George Parris: Dani Alves wasn't the first one to eat a banana thrown from the crowd. I was...
The former full-back tells Sam Wallace how at West Ham in the 1980s he came up with the idea of making fun of racist gesture
When Dani Alves stopped to pick up a banana thrown at him by a Villarreal fan on Sunday – and subsequently take a bite out of it – he triggered a wave of feeling against the racist elements in that crowd which ran right through football. But he was not the first to do so; it was a response to racial abuse that was adopted almost 30 years ago by George Parris, then a West Ham full-back.
Unlike, Alves, whose response has gripped football's imagination this week, back in the 1980s, Parris, now 49, did not have the benefit of famous footballers taking pictures of themselves eating bananas in solidarity. As a young West Ham player in the club's strong side of the era he was subject to racial abuse mainly on away trips, although this incident took place in front of the away fans at a game at Upton Park.
Parris was the only black player in the side that finished third in 1985-86, although Bobby Barnes was a member of the squad, and growing up in Barking had not been exposed to the racism that others experienced. "All supporters then tried to put players off by picking on them," he said, "and in my case it was because I was black.
"It wasn't that common a thing, more when we went on the road to northern clubs. Fans of the other side would try to put you off and on this occasion they threw a banana on the pitch. Sometimes I would take what fans were trying to do to me and turn it around. I would pretend to eat a banana. This time I did it.
"At other times I would pick up the coins that away supporters threw at me and go through them in the palm of my hand in front of the away end. If there was some value in there I'd pretend to put them in my shorts, if not I'd shout that they were 'cheapskates' or words to that effect! To be honest, the fans themselves would love it.
"From my point of view it was just one of those things that you do. It was a way for me to enjoy my football. That was my take on it: 'More fool him for throwing a piece of fruit on the pitch'. It is them who are paying money to watch me play football."
Now a coach, with a Uefa A licence and a Football Association-approved level-two coach educator, Parris was one of the first major generation of black footballers in the 1980s, following the likes of Cyrille Regis and Laurie Cunningham and, before them, Clyde Best at West Ham. He made his West Ham debut in May 1985 and played there for eight years. He now lives and works in Brighton, where he played for Brighton and Hove Albion towards the end of his career.
Although Parris cannot recall which set of fans threw the banana, the incident was witnessed by the former West Ham winger Matthew Rush, who was a teenager on schoolboy forms with the club and in the stadium that day. Now 42, Rush, who is of mixed race, said that the incident had a profound effect on him.
"I had been taken to the game by the scout who brought me to the club, Mickey Dove, and was sat up in the west stand. George always used to work his nuts off as a player. He wasn't particularly talented but his work-rate was phenomenal. This was a typical George performance and part way through the game there was a bit of monkey noise from the supporters.
"He never let it affect him. It went from jibes and chants to someone chucking a banana. He had made a tackle and was off the pitch when he was targeted. He put both his hands on his hips and started to breathe heavily like he was knackered. Then he picked up the banana and very casually peeled it. He ate it and made a kind of gesture like, 'Thanks! I needed that!'
"That felt like a turning point for black players at West Ham. It seemed to change the mindset of every Neanderthal in the stand. I don't recall him getting another racist chant. At that moment the whole crowd started chanting, 'There's only one George Parris'. It had been someone in the away fans who threw the banana on."
Rush was a West Ham player from 1990 to 1995 and even then recalls that racial abuse was a factor on away trips, most notably to Newcastle United, who later tried to sign him when Kevin Keegan was in charge. "Through the 1980s because there was racial tension you tended to find the black players grouped together and there was strength in numbers.
"At Upton Park I didn't get anything. The atmosphere changed after the likes of George weathered the storm and brought certain people's opinion around about what was appropriate."
After the game, Parris says that there was little focus on the banana incident by the press and it tends to be remembered more by supporters who were there that day. Since quitting football he has had treatment for a gambling addiction which, having begun in the youth-team card schools of his teenage years, he has been clear of for more than nine years. He only saw the Alves incident on television a few days later.
On the day Parris ate the banana at Upton Park there were no back-page headlines, or spontaneous worldwide response from fellow players. Racial abuse was all too common. "I saw what Alves did," Parris said. "It was exactly the same. It was just what I would have done."
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