Stan Hey: Can a Seventies footballer help today's youth?

Crooks cites his strict upbringing for keeping him on the straight and narrow
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When you hear that Garth Crooks has launched a stinging attack on the "gangsta culture" that is supposedly subverting the lives of so many black British teenagers, certain thoughts crowd the mind. The first is the notion that these remarks should perhaps be attributed to Garth Brooks, the white American Country and Western singer. When you confirm that no misprint has occurred, you then move on to think that Garth must have been standing in for the former Minister for Dissin' Modern Culture, Kim Howells, whose idea of a nice weekend does not include a Tracey Emin exhibition nor a Ja Rule gig.

When you hear that Garth Crooks has launched a stinging attack on the "gangsta culture" that is supposedly subverting the lives of so many black British teenagers, certain thoughts crowd the mind. The first is the notion that these remarks should perhaps be attributed to Garth Brooks, the white American Country and Western singer. When you confirm that no misprint has occurred, you then move on to think that Garth must have been standing in for the former Minister for Dissin' Modern Culture, Kim Howells, whose idea of a nice weekend does not include a Tracey Emin exhibition nor a Ja Rule gig.

But no, it was Garth Crooks himself, speaking to delegates at the third London Schools and The Black Child conference, which is concerned about the educational underperformance of black pupils. Garth's view, apparently, is that the violence in many rap lyrics and accompanying videos and films is leading black teenagers away from education and shepherding them towards the gang and gun culture of the streets. Crooks dramatically dubbed gangsta culture a "deadly virus".

This is serious stuff. Certainly much more serious than the usual criticisms that the ex-Tottenham forward Crooks has to make about England's left-side midfield problem or Sven Goran Eriksson's tactics, in his role as a BBC football analyst. And some of you may be thinking, "Why did the conference organisers get him? He should have been at a match on Saturday."

Well, it may seem that the Rolodex of the Great and the Good looked a bit thin when it came to finding prominent speakers on contemporary urban black culture, but Garth Crooks' journey from Stoke to stardom qualifies him for this debate, even if you think that grinding poverty, poor housing, drugs and racism are more potent horsemen in the black apocalypse than aggressive lyrics and hoodie jackets.

Crooks cited his strict upbringing by his parents in Stoke for keeping him on the straight and narrow back in the late 1960s and early 70s, before he became a junior player at Stoke City, who was soon brought south to join Tottenham Hotspur. Black culture back then, it would seem, was more benign. There was a bit of home-grown Brummie reggae in the charts, and a bit of home-grown in the back garden for the real rude-boys.

The black comedian and ex-footballer Charlie Williams was telling jolly jokes on television, and when Ron "I'm Not a Racist" Atkinson gathered the black footballers Cyrille Regis, Laurie Cunningham and Brendan Batson at West Brom he cheerfully christened them "The Three Degrees" after the black American female singing group.

How we smiled, reassured at the genteel progress of the second generation of immigrant families who had been recruited to assist our post-war health and transport services, mostly in menial positions. But as Crooks, and others of the first modern wave of black British footballers found out, attempts to assert themselves in white culture were not always welcomed.

The "Banana Boat" song that had accompanied West Ham's Bermudan forward Clyde Best around football grounds in the late 1960s had now been replaced by monkey noises and the throwing of bananas at black players. Crooks endured his share of the abuse, long before racism was recognised as an issue in football. He fought back by scoring goals for Spurs, endearing himself to their fans, and by putting himself up in front of the cameras to say "I'm here and I'm staying" to the boo-boys.

His elevation from the Professional Footballers' Association representative at Spurs to chairman of the organisation gave him a much higher media profile, and he was soon taken up by the BBC and other broadcasters, not to mention broadsheet newspapers, interested in the views of an articulate advocate of black progress.

Crooks has become somewhat celebrated for his orotund questions in post-match interviews with managers, in the style of :"Napoleon said that an army marches on its stomach; so, Arsène Wenger, how hungry are Arsenal still?" And the arrival of his columns at one newspaper was the cue for a swift dispersal of willing sub-editors. But to be fair, as the managers say, Garth's fellow traveller into the world of sport, media and politics, Sir Trevor Brooking, rarely pronounces the "g" at the end of present participles, somewhat ironic given his surname.

Away from the world of Eats, Shoots & Leaves, however, it is Crooks' presence in public life, rather than his grammar, that matters. He's on the board of the Institute for Sickle Cell Anaemia Relief and sits on the Independent Football Commission, and has an unfashionably unreturned Order of the British Empire for his public services.

Yes, you might consider a 46-year-old ex-footballer moving in quango and charity circles not the best-qualified person to talk to dispossessed black teenagers about how wrong-headed their modern culture is. You might want to bracket Crooks with Loyd Grossman improving hospital food or Lord Birt's mystic "blue-sky thinking" as celebrity solutions to serious social concerns. But then ask yourself, how many role-models are there to speak up about the dozens of young black teenagers shot dead on the streets of London, Bristol and Manchester?

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