having engaged in nothing much more than harmless if not slightly risqué impropriety.
It’s brilliant! We love it. I love it. It’s seductive and addictive in equal measure - it must be, or why would we endure the consistent torture for a few moments of hedonistic pleasure?
Football worship is compulsive and weaves the very fabric of ourselves into the tapestry of our football clubs and this tie is strong, often unbreakable. That’s why we crave it so much. But at what point in the proceedings of football based merriment do we begin to analyse our escapism and bear a great responsibility for who we really are and what we actually represent? Do we abandon all our usual sensibilities at the gate? Or do we maintain a level of accountability that we would normally adhere to in our homes or our work places?
I say this because during the Sheffield United match a couple of weeks ago I heard a fella describe Lamine Kone as a “Fat Black C**t.”
It was towards the end of a horrific game - truly horrific, actually, and the angry, purple cheeked man left a minute later. My little lad didn’t hear it - he was playing tig with a friend in the rows of empty seats that surrounded us. But my boy not hearing is not quite the point. This one sentence led me to analyse myself and why being in a football stadium makes someone feel comfortable to resort to racist language or abuse.
On the way home, I was annoyed with myself for not immediately challenging the man. In the moment I questioned several things in an almost blind panic. Do I want a punch in the face? Do I want my lad to see his dad have an angry row in a place he associates with fun? Is such a challenge even going to make a difference? The usual self-justifying excuses for inaction. They may be valid, but still they bother me.
And since then I’ve pondered the event and scrutinised some uncomfortable aspects of being a football supporter. We’ve all heard it. Some of us have shouted it. More have whispered it under our breath. But the majority ignore it. Is our collective inaction interpreted as condoning the ideology? Does our silence make us complicit in the bigotry?
When Paul Canoville became the first black footballer to play for Chelsea in 1982 the National Front held a meeting and encouraged other fans to join the outrage. Chelsea supporters screamed, "Sit down, you black c**t", "You fucking w*g''. Then they started to chant: "We don't want the n****r, we don't want the n****r, la la la la."
This disgusting abuse showed no sign of reducing some two years later. At the time, Lord Herman Ouseley, (of the Kick it Out parish) then running the Ethnic Minorities Unit at the Greater London Council, decided enough was enough. In 1984, Ouseley, went to see Chelsea chairman Ken Bates, who couldn't see that there was an issue. Lord Ouseley explained: “I said - we need to look at what we can do to tackle this problem properly.”
Bates sneered and replied "We don’t have a problem.” At that point a crew of shady security people - ‘some big goons in anoraks’ escorted Lord Ouseley off the premises.
Fortunately, the football community have made some significant strides since then to fight this insidious social disease. The Kick it Out campaign, while imperfect, has made a huge difference in English football and while they must be credited with much of the applause, the most crucial contributors to this cultural evolution are the talented black and ethnic minority players who have graced our game since the late 70’s/early 80’s and continue to do so with elegance and passion. Their skill, drive and heroism have elevated them from societal, fringe outsiders to genuine heroes. Likewise the footballing community in this country have had a significant impact on driving out much of this vile behaviour from our stadia and transforming prejudice from front line and overt abuse to angry outbursts on the perimeters of the game. But none of those improvements are enough. There is no enough until we eradicate it altogether.
Racism still exists in our game and not just in the stands - and it’s not overtly visible either. Our own legendary captain Gary Bennett, a key advocate who fights against racism, has exclaimed:
We have made great strides in the country in tackling the issue but it has raised its head again… You cannot be complacent. You have got to keep on top of it on a daily basis. The minute you take your foot off, then that's when you start to get problems.
This year, some thirty-five years since Paul Canoville’s abhorrent abuse, former Sunderland player and Ghanaian international, Sully Muntari received such intense racial abuse from supporters during a league game in Serie A, that he walked off the pitch in the second half - and picked up a one game ban for doing so. Muntari had complained incessantly to the referee, and his teammates complained on his behalf. Then amazingly and courageously, at half time Muntari displayed genuine fortitude and walked across to the stand where he’d identified the source of the most virulent verbal denigration. In a sign of forgiveness Muntrari offered his shirt to a young kid in the crowd.
