It is 30 years since Paul Canoville became the first black footballer to play for Chelsea. When the team-sheet was announced, with his name as substitute, the National Front held a meeting in a local pub to discuss the outrage. As Canoville warmed up, Chelsea supporters screamed, “Sit down, you black cunt”, “You fucking wog”. Then they started to chant: “We don’t want the nigger, we don’t want the nigger, la la la la.”
The abuse continued unabated for the next two years. That was when Herman Ouseley, then running the Ethnic Minorities Unit at the Greater London Council, decided something had to be done. In 1984, Ouseley, now Lord Ouseley, went to see Chelsea chairman Ken Bates, who couldn’t see there was an issue. “I said, ‘We need to look at what we can do to tackle this problem properly,'” Ouseley says. “He said they didn’t have a problem, and that the security people will see me off the site. And some big goons in their anoraks saw me off the premises.”
Most clubs turned a blind eye to racism back then. It was easier to pretend it wasn’t happening. Match Of The Day didn’t highlight it and players didn’t discuss it, let alone complain. This was the era of Love Thy Neighbour and Alf Garnett, when racist characters were the heroes of sitcoms. Football merely reflected common values.
How times have changed. Six of Chelsea’s starting 11 who won the European Champions League in May were black. Ouseley’s pressure group, Kick It Out, has been hugely effective, and Bates has gone on to become a vocal campaigner against racism. Now, football clubs have a zero-tolerance policy on racism, and 25% of premiership players are black or from ethnic minorities.
Yet last season, barely a week went by without a controversy. Luis Suarez abused Patrice Evra on the pitch. Two people were convicted after racist tweets. Micah Richards closed down his Twitter account after being abused. And, this week, Chelsea and England’s John Terry was in court charged with a racially aggravated public order offence.
I meet Ouseley in the House of Lords. He has done more than anybody in this country to fight football racism. Ouseley, who moved to London from Guyana at the age of 11, is a glass-half-full man. It was during another intimidating occasion at Chelsea that he became convinced football fans would overcome their prejudice. The team was playing Ron Atkinson’s West Bromwich Albion, the first British side to field three black regulars. “From the moment West Brom stepped on to the pitch, they got the bananas and the treatment, because it was the team of Cyrille Regis, Laurie Cunningham, Brendon Batson,” Ouseley says. “The booing was incessant, because the three black players were touching the ball a lot. Boo. Ball. Boo. Ball. Boo. Twenty minutes into the game, Laurie Cunningham got the ball, skated through the Chelsea defence, banged it in the back of the net and they got even worse.” Ouseley had gone to the game to watch the black trio, nicknamed the Three Degrees, after the soul group. “Twenty minutes later, Laurie Cunningham picked the ball up, zoomed through their defence and banged it in the net again. I’m in with the Chelsea fans and everybody’s booing, and one of the big guys in front of me turns to the other and says, ‘Mind you, the nigger is fucking good, isn’t he?’ That gave me a lift, because what it said to me was that these guys hated black people and wanted to destroy them, but at least the skill of a black player had risen above that. From that moment I felt a bit more comfortable.”
Occasionally, English football is given a jolting reminder that it hasn’t made quite as much progress as it likes to think. Never more so than in 2004, when Ron Atkinson, working as a commentator but not realising his microphone was on, said of Chelsea defender Marcel Desailly, “He’s what is known in some schools as a fucking lazy thick nigger.” If that was what Atkinson, the first great champion of black English players, really thought, what hope was there for football? Eight years on, I ask Atkinson if he will be interviewed for this feature on racism in football. “No, I think it’s all a load of crap,” he says. “What I want to know is why journalists never ask me about the trophies I won.”
Sol Campbell orders a coffee at his local Italian in west London. We meet a few weeks after he has announced his retirement, and he admits his new life is taking some adjusting to. Campbell, one of four black men to captain England, is a complex character. He was one of the greatest defenders of his era, and one of the most taunted.
Campbell says his problems at Tottenham began early and went way beyond the fans. A serious and disciplined young man, he signed youth forms at 15, in 1989, and made his debut three years later. He was still only 18, but he believes he should have been selected earlier. “I could have started playing professional at 16, 17 quite easily. For my position, I was far better than a lot of people around me. All the people in front of me had was experience but, talent-wise, I easily could get in.”
