No return to the bad old days

Matthew Collins - 14 02 12

The Prime Minister David Cameron is to have a summit regarding racism in football. Let’s hope it is not seen as an opportunity for him to have his pic taken with the likes of David Beckham, but a serious meeting to stamp out what one antiracist campaigner describes as the very real danger of complacency sneaking into football.

What does it matter some may ask? There are worse issues of racism in society than that within football, where a bunch of extraordinarily well-paid men kick a bag of wind around for an hour and a half. There is racism in schools that needs to be addressed, on public transport (of late), in certain workplaces and of course in society in general.

Over these points of course, those detractors would possibly be right. But whether people like it or not, football seems to be some sort of gauge of the state of the nation. We prop it up and put its finer performers onto a pedestal, lavish them with praise, hang on their every word and are tempted to buy whichever knickers, eau de cologne or razor blade they recommend we use. They fill us up with false hope just before every major football tournament, sell us replica shirts with their names on the back and more often than not, fail after extra-time to score a penalty from a few metres out.

I have convinced myself that if I could only afford some of those Beckham undergarments that scores of people queued up to purchase on the day they were ”released” last week, I could confidently enter the veterans five aside team at my local pub and perform Beckhamesque miracles over two seven minute halves.

As a child, I was forced to watch Crystal Palace play. It was a ritual torment watching the team of the “80s” slide into oblivion, worse still, I missed the actual brilliant team of 1979 and instead watched Palace’s inglorious slide into mediocrity throughout most of the 80s from the vast and empty expanses of the Holmesdale Road terrace, normally in the pouring rain.

Things seem to get even worse when we hired Alan Mullery as our manager as the slide continued. As manager of our most hated rivals Brighton a few years before, he had thrown his pocket full of change on the floor and said he wouldn’t even pay that for our beloved club. He seemed to ensure our slide into mediocrity and at times one did wonder if he had not actually got our financial worth spot on.

But Palace did have one thing of great worth. I dread to think what he would be worth these days and how we would keep Tottenham’s grubby mits away from him. His name was Vincent Mark Hilaire. Jimmy Greaves always brings him up as the finest winger he has ever seen. Vince even got a mention along with Willy Wonka in the Beloved’s song “Hello”. Vince had apparently even turned down West Ham to play for us, and play for us he did. Then one day he went off to Portsmouth and was never seen or heard of again. It was not until Mark Bright and Ian Wright turned out for Palace that we ever had talent again of that stature. Hilaire of course, like Wright and Bright, was black. As was our Andy Gray (Tottenham stole him too). John Salako (“Johnny Salad”) and numerous others that made my brother and I think we were going to be “team of the 90s”.

For a young lad on the brink of the National Front and the BNP, it was almost impossible to stomach watching my beloved Palace sometimes field as many as five black players in a game. As our star rose again, it was one of the reasons I did not go to the 1990 FA Cup Final against Manchester United. I went to an NF march in the Midlands instead and heard only on the way home how Wright, recovering from a broken leg, had came off the bench to score twice and almost win us the FA Cup. If I was 18 again now, I would have Wright’s name on the back of my replica shirt. Palace fans are famous for our replica shirts; Millwall call us “Stripy Nigels” because of our penchant for our replica shirts.

Racism and violence at football in England seemed to have been as good as stamped out by the time I felt confident enough to go back to football. It’s a ridiculously expensive “hobby” and of course, Palace still manage to torture and torment me. We’ve been in and out of administration and almost relegated into the third tier too many times for comfort and even with brief flings with the Premier League thrown in between, our ground remains positively ancient and difficult to find for some.

But not only have I changed, so has football. There are black and Asian football fans too at the games now, not thousands, but an increasing number. Like me they probably wonder why Palace seem to have eight in defence and seemingly only employ strikers on the field part-time. They’re “Stripy Nigels” too. Some have the name of our white footballers on the back of their shirts, some have the name of Sean Scannell,a young black Irish international who is potentially superb, but could do with a shave as he has not mastered the art of growing facial hair quite properly yet, bless him.

Next year, almost everyone will have the name of one Wilfred Zaha on the back of our stripy shirts. He’s a winger from Côte d’Ivoire who will one day surely be an England international. He’s just signed a five year contract so we hope that will keep Tottenham away from him, though I suppose I would not mind him moving to Man United for millions and millions of pounds, either.

My point in all this, other than talking about Palace? Black footballers drove one racist away from the game the same way for a long time, racists drove black and Asian people away from the game. Football was the simplest way to drive racism out of society, because for too long we allowed racism to manifest itself in and around our national game. It isn’t science, sure, and there are some gaping holes in so many of the arguments you could use about football challenging racism, but in 2002 the BNP actively encouraged people not to support the England World Cup team as it contained too many black players.

