A Sterling Lesson
Growing up in Kilwinning in the sixties wasn’t quite the same as growing up in Swinging London. It was a typical small working-class town. And it was white. Exclusively so,as far as I recall.
So too was Scottish football. Sure,there were a sprinkling of Scandinavians and Icelanders playing in exotic places like Dundee and,erm,Greenock,and Rangers even had a German goalie for a while. Called Gerry,believe it or not(!) But every bit as white as the rest of us.
Same thing in England. While the comedy shows of the time were full of caricatures about ethnic minorities,they knew their place. And it wasn’t on the football field. Nope,you’re not welcome,either as a player or a fan.
That all changed with the emergence of West Bromwich Albion and the introduction by Ron Atkinson of Brendan Batson,Cyrille Regis and Laurie Cunningham. Brian Clough had Viv Anderson,and Terry Venables had a few in his Crystal Palace ‘Team of the Eighties’. All of a sudden,black players had their role models,and a bit of self-belief. They could do it,you know,and managers weren’t scared to give them the chance to prove it.
Now,forty years later,no-one really gives a damn about someone’s ethnicity or colour in football. Not in the boardroom,the dug-out or the dressing room. Not even on the terraces,as we all have seen our sides improved by this or that black player.
When he plays for the other team. Then he’s fair game. As are they all,of course,we’ve paid our money so we are entitled to abuse anyone in any way we see fit. Well,try sitting on a bus and calling your driver what Raheem Sterling was called on Saturday when he was just doing his job. I can guarantee your ticket is a one-way journey to jail. Why do grown men,many with respectable and responsible roles in life-a Chelsea season ticket don’t come cheap-feel that it is acceptable to hurl vile racist abuse at a young player simply for wearing the wrong colour of jersey? Or the wrong colour of skin?
Of course,Chelsea fans famously abused Paul Cannoville as he warmed up prior to appearing as a substitute-and he was playing for Chelsea! Not the best start to a career for a 20yo kid. I think it was his debut,and it continued for the four years he played there.
Here’s what Vince Hillaire,a leading light in the aforementioned Palace,said about a visit to Port Vale.
“After about 20 minutes, the manager, then Terry Venables, told me to go and have a warm-up. I came out of the dug-out, and I started jogging around the touchline. I couldn’t believe the abuse that was coming at me… animal noises and all the names you think of calling a black person. Any name under the sun. And it frightened me a bit, so I couldn’t wait to get back in the dug-out. And I thought, ‘Well, if this is the sort of reception I’m going to get, then I don’t really want to know”
Shocking? Of course it is. But I hear stuff like that on a regular basis in Swindon,and this from people I have a lot of time for otherwise. Of course,I point out the error of their ways,but they seem to think that they simply shouldn’t have said it to me,rather than that they shouldn’t have said it at all. Canny educate pork.
Racism is still prevalent across society,whether we like it or not. Less than 25 years ago,the local Tory party in Cheltenham refused to accept a candidate for the ultra safe seat in Cheltenham. A successful barrister,family man,well-spoken,ticked all the boxes. Except that he was black. Two years ago,52% of the electorate voted to commit economic and diplomatic suicide largely because of immigration fears.
Scott Sinclair is abused on and off the pitch because he has the misfortune to be mixed-race AND a Celtic player. Even had the misfortune to suffer racial abuse in the first class lounge at Glasgow Airport. He was fortunate on that occasion that the suite was packed with CCTV cameras and the culprits were swiftly brought to justice,and of course other passengers weighed in on his behalf.
Except that none of that last sentence is true. Shamefully,he discovered that he was on his own,neither fellow passengers nor the authorities took any action. As is the case when he is loudly and clearly abused while on the pitch.
Now,the question is,is the Sterling incident a final crossing of the Rubicon for English football,the moment when the game,the police,society,finally sees that the line in the sand has been ignored for years? Well,time will tell. But I’d say from past experience that racism is too deeply entrenched in the mindset and behaviour of too many people who attend football matches for it to make that overnight transition. That,believe it or not,means that too many people view this as acceptable behaviour,and they know fine well that they’re nailed on to get away with it.
Well,I can think of one particular Chelsea fan who probably won’t get away with it. In fact,the fall-out from any accompanying court case could be disproportionate,as he will likely be ostracised by any polite society he mixes in,as well as losing his job.
In Vino Veritas. Is it worth letting the world view you as the person you really are,just because you had a few with your mates and were having a good time? Is it worth a lifetime ban from your club?
In this case,I’m going to say “Yes,it was worth it.”
Because at last,British football might be having a grown up discussion about an endemic problem. We can only hope that society in general follows up.