Racism in football: a personal account

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In the wake of John Terry’s trial for racial abuse, one football fan and player reflects on his own experience of racism, both on and off the pitch.

The other day, I was accused of racism by a commenter on Facebook. During a match with Chelsea, Queen’s Park Rangers player Anton Ferdinand had got abuse from a section of the Chelsea crowd. I had remarked that this was probably because they perceived that no action had been taken against him, despite his own admission in a court of law that he had abused a fellow professional. According my accuser, this observation made me a racist. I was, to be exact, ‘a disgusting individual’. I also observed that Ashley Cole had received abuse for having supported John Terry throughout his court case and disciplinary hearing. For some reason, this also made my accuser’s blood boil. Her accusation made me think: have we reached a stage in this country where we can’t even comment without fear of being labelled or (in the case of some internet commenters lately), arrested?

This was not the first time that I’ve been labelled a racist on an internet forum. Last year, disillusioned with the Liberal Democrats, I joined The National Liberal Party. It was not a decision I made lightly. I had read bad things about links with right wing parties, and I knew that one of the party founders was a former member of the National Front. I was invited to meet him, and we sat down and he talked and I listened. I liked what he had to say. He said he had been wrong to join the NF, and spoke of his support for political asylum and immigration for skilled workers. I certainly wasn’t listening to a right-winger, in any sense of the word. I was sold and joined the party, only to be shocked to be called ‘a racist’ by a Liberal Democrat when posting on behalf of the party on an internet forum.

But back to my ‘racist’ comments about Anton Ferdinand.

I’ve actively supported Chelsea, my local club, since I was about five years old. I’ve had some great footballing heroes through the years, and none more so than Mr Chelsea himself, John Terry. I’ve marvelled at his ability in the air, his never-say-die attitude and his desire to achieve what shouldn’t be achievable. That said, I think that when he said what he did on a football pitch to Anton Ferdinand, he should have been sacked and banned from the game. Why? Because this simply wouldn’t have been tolerated in any other business. In order to achieve a fair society, it’s important for every section of that society to feel that justice is done.

When I was a young schoolboy in Battersea, there was an influx of immigrants, predominantly Afro-Caribbean. I went from seeing maybe one black face to what seemed like hundreds, if not thousands. White people in inner city London felt threatened by such a change, which seemed to happen overnight. I remember hearing my grandparents (who were genuinely lovely people, but terribly uneducated) recounting rumours of horrific crimes carried out by ‘the blacks’. But growing up in such a diverse neighbourhood made me realise that we are all human beings and all basically the same.

As a 15 year old in the late seventies, I played for the Limbury Boys football club in Luton. In one match, against my home town’s youth team, the seven black players on our team were the targets of a torrent of racial abuse. I looked around at the ugly faces in the stand and around the other three uncovered sides of the ground. There must have been close on a hundred people there and the anger on their faces was there for all to see. I was playing in goal and heard some particularly vile and hateful abuse from the father of one my opponents. I turned around to him and told him that he should be ashamed. His retort was that I was a ‘monkey lover’. I was drawn into an argument, and eventually the referee booked me for what was then called ‘ungentlemanly’ behaviour. Another of our players was sent off for challenging a supporter who’d called him a “nigger”. The abuse rose and fell depending on which team took the lead, but we withstood the pressure and held on for a win. I was proud of us as a team for the composure and commitment we had shown.

A few months later I went to watch my beloved Chelsea play Watford at Stamford Bridge. I was standing in what was known as the right wall of The Shed area, and before the game started I was singing, listening to the folklore and the stories, and enjoying being part of a ‘tribe’. When the teams ran out and started to warm up, Watford were at our end. Suddenly there were monkey chants all around me and people throwing bananas in the direction of Watford’s black players. I was suddenly back on the pitch at Leighton Town and I remembered my emotions. I don’t mind a bit of banter between football supporters, but making people feel bad because of their skin colour? No, I’d been there, felt it, worn the football kit. I left the ground in disgust. I remember walking down the Fulham Road, almost in tears. I felt powerless to do anything about it.

Away from the pitch, I remember going to a National Front meeting in my late teens. A leaflet had come through our letterbox, and I was curious about this political party that everyone was talking about. Looking around the room, I noted that the meeting comprised three kinds of people. First, those who organised and spoke very well but were obviously driven by a dislike of non-white people, even using this as a mask for personal gain and possible power. Second, those people who were uneducated thugs and saw an opportunity of a fight with a ‘rival tribe’. And third, the majority of the room, those people who had perhaps never encountered different people, different countries or different customs, and were genuinely scared by the demographic changes taking place. I saw how easily the latter group were manipulated by the former. I left, once more saddened.

Back to the pitch, and I was playing for Leedon Athletic against Aylesbury West Indians. It was the mid-eighties and we were getting a bit of a drubbing. I went for a fifty-fifty ball and won it, but the West Indian player I had tackled stayed down in pain, calling me a “fucking dirty honky bastard”. I was surrounded by his team mates and several were calling me a “dirty piece of white shit” and “honky”. The referee was a couple of feet away at most. He did nothing, and I got booked for a foul. When I protested that I’d won the ball, he turned and said ‘Just shut it or you’ll be off. I booked you to keep the peace’.

I remember standing there shaking my head, thinking how unfair the whole thing was. It was the first time I’d been racially abused on a football pitch. In twenty five years, it only ever happened three times in twenty five years, as opposed to maybe twenty times when I’d heard white players aim racist abuse at non-whites. I’ve often thought about how I felt that day though and how close I’d come to retorting to one racist comment with another. In truth, in the heat of the moment, I was closer to doing so than I like to admit. But I didn’t make that retort, and I’ve never come close to going down that route since.

My experience of racial abuse, both towards myself and others, and both on and off the pitch, has made me realise that a lot more respect is needed from every side. The way the John Terry case was handled by the FA does not reflect this need for respect. Anton Ferdinand should have got a substantial ban for running the full length of the pitch abusing a fellow professional with both foul language and hand signals. He was a disgrace that day and should have been treated as such. He wasn’t, which makes a mockery of the FA’s Respect campaign and gives fuel to those uneducated idiots who like to bully and spread racial hatred. It also sets a bad example to the kids watching. Football was a loser the day Terry and Ferdinand brought it down to new depths, I’ve no doubt of that.

As for my own case, knee-jerk reactions from internet commenters don’t tell the whole story. I’ll always say what I think is happening in a situation and I’ll always call it as I see it. If I see an injustice I’ll always speak up. We need people to respect each other and listen to each other, without feeling the need to take offence at things that were not meant to be offensive. In doing so, we can direct our efforts towards the things that really are offensive. Like racist comments. White on black or black on white.

Let us all start our own Respect campaign!

Photograph courtesy of stvcr, via Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Glen Maney

Comedian and member of the National Liberal Party.

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