Mark McCammon has had his share of ups and downs with managers but there was a time when his place among the footnotes of British football history seemed more encouraging than the one he now occupies – as the first footballer to have been found by an employment tribunal to have been unfairly dismissed because of his race. He was the 75th-minute substitute for Millwall against Manchester United in the 2004 FA Cup final who nicked the ball from Roy Keane as United cruised to their 3-0 victory. He still has Cristiano Ronaldo's shirt from that day.
Football can be a difficult place, however, for those outside the gilded cage and it was not straightforward for McCammon, who drifted through four clubs in as many years when he arrived at Gillingham on £2,500 a week in June 2008 – very big money for a player who chairman Paul Scally believed would get them out of League Two for good and for whom it never worked out.
It was after the club had won promotion and come straight back down in 2010 that the breakdown in relations started, with Scally telling him that a salary reduction of 15 per cent in the lower league was written into his contract and McCammon challenging that. The industrial tribunal panel this summer, before which he was so determined to challenge his dismissal, was not convinced by photocopies of Scally's handwritten notes, taken at the meeting when he first agreed to sign the striker. "The part of the notes which refers to the 15 per cent reduction appears to have been added later because it is alongside the main body of text," the tribunal found. There was nothing written about the pay cut in the player's contract.
Gillingham wanted him out for old-fashioned football reasons. As one of their highest-earning players, he had not proved a good signing but no matter how they tried, they couldn't move him on. The general strategy at clubs across the land is to make life so difficult for a player that he will go of his own volition. Even a £35,000 offer to buy out McCammon's contract didn't work.
Against this background, Scally was less than impressed when he called the club from his Dubai base on 30 November last year, to find that McCammon and his two housemates and team-mates Josh Gowling and Curtis Weston – both also black – had not arrived at training from their home two miles away from the Priestfield Stadium because there was snow on the ground.
The chairman ordered that photographs be taken of the snow in and around the players' cars and home, and made it known to the injured trio that they would be docked two weeks' wages if they did not turn up by 1pm. When they showed, there was a major row between McCammon and manager Andy Hessenthaler in the manager's office, at which the striker alleged racial discrimination, on account of it being three black players who had been ordered in.
The tribunal panel was not impressed with McCammon's account of this dispute. They found that he exaggerated it by suggesting he was calm and that the manager had picked up and threw a desk at him. But they did feel that an individual making claims of discrimination provided a reason for a club to investigate.
Scally did not. "I considered it to be a malicious, vindictive, wild and aggressive comment, not worthy of consideration as racism," he said in evidence to the tribunal. And instead, the club concerned themselves with getting detailed accounts of the manager's office fracas. The accounts were uncannily similar: something the tribunal panel found deeply unimpressive. The witness statements relating to events in the manager's office were "nearly identical" with "an inept attempt to vary the wording which failed to disguise that they had been copied one from another," the tribunal found.
The tribunal took an equally dim view of other aspects of Gillingham's handling of the internal disciplinary hearing, which concluded with the player's dismissal. Disclosure of Gillingham's evidence was requested by McCammon's Professional Footballers' Association representative, Nick Cusack, three weeks beforehand. He received it the day before the hearing. "That was unfair," said the tribunal, which was unhappy that Scally chaired the hearing when his attempts to remove the player caused "obvious conflicts of interest and apparent bias".
As it turned out, the case did not investigate or hinge on examples of alleged racial discrimination because none were made within the statutory three months. In legal parlance, they were "out of time." But the evidence on which tribunal found that he was subjected to racial victimisation in the manner of his dismissal was very straightforward. Gillingham had stated so themselves, when writing to the player to say that one of their two grounds for dismissal was "very serious accusations of racism" made against Hessenthaler and his assistant Nicky Southall. "The letter of dismissal clearly stated that a principal reason for [McCammon's] dismissal was [that] he had made accusations of racism," the tribunal found.
The handling of the case does ask questions about how seriously clubs take such allegations. However indignant a club might feel, can they actually profess to know, from their daily interactions with him, what evidence a player might have, without a full investigation? The case reveals precisely what those, like Reading's Jason Roberts, are talking about when they plead for more resources for anti-racism work and demand an end to complacency, in a hugely multi-cultural profession. Gillingham are unable to discuss this, having successfully petitioned for an appeal in which they are likely to focus McCammon's state of mind when he made that allegation.
McCammon, who is now pursuing university studies in Staffordshire after new starts at Braintree Town and Lincoln City came to nothing, has taken a heavy financial hit by not accepting the pay-off. But he feels compensated. "Everyone thinks that because we've moved on from the 1980s that there is no discrimination any more," he said. "If this demonstrates otherwise, then that is compensation."
PFA proposes 'cultural lessons' for new arrivals
Players and managers coming to England from overseas will have "cultural lessons" to make them aware of rules on discrimination under proposals to tackle racism.
The move is part of a response by football's authorities to the Government's call for tougher action to tackle discrimination.
Gordon Taylor, the Professional Footballers' Association chief executive, said the proposals involve all players and managers having lessons on cultural awareness, including those newly arrived from abroad.
It follows two high-profile incidents of racist abuse last season. Luis Suarez was banned for eight matches for racially abusing Patrice Evra. The Liverpool striker admitted using the term "negrito" but claimed it was acceptable in his native Uruguay. Chelsea's John Terry was banned for four matches for racially abusing Queen's Park Rangers defender Anton Ferdinand.
Taylor said: "Up until now we have had cultural awareness courses for our apprentices and the plan now is to extend these to senior players and coaches, including those coming from overseas. We want to make sure there is no misunderstanding with regards to the rules on discrimination."
Taylor said the PFA are also in favour of contracts for players and managers having clauses warning that discriminatory behaviour was considered "serious gross misconduct".