The BNP backed Denmark instead of England right from the very off. Then in the second round of the 2002 World Cup, England drew Denmark and one Rio Gavin Ferdinand leapt like a young salmon to head the first of England’s three goals that night. The BNP were made to shut up about supposed “racially homogenous” teams being better than our English team. When Sepp Blatter said that the shaking of hands was all it took to get past or get over an incident of racism, it seemed that only us Brits were truly horrified and dumfounded by his comments. We even slapped ourselves on the back at what a great job we had done in driving racism out of our game, if not our society. Heavens, the notoriously fickle England fans even sung the name of Emile Heskey during the final years of his rather hit and miss international career. We were not ever going to allow our footballers to be racially abused playing for their country, even if it still does happen. Indeed, notable incidents against teams like Croatia and even Spain, hardened the resolve of the traditionally pernicious English football fan.

Driving racism and violence from our football experience when all around us everybody else seemed to be failing and suffering from the disease, was our success. Well actually, it was the success of black footballers and their families who persisted in the face of venomous hatred both on and off the pitch when the nation’s grounds were half empty and the idea of a beautiful game seemed all but lost on civil society. Success came on the back of years and years of abuse and violence and some truly horrific images of how truly low football had sunk for a while.

So no, just to shake someone’s hand was never going to work with us. But neither does us slapping each other on the back. As Show Racism the Red Card (SRTC), Kick It Out and Hope Not Hate will attest, racism does still exist in football as in society. And this year has been a particularly bad year for it. Whether it is on the terraces, pitch or train, it is not yet quite beaten, but yes we are getting there. Ged Grebby of SRTRC says that the main problem is that there is a danger of “complacency” and that of course, in the wider sense these incidents could be called isolated.

I looked up Vince Hilaire on the internet the other day. Low and behold there was a video on YouTube of Vince being interviewed in the 1980s, primarily about being a “coloured” footballer. It was a sign of the times I guess, not much mention of his silky skills and occasionally dubious temper once he had crossed that hallowed white line onto the pitch at Selhurst Park. And then there was Alan Mullery, who Palace fans still chant about today and an improbable failed attempt he made to sign the Pope. “He’s got a lovely tan” Mullery said when asked about Vince’s talent.

So, we’ve come a long way. In many ways football may have even dragged society along with it. But we are not going to allow our game to be dragged back either.

A year so far:

  • August 2011, Celtic fan escapes jail after writing letters of apology for racist and sectarian comments posted on facebook
  • September 2011, England fans accused of chanting anti-Roma songs in Bulgaria. England playes also abused by Bulgarian fans
  • October 2011, Chelsea fans reported as chanting racist songs in Champions League cup tie in Ghenk, Belgium on twitter
  • November 2011, Norwich City report alleged racial abuse directed at player James Vaughan
  • November 2011, Sunderland striker Frazier Campbell reports racist abuse directed at him on twitter
  • November 2011, Non-league striker Richard Offiong caims he was the subject of a racist slur by an opponent while playing for Blyth Spartans against Colwyn Bay
  • November 2011, England captain John Terry allegedly racially abuses QPR footballer Anton Ferdinand
  • November 2011, Chelsea launch investigation after claims their striker Daniel Sturridge was racially abused by the club’s own fans
  • November 2011, two 17 year olds charged by Northumbria police for racially abusing Newcastle’s Sammy Ameobi on Twitter. Given final warning in Feb 2012
  • December 2011, Barnsley supporter cautioned over homophobic chants
  • Southampton supporter receives three year banning order for Homophobic chanting
  • January 2012, Liverpool fan arrested for racially abusing Oldham player Tom Adeyemi, who broke down in tears during a 1-5 defeat.
  • January 2012, Manchester supporter arrested at Old Trafford for a racially aggrivated public order offence. Charged on 3rd Feb
  • January 2012, Palace defender Nathaniel Clyne racially abused on Twitter by Millwall fan
  • January 2012, 9 Charlton supporters arrested for racist chants made after an FA tie at Fulham. They had chanted the name of Stephen Lawrence killer Gary Dobson
  • January 2012, Police investigate Chelsea supporters for racist chanting after game at Norwich. One man arrested
  • Chelsea supporter arrested for racially abusing a woman at Liverpool Street station in London
  • Liverpool supporter arrested for “racist gesture” during FA Cup tie versus Manchester United
  • January 2012, man charged for racially abusing football pundit Stan Collymore on Twitter
  • Racist chants at Nottingham Forest v Leicester City FA Cup game
  • Scottish Premier League player Gregory Tade racially abused on Twitter
  • January 2012, Louis Saha (then at Everton) reveals he too racially abused on Twitter
  • Man arrested for send racist messages on Twitter to two Glasgow Rangers footballers
  • Three youth team players at Nuneaton Town charged by the FA after alleged racist abuse of opponents in FA Youth Cup game
  • Feb 2012, England defender Micah Richards quits Twitter after three months of “sustained racist abuse”.
  • Feb 2012, Man from Northampton charged with racial abusing Shrewbury striker Jermaine Grandison during a game on Jan 2nd
  • Feb 2012, Police investigate claims that a Southend United footballer was racially abused by Plymouth Argyle supporters


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