Football: Barnes shifts racism focus into boardroom

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The Independent Online
It is 20 years since John Barnes brilliantly fought racism in English football when it wasn't the spasmodic work of the odd moron but a sickening, game-by-game problem for even the most gifted of non-white players. Today he has a curt message for the Football Association.

As it scrambles to include black stars in a revamped DVD featuring England's 20 best players over the last 40 years, Barnes says: "Please don't include me in this DVD. I would be insulted. It would be patronising and ridiculous and meaningless. There are some real issues out there in football and this just isn't one of them."

Barnes sliced through the controversy at the weekend when he declared that it was "political correctness gone mad". It was a surge of straight talking that in the soft-edged double-speak of football was riveting, even breathtaking.

Yesterday, as he pushed his new baby through the city centre streets of Liverpool, where he once broke down the belief that there was no place for black players at Anfield, he widened his point. "I just can't believe how much has been made of this DVD nonsense - and the anti-racism campaign in which players like Thierry Henry and Rio Ferdinand have got so involved. All I can say to them is, `Lads, that battle as it affects players at every level of our game was won a long time ago. Why don't you take on issues that really need to be addressed?'"

A good starting point, he suggests, might be the imbalance between the ever-growing population of black players and, when they retire, their virtual non-existence in the managers' offices of English football.

"If there is any prejudice in the game, it might be here," Barnes says, "but of course if it exists it is a subtle one and cannot be sorted out by steering committees set up by the FA or by the players' union. There would have to be a change of heart in the only place that really matters, the boardroom."

What kind of change? Well just about precisely that which now sees Rio Ferdinand and Sol Campbell at the heart of England's defence and Patrick Vieira as the midfield heartbeat of the reigning champions. In Barnes' day there were specific roles for even the strongest and most talented of black players. Fine, for them to buzz around on the wings, using their "natural skill", but no, you couldn't have them in goal or central defence or shaping a team as playmaker. No, you needed intelligence and "bottle" for that kind of role.

It was the same on the American gridiron. Sure, black athletes could play on the line or speedily crunch their way through life as safeties or cornerbacks, they could be running backs or wide receivers for thrilling pace and adroitness; their "rhythm" if you like. But you couldn't have a black guy playing quarterback. Why? Because the quarterback called all the shots; he was the boss.

If Barnes feels an old indignation when he thinks of such things, he suppresses it with easy control. He is also quick to point out that he doesn't attribute his swift demise as Celtic team manager to the forces of racial prejudice. "On that score, my only problem was my `Englishness', not the colour of my skin. No, I was young, inexperienced and I had a few unlucky breaks... A key player broke his leg. We got a couple of bad results. I feel I was a victim of circumstances not prejudice."

He is quick to say that any campaign for black managers, however it might benefit him personally, would not receive his approval if it was based on the American pattern of percentages and affirmative action. "No, I could never go along with that. To me it is reverse racism. All I would say to today's players like Thierry and Rio is that in 10 years' time they might want to carry on in the game as coaches and managers, and that this is an issue which maybe they should be thinking about.

"That would make some kind of sense, but as far as I'm concerned I'm not complaining. Currently I'm working with Channel Five and I'm enjoying that. Maybe some time I might be interested in returning to the game, but for that opportunity to come along perhaps the climate would have to change."

He has reason to believe it will in the natural course of life. When he was playing there were, after all, massive battles to win. When he moved from Watford to Merseyside, both Liverpool and Everton were notorious for their reluctance to embrace black players. Newcastle United was another point of resistance. When Graeme Souness, as Rangers manager, broke both the colour and the religious lines by signing Mark Walters and Mo Johnston, he was hailed for doing the unthinkable. For his part, Walters heard the monkey chants and saw the bananas flying on the pitch.

Veteran Leeds United players tell you how it was for Albert Johanneson, the rocket-heeled refugee from South African apartheid who used to die emotionally, and was quite often physically sick, when he ran out to face the taunts and the jeers of an English football crowd. Johanneson died, alone and destitute, in a Leeds tower block.

Barnes, after scoring a brilliant goal for England against Brazil at the Maracana, was abused by National Front bully-boys posing as England fans. But as he pushed his baby's pram yesterday through the shopping arcades of the city he conquered two decades ago - and made it a better place to be - he did not lack for friendly greetings. Each one meant a thousand times more than a DVD which would so grotesquely devalue the meaning of his career and his life.