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Racism in football: And Another Thing

Our panel, left to right:
Billy Grant, record label MD, