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Kick it out

09/28/2014

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“Shoot that nigger” was the chant directed at the opposition’s right back during a break in play as the home team’s injured captain received treatment in the penalty area. This was Old Trafford in January 1989, in the dying moments of an insipid, goalless FA Cup tie between United and Queen’s Park Rangers and the player on the receiving end of the racist abuse from a section of the Stretford End was Paul Parker.

Anyone who was a regular on the terraces in the eighties will be familiar with one of the vilest racist ditties around at the time. And there was a large enough group of people singing it to attract the attention of Parker. Heaven knows what he was thinking but after a pause he smiled reluctantly and mimicked firing a gun towards the Stretford End. It wasn’t the first time I’d heard the song at Old Trafford but it was the first occasion I’d seen it get a reaction on the pitch.

Sadly this was far from an isolated incident at the time. In his autobiography Black and Blue Paul Canoville recounted vividly how he was racially abused by his own “supporters” as he made his Chelsea debut in 1982, the home fans bellowing “sit down you nigger” as he warmed up on the touchline. Later some Chelsea fans refused to recognise any goals that he scored declaring that “goals by black players don’t count”. Monkey noises, banana skins and racist abuse were part and parcel of the game in the eighties and black players were urged by their managers and team mates to simply ignore it and get on with the game.

I liked to think, naively, that United fans were above this sort of thing; the heirs of the nineteenth century Mancunian cotton workers who bravely supported the anti-slavery campaign of president Abraham Lincoln by boycotting cotton from the southern states of America in protest at their use of slave labour. Many of those workers lost their jobs and their families suffered terrible hardship as a result of their principled stance. But fast forward more than a century and a small minority of bigots from the same city were busy hurling abuse at a fellow human being because of the colour of his skin.

Ironically, of course, a couple of seasons later Parker moved to United and became a key member of that peerless, take-no-prisoners 1993-94 team….Schmeichel, Parker, Irwin, Bruce, Pallister etc. After his impressive displays for England in the 1990 World Cup Parker had a choice of joining United or Everton. He turned down the Toffees after receiving letters of abuse from their fans. Some choice eh?

This year marked the twentieth anniversary of the Kick It Out campaign to rid football of racism. Its chairman Herman Ouseley reflected that “we are in a better place now, but there is still work to be done”. The reality is that although incidents of racism are now rare in football grounds, casual prejudice often dressed up as “banter” is still all too common, the views often held by people in positions of power and condoned by the football authorities. The revelation of racist, sexist and homophobic text messages sent and received by the former Cardiff City manager Malky Mackay was merely the latest example with the League Managers’ Association laughably referring to texts that included references to “fkn chinkys” and a “gay snake” as “friendly text message banter”.

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The Mackay case demonstrates that it’s up to us as football supporters to set an example when it comes to ridding the game of racism, sexism and homophobia. But we’ve still got our work cut out. Brighton & Hove Albion Supporters’ Club, for instance, have been trying for over fifteen years to get the football authorities to take homophobic abuse at their matches seriously. Last year a study reckoned that around three quarters of Brighton matches are marked by homophobic abuse directed at the city’s large gay population from opposition fans. Stuff like “town full of faggots” and “does your boyfriend know you’re here?” casually spewed out as if it is mere “banter”. Some of the abuse was loud enough for the local radio station to adjust the volume during their coverage of matches. But there is a fightback led by the grassroots international Football Versus Homophobia campaign and the Gay Football Supporters’ Network.

It’s clear that we can’t rely on the so-called role models who play, manage, administer and commentate on our national game to set an example when it comes to fighting discrimination in all its forms. Malky Mackay and the League Managers’ Association are the latest in a long line of those whose bigoted views have disgraced the game including the likes of John Terry, Richard Scudamore, Ron Atkinson and Alan Green. And typically the BBC were only too happy to include the fascist Paolo di Canio as a talking head in its recent smugfest celebrating fifty years of Match of the Day. “Haha, look at the daft fascist pushing the referee over…”

Probably no set of fans in English football flies the anti-discrimination flag better than FC United of Manchester. We’re not perfect but I’m proud that Chris Basiurski, the chair of the Gay Football Supporters’ Network chose to have his stag do at a FC United home match. Proud that events like A Woman’s Place Is At a The Match provide such an inspiring and cliche-free view of the role of women in football. And proud that a group of refugee footballers from Glasgow feel comfortable enjoying a pre-match drink and a laugh in Course You Can Malcolm. We must be doing something right. A combination of words and actions creating an atmosphere that is warm, welcoming and inclusive. Racism, sexism and homophobia don’t stand a chance with us lot around.

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