Football: The silent revolution

Andrew Baker hears the game must keep fighting against the unacceptable
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Remember the racist football fan? With his bulging eyes, suede- short hair and mouth full of hate he was a celebrated demon of the dark days of the game, last heard of supposedly mobilising en masse to terrorise the towns hosting Euro 96 matches. The fascist hordes did not show up in England last summer, which is not to suggest that the authorities were wrong to warn of the threat. But their non-appearance then, and welcome absence since, has led to a growing belief that racism in football is a thing of the past, a problem solved. This is a dangerous view. "The volume has been turned down," Brendan Batson, the deputy chief executive of the Professional Footballers' Association, said last week. "But we would be fooling ourselves, being complacent, if we thought it had gone away."

Batson was speaking at a unique conference held at Leicester City's Filbert Street ground and hosted by the Scarman Centre for the Study of Public Order at the University of Leicester. The day of lectures, workshops and much informal networking brought together academics, community officials, campaigners and representatives of Premiership, Nationwide League and local football clubs. Sometimes they understood each other, sometimes they did not. But they always listened.

Batson was an appropriate figure to deliver the keynote speech. Long before his present high-profile appointment he gained fame as one of the very first black players to make an impact at the top of the English game, first as a teenager at Arsenal, and later at West Bromwich Albion, who under Ron Atkinson became the first top side to regularly field three black players: Batson, Cyrille Regis and the late Laurie Cunningham, dubbed by their cheerful manager - this was before political correctness had been invented - "The Three Degrees".

"At that time," Batson recalled, "there was still a deep belief that black players could not tackle, and had no discipline. But I was surprised when the level of abuse from the crowds increased. That was when they started to throw bananas on the field at us: I would pick one up and eat it, Cyrille would stick one down his shorts, and Laurie used to volley them back into the crowd."

Campaigns such as Kick Racism Out Of Football, originated by the Commission for Racial Equality and the PFA in 1993, have largely banished such blatant abuse from the top of the game, but problems still remain, principally widespread vilification of black players at lower levels of the game, and the persistent failure to attract Asian players into mainstream football. "The lack of Asians in the sport is a burning issue," Batson said, "an area of major concern. I thought we would see the emergence of Asian players many years ago."

Piara Powar of the Kick It Out campaign identified community schemes as a vital element in improving matters. "They need to be a key focus if we are to channel the participation of black people into clubs," he suggested. "Charging young players for coaching in community schemes means that you end up attracting the wrong community. One sometimes wonders," he added, "why some community schemes are so poor when the clubs they are attached to are so wealthy."

Melvin Highmore from Blackburn Rovers, a club that has in the past attracted criticism for a perceived unwillingness to recruit black players, took advanage of the question-and-answer session after Powar's presentation to explain a problem that Rovers had encountered in attempting to attract local Asian players. "Piara hasn't addressed a most fundamental issue," he said. "Parents themselves don't actively encourage youngsters to get involved. This is my perception from looking at a very, very widespread Asian community in Blackburn and the towns around."

Powar begged to differ, and Batson suggested that clubs must try harder. "There is a perception that the clubs aren't really looking in the Asian community," he said. "They should be tapping into the interest. A lot of things that were being said about black players in the Sixties are part of the mind-set regarding the Asian community now. I think the ball is at the feet of the clubs."

It was a healthy sign that clubs from all over the country sent representatives to the conference, and it was encouraging to see the interest paid by Highmore and Manchester United's representative to all the speakers, and in particular to the campaigning videos. Smaller clubs, too, were keen to express good intentions. "'Kick It Out' has helped us," said Brian Lomax, a director of Northampton Town. "But most of the work still has to come from individual clubs. We are keen to give stewards more confidence in taking action - we want to make sure that they feel supported by the crowd around them, rather than threatened."

The government's Football Task Force under David Mellor has identified racism as an area that they wish to investigate. They should pay attention to a recent report by David Lewis and David McArdle of Middlesex University, which suggests that "influential individuals" inside soccer are partly responsible for their clubs' failure to participate in the Kick It Out campaign. "The efforts of the country's top teams have been generally less than wholehearted," Lewis said. "We did not find many examples of the elite Premiership sides with highly developed community initiatives or a willingness to engage in a wholehearted support of 'Kick-It', certainly so far as the clubs outside London were concerned."

But if some of the clubs have been slow-moving, their stars have not: John Barnes and 55 other players appear in a video made by the Newcastle- based Siren Films, to be launched in the Autumn, promoting anti-racist views. "In the multicultural and multiracial society that we live in now," Barnes says, "the more tolerant we can be of each other, the further we will go towards a better society." Such sentiments will be all the more relevant when the World Cup is staged in France, home of Jean-Marie le Pen's Front Nationale, next year.