And they say there's no prejudice in the game...

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In a week when racial tensions and issues of national identity were thrust to the top of the political agenda, the outcome of the trial of two Leeds United footballers accused of attacking an Asian student is being seen as an inseparable part of the debate.

When the original case was heard against Lee Bowyer and Jonathan Woodgate – along with Paul Clifford and Neale Caveney – Mr Justice Poole declared that that there was "absolutely no significance" in the fact that the attackers were white and the victim Asian. At the start of the second hearing, Mr Justice Henriques repeated that racism was not a motive.

In football circles generally, and Leeds football circles in particular, only the most obtuse would try to pretend that racism is not still part of the game. It is true that a generation of right-thinking players has joined such campaigns as "Kick Racism Out of Football", with the full force of the football authorities behind them. It is also true that anti-racism initiatives have been a feature of professional clubs in recent years – Leeds United among them – and the huge impact of black players on the national game has led the sport to regard itself, with some justification, as a standard-bearer in the faltering progress towards an era of racial harmony.

Unfortunately none of these developments quite squares with the reality on the ground. For a start, the proportion of black players in the professional game – about 20 per cent – does not begin to be reflected in the game's audience. A black or Asian face in the crowd is still a rarity. And while there is little evidence of racism either within teams, or between opponents, its removal from the minds of some members of the football-going public is still a long way off – indeed is receding into the distance. And as with other forms of hooliganism, there is a tendency for football to throw up its hands and proclaim its powerlessness. What can it do if society's yobs use football as as the focal point for their grievances?

Brendon Batson, one of the game's first prominent black players, now the assistant chief executive of the Professional Footballers' Association, believes racism is getting worse after a period in which it seemed to have been beaten. Football has been shaken by an account of a visit to a match at Millwall two weeks ago that has appeared on the internet and in the press. But the experiences recounted – of vicious racial abuse directed at the black players of the away team, Manchester City – will shock only those not in the habit of attending matches.

Racism still runs deep in otherwise cosmopolitan Leeds. While the city does not have the same level of racial tension of neighbouring Bradford, it has had its own troubles, with minor rioting in the Harehills area in the summer. Leeds United had tried to combat racial prejudice, and has thrown its weight behind the "Kick Racism out of Football" campaign. The day Jonathan Woodgate and Lee Bowyer were arrested for the attack on Sarfraz Najeib several Elland Road players were in the local paper endorsing the team's support for the movement.

Peter Ridsdale, the Leeds chairman, has gone on record declaring that there is no hint of racism within Elland Road. Yet, despite fielding black players such as team captain Rio Ferdinand, and stamping out racist chants from the terraces, a sizeable minority of the almost exclusively white fan base hold strong racist views.

After the attack was first reported, there was a perverse pride among some die-hard Leeds thugs – that the heroes they idolised may well have kicked a "Paki" to within inches of death. It gave them the chance to dream that players may harbour the same bigotry as themselves. Calls to radio stations, newspapers and unofficial Leeds United internet chatlines came from apologists for the attack. It was laughed off by some as another drunken laddish brawl, and of little consequence because the victim was "just an Asian".

Jingoism reached a pitch in Leeds last year after the stabbing to death in Istanbul of two Leeds fans during the team's Uefa Cup match against Galatasaray. Turkish kebab shops pulled their shutters down in Leeds fearful of revenge attacks – some of which became reality. It was an uncomfortable time to be seen as foreign and police were out in force for the return leg at Elland Road two weeks later. Bars and pubs were forced to shut early and several Indian takeaway and kebab shops had windows put through.

Only last week Leeds United new boy Robbie Fowler was arrested for alleged criminal damage after a pub crawl around the city. Dressed, as all his team mates were in military uniforms with war painted faces, Fowler and a friend from Liverpool were bundled into a taxi driven by an Asian driver. Minutes into the journey the taxi driver refused to take them further and he was abused and called bin Laden by Robbie's friend. Any notion that racism no longer lurks among some supporters at Elland Road can only be described as a pretence.

On the streets of Leeds yesterday people were speaking of little else but the verdicts on Woodgate and Bowyer. Maureen Stephens, 54, has two sons who are avid fans. "I think all the fans are delighted this is over and the two lads are eligible to play for Leeds," she said. "I would not like to think of any son of mine behaving like such a yob." Geoffrey Crooke, 70, has supported Leeds since his teens. "Today's footballers have too much time and money on their hands," he said. "No wonder they end up in trouble. They are in a privileged position and should act accordingly." Taxi driver Mohammed Ashad, 30, was pleased that the trial was over. "After the attack there has been some bad feeling towards Asians. I think they thought it was just some young Asian lad looking to make trouble by blaming the players. Now there has been a guilty verdict against Woodgate supporters may realise the accusations were right. Now the whole city can put all this behind it." Shabir Khan, a 19-year-old student, was less conciliatory. "As far as I'm concerned, the attack was racist."