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Kick it out (again)


Piece I wrote for the latest issue of the FC United fanzine Top of the World about how the fight to kick racism out of football needs more than just social media box ticking. 

“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 a goalless FA Cup tie between United and Queens 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 the words to one of the vilest racist ditties around at the time. And there was a large enough group of supporters 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 sung at Old Trafford, but it was the first occasion I’d seen it get a reaction on the pitch.

Monkey noises, banana skins and racist songs and abuse were part and parcel of the game in the eighties, and black players were regularly urged by their managers and teammates to simply ignore it and “get on with the game”. In his autobiography Black and Blue the former Chelsea player Paul Canoville told of how he was racially abused by his own “supporters” as he made his debut at Stamford Bridge in 1982, the home fans bellowing “sit down you nigger” as he warmed up on the touchline. Later, some far-right Chelsea fans declared that “goals by black players don’t count” and refused to recognise any that Canoville scored.

I liked to think, naively, that United fans were above this — 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 less than a century-and-a-half on, a small minority of bigots from the same city were busy hurling abuse at a fellow human being simply because of the colour of his skin.

Ironically, Parker moved to United a couple of seasons later and became a key member of that peerless, take-no-prisoners 1993-94 double winning side — perhaps the finest United team I’ve ever seen. After his impressive displays for England in the 1990 World Cup, Parker had a choice of joining United or Everton, and turned down the Toffees after receiving letters of abuse from their fans. Some choice, eh?

Fast forward three decades and although incidents of racism are now rare inside football grounds, they haven’t been completely eradicated, and casual prejudice often dressed up as “banter” is still all too common. Sadly this is the case at FC United, as the club with an anti-discriminatory message embedded in its founding manifesto felt obliged to remind its supporters earlier this year.

A double-page article headed “FC United against racism” in the programme for the Stafford match in February referred to “a small number of reports of racist language being used at recent FC United matches” and warned supporters that the club has “zero tolerance of all racist and discriminatory language”, but stopped short of divulging any details regarding exactly what had prompted such a message. Strangely, this was the only mention in any of the club’s communication channels of what was plainly a serious matter. Not a peep on the website or the members’ forum or on social media, where it might have grabbed the attention of a bigger chunk of the club’s support than it did in a matchday programme which increasingly struggles for readers at the best of times, let alone on a cold Tuesday night of horizontal hail showers.

Yet there was no such reticence to address the scourge of racism in June. A few days after the brutal police killing of George Floyd on the other side of the Atlantic, the club’s Twitter account, like those of many football clubs around the world, latched onto the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag and assured us that “our manifesto pledge in 2005 is just as relevant today” — a reference to one of the club’s founding pledges to “strive to be accessible to all, discriminating against none”. A welcome show of solidarity with worldwide BLM protests that attracted dozens of likes and retweets — all good PR for the club.

Meanwhile, elsewhere on the world wide web, an FC United supporter not averse to sharing the extremist filth spewed out by the likes of Katie Hopkins and Stephen Yaxley-Lennon was getting a little hot under the collar with all this focus on black lives and felt the need to claim, caps lock ablaze, that “90 PERCENT OF ALL CRIME IN BRITAIN IS DOWN TO THE ETHNIC MINORITIES…..THIS STATEMENT IS NOT RACIST IT’S FACT!!!!”. The figures on race and crime published by the Ministry of Justice last year revealed that 19% of adults convicted of a crime in 2018 were from a BAME background. Nineteen percent? Ninety percent? It’s just numbers innit. Especially if sharing racist propaganda on the internet is your thing.

Later, he pondered why “lefty snowflake supporters want everyone to take a knee” when “that bloke killed by the copper in America was killed by his knee stopping his air”. Where do you even begin with this? Plainly the man from Melton Mowbray, who once had ambitions to be an FC United board member, is unfamiliar with the story of Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback who famously upset the “leave your politics at the turnstiles (unless it’s far-right politics)” mob back in 2016 when he began kneeling during the US national anthem in protest against racial injustice. Quite how this particular FC fan manages to reconcile such views with support for a football club that makes its anti-discriminatory stance clear in its founding manifesto is anyone’s guess. But he’s not the only one who does.

Maybe part of the problem here is that, in delicately treading the fine line between remaining true to our founding principles and maximising our revenue streams, the club simply isn’t making it clear enough these days that it won’t tolerate racism? After all, we wouldn’t want anyone flouncing off whilst whinging about “lefty snowflakes” would we? Think of the impact on our matchday income. A bit like what happened with the covering-up of the Peterloo logo last season — the club seemingly happy to commemorate a landmark event in the history of our city, but only if it doesn’t end up costing us a few bob in FA fines. Forget the racism folks, let’s all get behind Reno and the lads.

But whilst it’s true that the club has done a lot of growing up in the last few years and has, perhaps inevitably, had to dilute some of the idealism of its early days and keep one eye on its long-term financial sustainability, there is simply no room for manoeuvre when it comes to appeasing racists. As the large banner that hangs from the television gantry at Broadhurst Park proudly makes clear, in full view of virtually everyone in the ground: FC United stands against racism. There should be absolutely no room for it at this football club.

To their credit, plenty of Reds took to social media to remind this “racist scumbag” that he is not welcome at our football club. I daresay the club would prefer that our dirty linen wasn’t aired in public like this but if serious complaints, addressed through the proper channels, about incidents of racism at FC matches prompt only a stating-the-bloody-obvious article in the programme — which, let’s be honest, has probably been read by less than a tenth of our support — then what’s the point? What exactly were the “small number of reports of racist language being used at recent FC United matches” referred to in the matchday programme in February? Did the club investigate these incidents, and what were the outcomes of these investigations? And if any FC United supporters were found to be guilty of using racist language at a match, was the promised “zero tolerance” applied? Because box-ticking #BlackLivesMatter social media output might look good, but it’s utterly worthless if we don’t kick racists out of our anti-racist football club.


From → Politics, Sport

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