Does he think his colour held him back? “I don’t know.” His pitch rises. “I dunno. I was banging my head against the wall. Maybe they weren’t ready for someone to come on the scene and turn football on its head in a proper way.”
What does he mean? “Maybe they were just used to white faces doing certain things and black faces doing another thing in football. They weren’t ready for a black guy doing it ultra proper, and standing up for himself, and saying, ‘This is me and I’m coming through.'”
What did the club expect black players to be like? “Just having a laugh, skillful, drinking, not great attitude. Not just at Spurs, at other clubs, too, that’s what they expected.” And he was the opposite? “Yes, attitude-wise.”
Campbell says black players were treated differently on all levels. “A white guy who’s not as good would have been getting paid more. I was getting frustrated at 17/18, and I wanted to leave. My friends around me were getting a decent break, but I wasn’t.”
When Campbell did eventually leave Spurs for rivals Arsenal, nine years later, he was labelled a “Judas”. From then on, Spurs fans abused him mercilessly. Football’s great taboo is still homosexuality – the only player who ever came out, Justin Fashanu, killed himself. Chants about Campbell united racism and homophobia in a bitter cocktail (despite the fact that he had a number of high-profile girlfriends at the time and is now married). I tell him of a particularly vile one, with references to hanging, lunacy and HIV. “Sick,” he says. Was he aware of it at the time? “No. I don’t want to be aware of it,” he says tersely.
Campbell says it was tough for him, but worse for others. “You have family and friends. I was strong, but when it starts hurting your family, and when they started getting involved, I said, right, that’s enough.”
In 2005, Campbell’s brother John was jailed for a year after brutally assaulting a fellow student who had suggested Sol was gay. Did Campbell ever consider quitting football? “Yes, or moving and playing somewhere else – Spain or Italy.” The irony is that both Spain and Italy now have considerably worse problems with racism than Britain does. This year, Campbell suggested black Britons should not travel to Poland and the Ukraine for the European championships after racist incidents were shown on Panorama.
Has the abuse left a mark? “It’s made me sad.” Silence. “Empty. I had to go down this road by myself. No authorities wanted to take notice. I had to go up and above the FA, go to the police, and say, ‘This has happened to me, I need help.’ This is football. It’s not war.”
Goalkeeper Arthur Wharton became the world’s first professional black footballer when he signed for Rotherham in 1889. He played a paltry six games for seven clubs over 16 years. Over the following 70 years, only a handful of black players succeeded in English football.
97f/21/huty/7094/50 Clyde Best: ‘You knew you had a job to do. You were playing for people of colour, not just in England, but all over the world.’ Photograph: Getty Images
When I started watching, in the early 1970s, Clyde Best was the only black footballer playing regularly in the first division. He is now a social worker in Bermuda, where he grew up, and looks back on his time at West Ham with love. “It was like being in a big family – we all got on. I bleed claret and blue today.”
Everybody adored you, I say. “Well, not quite everybody,” he says. “Away from home, I took terrible abuse. At least the players today have four or five guys to huddle up with. I was by myself. But you can’t just think of yourself, you’ve got to think of the players coming after you, so you’ve got to carry yourself in a certain manner.” He considered himself an ambassador, he says. “You knew you had a job to do. You were playing for people of colour, not just in England, but all over the world.”
Seventy-five years after Arthur Wharton retired, the second black goalkeeper played in the English football league. Alex Williams made his debut for Manchester City in 1980, and says he was lucky, because City already had a couple of local black lads in the side. Why were black goalkeepers such a rarity? Simple, he says – stereotypes. “Black players had always been associated with being fast and athletic: strikers.”
As a goalkeeper, he was more exposed than any of the outfield players. “In those days, there were a lot of racial tensions, and it wasn’t as if I could run around the field and get away from taunts.” In 1979, Williams played in the FA Youth Cup final against Millwall, a team notorious for its far-right fans. “We played the second leg away at the Old Den, and it was horrendous. It was just black this, N word, throwing bananas and coins.”
Williams, who has worked for Manchester City’s community programme for the past 23 years, divides the abuse into two types. “At places like Leeds and Millwall, it was the real, deep race-hate kind of stick you got. Then you used to get the humorous kind of stick when you played Liverpool or Everton.”
