The fight from within: Lord Ouseley on purging football of its racism

Interview: Only when football is your love can you tackle football's hate. That's what Lord Ouseley has been doing with Kick It Out over the past 25 years

Jonathan Liew
Chief Sports Writer
Tuesday 14 August 2018 17:38
'The problem we’ve been seeing for the last three or four years is a creeping back of extreme views in society'
'The problem we’ve been seeing for the last three or four years is a creeping back of extreme views in society'

“I think Mourinho should have been sacked last season,” Herman Ouseley says in a conspiratorially low voice. “He just can’t compete with people like Pep. They inspire people to be happy. I look at Mourinho walking out at Old Trafford, and he’s got a face of misery. It shouldn’t be like that.”

Ouseley is a Manchester United fan, and this little chat comes at the end of a wide-ranging interview in which we discuss his immigrant upbringing, the vicious racism he has faced since childhood, his rise from a poor background in south London to the corridors of power, and of course Kick It Out, the organisation which he started out of a small office 25 years ago, and which has done more than any other to fight the scourge of discrimination in football. And the reason for including this little vignette at the start is to demonstrate that for all his grave and weighty achievements, at heart he’s just a fan of the game like the rest of us. Only when football is your love can you tackle football's hate.

He goes by many names these days: Baron Ouseley, Lord Ouseley, the Lord Ouseley of Peckham Rye. But back then he was plain Herman: more than six decades ago, when he arrived by boat from Guyana to join his mother, an NHS nurse, in a country that didn’t want him here. “My first experience was racial abuse,” he said. “Kids calling you ‘wog’, ‘sambo’, ‘nig-nog’, and all these things. As a kid, it didn’t affect me. It didn’t become an issue until I started to play competitive football.”

He was a decent player in his day, good enough to be on the books at Wimbledon and Dulwich Hamlet. But it was the terraces that ended up being his defining experience of football, back in the terrifying Wild West of the 1970s and 1980s, when hooliganism held sway, the far-right would congregate and black players were hooted and screeched with the sort of rage that defines the truly inadequate.

“The abuse was pretty awful,” he remembers. “By the late 1980s, I’d stopped going to football. The violence, coupled with the racial abuse… you just couldn’t take any more of seeing black players being abused, being booed. And you’re cowering, in effect.”

By this point, though, he was in a position to do something about it. When he was appointed by John Major’s government as chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality in 1993, he finally had the clout to make football clubs get their house in order. “They really didn’t want to know,” he said of his early attempts to get clubs on board. “They said there isn’t a problem.”

So in his new position, he established what would later become Kick It Out: an organisation called Let’s Kick Racism Out Of Football, and with the help of the Professional Footballers’ Association and the newly-formed Premier League, he set about banging some heads together. “We had to try a whole variety of trickery to get people to come in,” he remembers. “For instance, you’d get Manchester United to join because you told them Manchester City were doing it.”

Kick It Out's presence has grown and grown over the past 20-odd years

It was a gentle enough start: a few banners, some T-shirts, a 10-point plan of guidelines for clubs to tackle racism. Ouseley had initially envisaged his campaign being more radical, along the lines of the civil rights movement in the United States, with protests, boycotts and other direct action. Over time, however, he realised that in the entrenched and conservative world of football, nothing changes very fast at all. “I wanted to say to black players: stand up and fight,” he says. “Without you, there’s no football. But of course, nobody was going to do that, because they wanted to play football and earn money.”

And so Kick It Out, as it would become in 1997, adopted a more conciliatory, collegiate approach. Often it has been criticised for not being radical enough, but despite deriving its modest funding from the PFA, the Premier League, the FA and the EFL, it fiercely protects its independence. “We give more than we get, I believe,” he says. “My work is voluntary, and there are people here who work for very small amounts. But what they give is tremendous. You rely on the goodwill and the selflessness of people who believe in something.”

It may have taken far too long to get there, but English football is a more pleasant, tolerant place than it was 25 years ago. Stadium violence has been virtually eradicated, even if it remains worryingly persistent at grassroots level, particularly against officials. These days, it’s the racists rather than the players of colour who are the pariahs: banned, ostracised, season tickets cancelled. “The experience of watching and playing football is much better,” Ouseley says. “You don’t think a bottle’s going to land on your head any minute. In a way, that’s settled.”

All of which is enough to persuade many white football fans that the fight against racism has been won, to the point where it is almost seen as an irrelevance, an irritation, an expression of pernickety political correctness. But in many ways, purging football of its overt racism was the easy part. It’s the small, insidious stuff that will prove much harder to shift: proper representation of ethnic minorities in the boardroom and in coaching and management positions; the language we use to describe black players; sexism and homophobia; the subtle privileging of white voices in the media. And at the same time, we’re seeing worrying signs that the progress already made may be in danger.

Liverpool’s John Barnes kicks a banana thrown at him from the crowd at Goodison Park in 1988 

“The problem we’ve been seeing for the last three or four years is a creeping back of extreme views in society,” says Ouseley. “It’s very much politicised. The rise of UKIP helped to polarise people. The issue, fundamentally, has been one about taking our country back, stopping free movement, and essentially it’s underpinned by a hatred that makes people feel a bit more confident to be abusive to minorities. With that sort of climate in wider society, inevitably some of that starts to work its way back into football. Some of the extreme organisations are trying to make a re-entry into football, and that is something we have to address.”

You can’t shout down a racist, or even reason with them very much, for if you could, they wouldn’t be racist in the first place. But you can manage and condition extreme views. You can encourage tolerance and diversity. You can educate the next generation. “That is the main counter to what’s going on,” Ouseley says. “Where young people themselves will challenge the views of their parents.”

And for those who believe football should not concern itself with what is essentially a wider societal issue, Ouseley has a counter-argument. “Football has to do that, because nobody else is doing it,” he says. “Youth services are being cut. Recreational facilities are not available freely to those who most need it. Football can play a major part in how we focus on the wider benefits of getting people to mix with each other.”

So, here’s to the next 25 years? Well, not quite. The organisation’s growth could be regarded either as a sign of progress, or one of persistent frustration. “I have no vision or desire to see the organisation keep growing,” Ouseley says. “Your success means your demise. Why would we need Kick It Out if there was no racism, discrimination, exclusion?”

He’s 73 years old now. At some point, it will be time to pass on the torch. After a lifetime of putting himself at the forefront of society’s struggle against intolerance, the old war wounds never quite heal. “Yes, it has been costly at times,” he says. “Myself and my family have been threatened. I’ve put up with a lot of abuse. But I always look at this way: there’s other people getting it worse than me.”

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