Football: Battles still to be won in football's war against racism

Racist comments on the pitch are much rarer these days but, says Charlton striker Mark Bright, the problem has not been eradicated
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WHEN Crystal Palace played Swindon Town in the Second Division play-offs in 1989 at the County Ground one of their players called Ian Wright and myself a "pair of niggers" and "black bastards".

We were so incensed that we waited for the player in the tunnel at the end of the game, then asked him to repeat his slur. On his own he didn't do so, but once surrounded by his team-mates he felt brave enough to use the words again and needless to say all parties had to be dragged off to their separate changing-rooms.

Steve Coppell, the Palace manager, told us the best possible answer was to make him eat his words in the second leg a few days later and we did. Wrighty and I scored a goal each as we beat Swindon 2-0 at Selhurst Park, and we went on to gain promotion to the old First Division by beating Blackburn in the play-off final.

The issue of fellow professionals racially abusing one another has resurfaced again this week, following Stan Collymore's accusation that he was called a "coon" by Liverpool's Steve Harkness during the game at Villa Park last Saturday, an allegation that Harkness denies. I spoke to Stan this week and he said: "We are now only two years away from the millennium and this sort of thing is still on the agenda. It's now time to eradicate this and tackle it head on."

It seems incredible to me that, with all his recent problems, Stan would go to the extremes of reporting his feelings to the match referee during the game, and to the Liverpool management and his own club chairman after the game, if nothing untoward had happened.

The days have gone where black players are prepared to put up with these remarks just because it isn't the done thing to complain. But it hasn't always been like that.

From my schoolboy football, 20 years ago, through to my non-League days at Leek Town, racial abuse was always part of the package. "Black bastard", "nigger", "wog", "coon" - I've heard them all at some stage. While playing for Leicester City in the early Eighties I had to endure racial barracking from a section of my own fans. It reached the stage when I didn't want my brother and sisters to come to the games because I didn't want them to have to sit and listen to the abuse.

During the early stages of my career I had to endure it because I was in the minority and it wasn't the done thing to kick up a fuss or go to the newspapers. Other pros told me it was part of the game.

Well, it certainly isn't part of the game any more. Indeed I can't remember the last time I was racially abused on the field.

I think one of the key developments in this process was the emergence of genuine black superstars, and one of the most significant moments was when Liverpool bought John Barnes from Watford in 1987. Liverpool as a city had a reputation for being resistant towards black players so in signing Barnes they now had an opportunity to have a role model within their ranks for aspiring black youngsters in the city to look up to.

Barnes was a resounding success during his decade at Anfield with his intelligent play on the field and his articulate manner off it. He did more than just play for Liverpool, he helped to break down racial barriers within the city. His success at Anfield was more than just success on the park. His achievement was probably a bigger step forward for black players than most people realised at the time.

Barnes was superseded by Ian Wright as the highest profile black footballer in the Premiership and he continued the trend of breaking down barriers. Ian is one of those people who's transcended football. Some people forget he's black: he's what you might call "Street", both black and white people can relate to him.

The success of Barnes, Wright, Ferdinand and the other outstanding black footballers changed players' mentalities. For example, an Arsenal player is less likely to abuse an opponent racially when arguably the best player on his own team is black. That goes for players at other clubs as well.

Some may say that black players are too sensitive about being racially abused, that Paul Gascoigne is often referred to as "fatty" while others are called "baldy", or "spotty" or whatever. Banter or verbal intimidation among professionals is rife and I have no objection to that - players must gain a psychological advantage wherever possible. But there's something very different and unacceptable about being called a "nigger" as opposed to "fatty", "skinny" or "baldy". To me the distinction is self- evident.

Football has come a long way in eradicating racism, but at times like these it seems apparent that there is still a lot of work to be done.