I ask for an example of humorous racism. “I remember playing Everton, and I ran out to the Everton end and a lad climbed on top of the barrier with a programme, and he folded it up into a cross and he lit it, à la Ku Klux Klan.” That sounds terrifying, not funny, I say. “Well, yes, it was, but what made it more humorous was that I turned round expecting my fellow players to be running up behind me, cajoling me, telling me to get on with things – but they were all laughing, finding it quite funny.” He pauses. “It wasn’t funny at the time.”
When footballer-turned-commentator Stan Collymore was growing up, he didn’t think of himself as black or mixed race. His white English mother and black Barbadian father split up early on, and he was brought up in an all-white area by his mother, alongside three older white half-sisters from her previous marriage. “I had no idea of black heritage, because there was no one there to give it me until I was 20-plus and living in London.” He signed for Crystal Palace and discovered a squad divided into racially-defined cliques. “Ian Wright, John Salako, Mark Bright, Andy Gray and Eric Young were in the black clique. It was the first time in my life I’d been around guys talking in slang and patois – stuff that had been passed down – and I was fascinated. On the other side there were players like Alan Pardew, Gareth Southgate, Nigel Martyn and Andy Thorne. I wouldn’t say the cliques were purposely on racial grounds, but there were different interests. The black guys were into R&B and hip hop, and their cultural identity was Afro-Caribbean. Your Southgates and Pardews were into cricket and golf. It wasn’t so much tension as highly-strung banter.”
Collymore was once asked, if there was a black and a white room, which one he would belong to. “I was like, well, they’d have to find me another room. I got the piss taken from all sides. I’d be listening to bands like Prefab Sprout and Scritti Politti and talking with this thick Black Country accent. All the blacks thought I was a white brummie, and the whites thought I was a black brummie.”
He is one of very few players to have reported a fellow player to the FA for alleged racism. He was playing for Aston Villa against his former club Liverpool and claimed that Liverpool defender Steve Harkness abused him. “If I’d been called a nigger or a coon once, I wouldn’t have done anything, because I’m of the notion that, OK, it’s wrong, but we can all do silly things in the heat of the moment. But this was over 10-15 minutes – ‘You coon’, ‘Your mother slept with a coon’ – and I just wanted to rip his fucking head off, to be honest.”
Harkness has always vehemently denied the allegation, and the FA ruled that it could not act because it was one player’s word against the other.
What was it like the next time they played each other? “I was wound up like a top, it’s fair to say. I tried to take on-pitch retribution. Not in words.” Harkness was carried off injured after a dangerous tackle by Collymore. “It was in the combat of a football match, and it was left at that.”
Collymore stresses that on-pitch racism was a rarity, and that in many ways football led the way for the rest of society. The stereotyping of black boys – rubbish at academic work, great at sport – had led to a disproportionate number of black footballers in the English game, but those players had changed attitudes for the better – it was always going to be difficult to sustain prejudices when your sporting heroes were black.
Earlier this year, Collymore was involved in another high-profile race row. In January, Joshua Cryer, a law student at Newcastle university and the captain of the department’s football team, sent Collymore offensive tweets, including: “@StanCollymore has anyone ever referred to you as semi pro as in a semi pro coon #neitherwhitenorblack.” Collymore reported Cryer to the police and, in March, he was sentenced to 200 hours of community service. In the same month, 21-year-old student Liam Stacey was jailed for tweeting racist comments about Fabrice Muamba after the footballer had a cardiac arrest on the pitch.
Collymore believes this form of abuse is now more prevalent than anything experienced on the pitch or in the stands. Perhaps, he says, we became complacent about racism – been there, challenged it, beaten it. “We thought it was the Nick Griffins, the shaven-headed guy with a swastika who listened to Skrewdriver, who said stuff like this, but it’s not. They’re from every age and every background, and a lot think the eastern Europeans have come over and nicked their jobs, just like dad said the blacks and Asians did years ago. And in a recession, we know rightwing ideas and principles tend to come to the fore.”
It’s so much easier for people to hurl abuse, he says, when they think they can hide behind a cloak of anonymity. But Twitter “trolls” are discovering that they are more answerable than they imagined. Does he think jail is the right solution for offenders? “You know what I’d like to see more of? Community orders. I had a letter from Joshua Cryer a few days ago. Very apologetic. He said, ‘I realise how stupid it was and the pain it caused to you and your family.’ It could just be that, as part of his 200 hours, he’s been asked to send a remorseful letter, but it seemed very genuine. I may well contact him.”
