There was some progress in the battle against racism in the 1990s, but no one wanted to speak out

Black players were astonished at their treatment but afraid of the consequences of complaining

Ian Herbert
Friday 08 May 2015 07:01 BST
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Liverpool’s John Barnes kicks a banana thrown at him from the crowd at Goodison Park in 1988
Liverpool’s John Barnes kicks a banana thrown at him from the crowd at Goodison Park in 1988

The abuse that marked the occasion of Cyrille Regis’s England Under-21 debut was so extraordinary that you wonder how, even in the unreconstructed times, we had not begun to see the results of a determination that it could be tolerated no longer.

It was 19 September 1978, Garth Crooks scored a hat-trick and was subsequently subjected to racist abuse from England’s own fans. Regis was so resigned to all of this that the tone with which he addressed it in his autobiography barely stretches to the realms of anger. “It amazed us,” Regis writes. “Why boo your own players?”

It was 15 years later that the Kick it Out organisation began its work, because the stories kept coming. John Fashanu, one of the few players whose indignation led him to step up above the silent struggle and demand change, tells of Wimbledon’s league match at Goodison Park around the time of Graham Taylor’s tenure as England manager. A child hurled racist abuse at him as he went to take the ball for a throw-in. The boy’s father and someone who appeared to be an uncle laughed. “They were grooming a new generation,” says Lord Ouseley, whose decision to establish the Kick it Out organisation around that time was born of a need to create a different environment.

It was not a sport entirely devoid of progressivism in the 1990s. Ouseley talks of the way that David Dein, the Arsenal vice-chairman, provided access for him to the top table of a sport so insular that his own chairmanship of the Commission for Racial Equality had counted for nothing.

The Professional Footballers’ Association chairman, Gordon Taylor, who does not always command a dazzling press, was certainly another who proved a force for change. “The starting point for us in football was to make it more comfortable for players themselves,” Ouseley says. “We told Taylor: ‘A third of your members are suffering this.’ He saw and accepted that.”

The Football Association was, by Ouseley’s testimony, then a most desperate place, with only David Davies – hired from the BBC as communications director in 1994 – displaying a sense of enlightenment. “He was the one who enabled us to relate to the FA,” Ouseley says. Davies told The Independent that he had never heard the accusation Taylor is said to have made about his Lancaster Gate superiors collaring the England manager. “Anyone who suggested [a quota of black players] would have got short shrift,” he insisted. But his own memoir reveals precisely what a dismal organisation he walked into. “It was like stepping back into 1894,” he wrote. “As I walked into FA reception… I felt I’d been in more modern museums.”

The issue of racial sentiments do not crop up in Davies’s book but this was the same place that Ouseley found impervious to his own pleas for help to deal with the racism. “Black players were telling me they were not taking their families and friends to matches because they could not put up with what was being directed at them on the pitch,” he says. “But the higher echelons were not interested.”

There is a substantial difference between denying discrimination and contributing to it, though those who campaigned for diversity and equality back then insist the prejudice was so embedded, in a game run by old men, that such conscious interventions did exist. And few dared challenge them. Taylor, at Watford before England, and David Pleat, at Luton Town, were enlightened insofar as they gave black players opportunities but it would be an exaggeration to describe Taylor as a “trailblazer” for equal rights.

“People like him were doing what they could and bringing through the talent but they were not doing more; standing up and saying the negativity [and discrimination] was wrong,” Ouseley said. “Everyone knew what was going on but people felt there was a limit to what they could do.”

The recipients of the prejudice felt the same disinclination to fight, for fear of the impact on their careers. “They were telling me, ‘We want to play. What will the consequences be if I speak up? I say nothing. I’m telling you this happened but I’ve not told you this’,” Ouseley says. “Deep down in your heart you knew these guys were playing for England and their selection had not been overlooked but they had to carry those extra burdens with them.”

Though Taylor has denied suggesting two FA officials encouraged him to rein in the number of black players he was selecting, Ouseley sees it as part of a pattern from those who dared not be as public as they wished. “When they let their hair down, they told stories that made you angry,” he says. “But going public was unthinkable. That was not possible for those who wanted to stay in football.”

The climate has changed, of course, though “not yet altogether extinct”, as Ouseley puts it. Discrimination – intentional or otherwise – is thinking that a black administrator is less able than a white one. (Just 3 per cent of the people serving on the boards of British sporting bodies are from black and minority ethnic communities and 30 sports have no senior BME representation at any level.) It is Gillingham FC thinking it acceptable to sack a black player, Mark McCammon, for having the temerity to make a complaint about discrimination, in a case featured on these pages a year back.

Ouseley talks of dealing with discrimination quietly; offering no material resistance when told by Chelsea that security guards were ready to escort him from their premises. In a sense, that’s how Regis played it too. “Thank God we knew who we were,” he wrote in his book. “What if we had reacted different? Just imagine if players like me, Laurie [Cunningham], Brendon [Batson], Garth Crooks, Viv Anderson, Bob Hazell, George Berry and Luther Blissett had reacted by fighting with the crowd. The same people would have said: ‘Look at them – they can’t handle it. They’ve got a chip on their shoulders.”

Black players and coaches' views on racism

Chris Powell (February 2012)

“The mistake is that we thought we’d finished with it. You can’t ever think that. It’s not just football’s problem. We know it was part of football in the bad old days but it’s a problem that emanates from society.”

David James (October 2012)

“I struggle with the racist issue in football because I don’t see it, and that’s not because I’ve got my head in the sand. In the earlier days, yes, but the game’s changed.”

Sol Campbell (March 2014)

“I believe if I was white, I would have been England captain for more than 10 years. I think the FA wished I was white. I don’t think it will change because they don’t want it to. There is a ceiling and I believe it’s made of glass.”

Paul Ince (March 2014)

“There was never any issue over my skin colour with my team-mates or people I came across within the organisation. I have no reason to believe they are racist. I loved people like David Davies and I just never encountered it. It was the pinnacle of my career when Graham Taylor made me captain. I didn’t want to be remembered as the first black England captain because I didn’t look at it in that way.”

Les Ferdinand (March 2015)

“When you look at the game and the disproportion of black coaches, maybe they’re not actually saying what [John] Terry said [in the Anton Ferdinand case], but are they thinking it? Because I have to believe that.”

John Barnes (March 2015)

“A white manager loses his job and gets another. Very few black managers can lose their job and get another job. How many black people are there in the higher echelons of any industry?”

Chris Ramsey (April 2015)

“[Getting another Premier League job] as a black man, it’s always going to be difficult. The problems I’ve had are still going to be there. The fact that we’re still highlighting that I’m the only black Premier League manager shows that it’s not the norm to have people from ethnic minorities in this position.”

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