Graham Kelly: Tributes to Atkinson insult pioneer's memory

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The Independent Football

Shed no tears for Ron Atkinson's demised champagne lifestyle. Judging by the number of apologists who rushed to peddle the cliché "he does not have a racist bone in his body", it will soon be resurrected.

We should be grateful to Atkinson, who had form from a previous World Cup. He has provided a timely reminder that, for all the Football Association's glossy reports showing black kids with happy faces, at its core the English game remains irredeemably marred by the cancer of racial prejudice and ignorance. The ruling council is still predominantly white, middle class and male, the multi-million pound football industry run by whites for whites, where few blacks can obtain jobs as managers or coaches.

Clive Tyldesley, Atkinson's ITV colleague on the gantry in Monaco last week, wrote a paean to him in The Daily Telegraph and only came within touching distance of the offence his mate had caused in the last two lines.

Leaving aside the swearword, which apparently is indispensable to any true football man, why did not Tyldesley challenge Atkinson about his use of the N-word, which so offends The Daily Telegraph that they have to use asterisks? Does the truth lie in the fact that these pundits are the very gods of the media, never to be gainsaid?

Long ago I became accustomed to the rule of pundits' infallibility insofar as it applied to the laws of the game. Match commentators will nervously utter banalities when their "expert" co-commentator reveals a level of knowledge akin to that of a three-year-old during a rant about a referee.

Pundits' ignorance on such matters as the rules is customarily fêted and, in the case of Atkinson, ignorance has certainly proved to be far from blissful. It is difficult to think of a more offensive insult in its totality. Reading it, I thought of the second black professional player, Walter Tull, who rode roughshod over the eligibility rules of the day to become the first black officer in the British Army before being killed in action towards the end of the First World War.

Tull's football career was hampered by racial ignorance and bigotry, for the midfielder was starring with Tottenham Hotspur in 1909 when he was so hurt by the abuse he received in a match at Bristol City that his career stalled, before he was taken by the legendary Herbert Chapman to Northampton Town in 1911.

Tull's story is told in "From Claret to Khaki" by Rod Wickens, and Stuart Butler of the Stroud Football Poets and can sum up his life much more eloquently than me:

"It was a typically dark remembrance day,

When I biked out to Lydiate Millicent,

Through Wiltshire lanes and sodden yellow leaves;

I went to see Mr Arthur Tull, a relative of my mum's,

Who had a family tree going back, he reckoned,

To the 18th century seed drill Tull, good old Jethro.

We didn't discuss the fact that 4% of white Britons

May well have black slave ancestry,

Nor did the TV show any West Indian or Asian old soldiers

Marching beneath the umbrellas, laying any wreaths,

And when we talked football and the good old days,

We didn't mention Walter Tull, Tottenham inside left

Until he was traumatised by Bristol City bigots,

Back in those imperial golden days before the Great War,

Walter, the London grandson of a slave,

Transferred to Northampton Town,

Then courted by Grimsby and Glasgow Rangers,

Until he joined the 1st Football Battalion,

The Middlesex Regiment,

Fighting on the Somme and maybe meeting my footballing granddad,

Becoming a sergeant, and then 2nd lieutenant Tull,

The second ever black professional footballer,

And the 1st ever black officer in the British Army.

2nd Lieutenant Walter Tull,

Once a printer, grandson of a slave, orphaned son of a joiner,

KIA 25th March 1918, aged 29,

Eulogised by his Commanding Officer,

'The battalion and company have lost a faithful officer

and personally, I have lost a friend.'

And so popular with his men,

That they repeatedly tried to get him back,

As he lay dead in No Mans' Land,

He must have had the common touch, Walter,

Even though he was an uncommon man.

But I didn't discuss any of this with Arthur,

How could I? I hadn't heard of Walter 20 odd years ago -

But next season, when Swindon play at Northampton,

I'll visit his Garden of Remembrance,

And I'll take a poppy from me and one from Arthur,

And one from my dad and my granddad

And one from my brother-in-law,

And his dad from Bristol City,

So the future can reclaim the past

And so the past can redefine the future,

A future of comradeship way beyond the confine of colour."

'From Claret to Khaki' by Rod Wickens (Woodford Books, £7.99)

www.footballpoets.org

grahamkelly@btinternet.com

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