Lord Herman Ouseley Lord Herman Ouseley: ‘You’ve got to show a corporate understanding of what racism and exclusion is all about, and it has to be understood and carried through by the management team.’ Photograph: Antonio Olmos for the Guardian
Back in the House of Lords, in between votes on the welfare reform bill, Herman Ouseley is totting up the various ways in which progress has been made. The very fact that the Suarez and Terry incidents caused such outrage is in itself a measure of this. “The Football Association did something they have never done before with the Suarez incident – investigate it with an amazing degree of thoroughness. If that’s the benchmark, that’s excellent.”
But, Ouseley says, those people who suggest that the work of Kick It Out is complete, and that it’s now time to focus primarily on homophobia and sexism, are seriously deluded. He mentions the Equality Standard, initially introduced for local government and now applied to English football clubs. “There are three levels: the preliminary level is where people can say, we’ve got an equal opportunities policy, we take action against racism, we have black players. So they can develop a basic level of commitment to tackling discrimination. The next level, you’ve got to do a lot more than tick the boxes. And then, to get to the advanced level, you’ve got to show a corporate understanding of what racism and exclusion is all about, and it has to be understood and carried through by the management team. There are only two clubs that have hit advanced level: Arsenal and Aston Villa.”
Defender Clarke Carlisle, chairman of the Professional Footballers’ Association and currently between clubs, is putting the finishing touches to a film he has made about racism in the English game. Yes, he says, compared with many other European countries, we come up smelling of roses, but there’s still much to be done – especially at boardroom level. Carlisle, who left school with 10 GCSEs at grade A, was voted Britain’s brainiest footballer in 2002. He says he has never experienced racism first-hand, which made it all the more shocking when he spoke to his contemporaries. To ask whether there is a problem with racism in football is too broad a question, he says. “If you are a black footballer, you stand as fair a chance of succeeding as a white player. If you are an Asian player, you don’t. And when we’re talking about coaching and managerial opportunities, and the structures of football, black and ethnic minorities still lag behind their white counterparts.”
There’s a simple reason we don’t hear about the problems Asian footballers face, he says – there are hardly any. “We had stories of young men with obvious talent being passed over. One father was told by a scout that he was expressly told not to scout Asian players.” Why? “Exactly. The stereotypical view is that Asian players a) don’t make good footballers, b) aren’t interested in football, and c) culturally don’t fit with football.”
One of the big problems is at the top of the game – in the boardroom and at the FA, he says. “It’s only since Heather Rabbatts came on board that there has been an ethnic minority face in an influential, decision-making position at the FA.” But the most measurable discrimination, he claims, is in coaching and management. In contrast to the 25% figure for black and ethnic minority players, only three managers are non-white (approximately 3%). In American football, the Rooney Rule was established in 2003, to ensure minority candidates were interviewed for coaching and management jobs, and Carlisle is in favour of introducing a similar rule in the UK. “It’s not about appointing the individual,” he says. “It’s about the application process.”
Does he think it will be introduced here? “It’s unlikely, because there doesn’t seem to be much backing from the clubs or the governing body. When we were at Downing Street recently, for the parliamentary summit on racism in football, it was intimated that the FA has been advised against instituting any Rooney Rule or suchlike on the proviso that we weren’t ready for it.”
What does “not ready” mean? “Exactly,” Carlisle says. “I think we’re ready for it. We have a qualified talent pool that’s available for interview, especially for coaching roles. The only way I think it may fall down is on experience for managers, because we haven’t had many black managers. It’s a vicious circle – you can’t get a job because you’ve got no experience, and you can’t get experience because you cant get a job.”
Although the media and fans are talking about racism in football, Carlisle says that players are not. Or at least not publicly. In a way, the subject is every bit as taboo as it was for the first generation of black players. As the leader of the players’ union, he thought people would be queuing up to talk to him about their experience, but found the reality was very different.
“Nobody wants to stick their head above the parapet. One guy, an England international, said he thought it might hinder his chance of taking part in the Euros.” Carlisle laughs, hollowly. “Nobody wants to be seen as militant or a trouble-maker when they’ve got a good career.”