Later he described why. He had hoped to show that despite the horrendous abuse he had suffered, there was a better way to move forward and therefore held out a hand as a sign of unity. The response? The racism he suffered in the second half was just as painful as the first - so he walked off in peaceful protest. Fortunately when common sense prevailed his ban was lifted but the problem still remains. This is 2017. On the matter, Muntari himself declares:
I am determined to fight racism.
Football should inspire respect for one race - the human race.
Sadly the slow, volcanic return of visible and vitriolic racism and use of racist language in football is creeping its demonic head above the parapet of civility.
By the beginning of 2016, the reports of racist language and racist abuse at matches in England had increased 70% since 2012.
Partly this is due to the rise in brave souls reporting the issue, sick to death of moronic and ignorant imbeciles implanting their hatred on the beautiful game and those who innocently follow it. The most shocking statistic was sourced from youth and children’s football, where it seems those infantile segregationists and their puerile language have left the policed and regulated terraces of professional stadia and turned their bigotry to the fields of adolescent football, where the game should be pure and free from discrimination, where our children should be protected from all manner of evils - free to play the sport they love.
In 2014 there were 477 reports of racist abuse in grassroots football and in 2015 that number was closer to 800. In that same year Greater Manchester Police alone reported 46 incidents, which included a volunteer cleaning the toilets in a changing room being told 'that's a f****** black man's job, you f****** n*****' and a black manager of a children's team being told 'I'll do you, I'm gonna wait for you outside, I'm going to do you, you f****** n*****'.
The force also said that on two occasions a specific footballer was targeted and during a game someone shouted 'What is this the United Nations? How many chinks do you need?'
Hertfordshire Police recorded 11 incidents of alleged racist abuse at children's football games, while Northamptonshire Police said that during a non-league game a man was spat at and racially abused before eventually having his leg broken in a strong challenge.
If such bile filled vitriol aimed at innocent men, women and children at the heart of our game outrages you, then feel outraged. Feel very outraged. Feel sick to the stomach. Feel motivated.
In a recent article I wrote concerning my views on whether or not Sunderland fans should protest against our current chairman, some honest to goodness genuine people online accused me of sitting on the fence. Mainly because, while I admitted I completely understand the anger and the swell of support that would formulate such a protest, I wasn’t sure how much it would achieve in the long run. So I totally get and appreciate how some may feel, that on the one hand I supported the anger behind the principle but not the physical protest itself.
Partly this is due to my age and weariness. We screamed and yelled at Tom Cowie and chased him out. We screamed and yelled at Bob Murray, now we’re screaming and yelling at Ellis Short and I accept they deserve the challenge. We are right to shout loud at the mishandling, the mismanagement and the disastrous decision making that has left us struggling once again outside the top league looking like we’re on the bones of our backside. But for a world weary old dog like me, I would prefer protests, actual protests to be aimed at something more meaningful than a billionaire’s investment going south and turning into hell in a hand-basket. Our recent history shows we may well be screaming and yelling at another owner in 10 years time and rightly so, because we love our club and we love our football - they’re our obsession, our guilty pleasure, our compulsive disorder. Our club, its roots and its future means something to us that permeates through more than just hobby or association. It’s passion and addiction. But marching through Blandford Street and handcuffing ourselves to Bob Stokoe’s statue while burning our underpants in protest of a Billionaire who couldn’t care less if we protest or not, for me is not an important enough issue to deserve such efforts. One well-meaning and understandably frustrated critic of my protest article quoted the famous line:
All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.
Ellis Short is a terrible owner, Martin Bain is a terrible Chief Executive - so was Margaret Byrne before him. They’ve ravaged the core of this club and whatever it stood for via a mix of complacency, greed, inexperience, ignorance and ineptitude. But evil?
For me personally, when it comes to football, there are real evils to fight against. Authentic wickedness that insipidly seeps its way into the veins of our children, our communities and the game we love. Racism, homophobia, sexism and intolerance are all worthy of mass protests for they all represent the same common thread - legitimate evil.
The cancerous reach of racism blights our game but often dulls our minds of the long term consequences. We have players like Micah Richards shutting down twitter because of racist abuse and others including Stan Collymore, Ashley Cole, Rio Ferdinand and many more who receive cesspit filled amounts of racist rhetoric that is not just wrong but down right sick and twisted.
I once followed a thread on Collymore’s twitter account and it got to a point where I couldn’t read any more - never mind him! The racist abuse was unequivocally disturbing and psychotic in its execution. Agree or disagree with Collymore? Whatever. Judge him for his punditry or his journaliste-ic skills. Alright. Like him or dislike him - it’s up to you. But to call for his death or the torture of his family members because of the one thing he cannot change. Well… for any of you reading this thinking ‘self-righteous lefty,’ what laws I would bring into punish such demented psychopaths do not lend themselves to such lofty principles, that the left would claim to be theirs.
Racism exists in some form - from the top of the game to the bottom. While over 30% of our players in this country are black or from ethnic minorities, the same demographic make up less than 4% of our managers or coaches- despite many top black pro’s going through the process of gaining all of their badges and licenses.
“It’s shameful,” says Jason Roberts, voicing the exasperation of many leading black figures in the game. The former Wigan and Blackburn star continues: “In the future we’ll look back at this, like we have with many things in history, and just feel ashamed that we’re in this situation (in 2017), that we’re even discussing this.”
While Jose Mourinho can comfortably state from the top table of the establishment:
There is no racism in football … If you are good, you get the job.
The facts, evidence and experience of black and ethnic minority ex-players desperate to be involved in the game don’t bear out Mourinho’s sentiments, regardless of how well meaning they were intended. Bear in mind the same manager can’t hear 60,000 supporters chanting in unison, describing in full colour the traditional stereotype regarding black men and their genitalia - a stereotype created by slave owners to maintain the lowly status of black men, by comparing them to the lowest animals on the farm, donkeys and mules.
Former Sunderland star and treble winning Manchester United legend Dwight Yorke believes that Mourinho’s assumption that everyone in football is judged solely and only on merit is a dreamy concept, but doesn’t match the reality.
He claims black, Asian and ethnic minority managers cannot even get interviews for jobs. Yorke said:
I’m still looking to get in. I’ve done all the coaching badges at St George’s and the one thing I find very difficult, let alone get a job, is to even get an interview. I’m finding it very, very difficult at the moment.
This is a man who has a Champion’s League winner’s medal and won the treble, as well as many other honours.
Can we at least admit there may be a problem here if not endemic and systematic practices and procedures that make it very difficult for coaches from certain backgrounds to get a job?
Fortunately, to combat this, the EFL have introduced a trial system based on the NFL’s Rooney Rule, which ensures a suitably qualified Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic (BAME) coach will be interviewed for any job that comes free. This is a massive step forward right? You would hope so, but out of the 10 clubs signed up to the pilot scheme they failed to uphold their promise in six out of eight opportunities last season, changing managers several times with no BAME coaches anywhere near interviews. But the EFL are determined and are rolling out the system across the league and hopefully this will lead to a fairer and more equal recruitment system that provides opportunity for the many and not just the few.
Last week, and to worldwide coverage, many NFL players across the pond took a knee to peacefully protest racial injustice in their country. It was not two fingers to the flag like many on the agenda driven right want us to believe. A large proportion of the remaining players linked arms in a similar sign of unity, including global superstar Tom Brady. They are taking a stand to represent those who have no voice, no influence and no platform. They’ve decided enough is enough.
When will we in football decide the same? World Cup winner and former Juventus and Barcelona legend Lilian Thuram discussed the subject only this week in an interview with Reuters:
I would love it if soccer players did it (took a knee), I think it would be fascinating to see that, and not just black players either... I hope that this resistance movement will spread itself outside the USA and that more people, regardless of skin colour, follow in their footsteps to create a better society.
And that’s the rub right? We don’t just want better football fans, or fairer employment processes - we want our Society to be tolerant and peaceful. Football is a glorious invention that makes the world a better place, an all-encompassing obsession woven into our DNA every bit as much as any religion or social practice can. It’s why we love it so much. The millions who adore this game for all of its intense beauty and its horrendous lows are an army - and we can decide if the wheel of racism and intolerance continues to spin or whether we smash it altogether and eradicate it for good. I pray we do the latter.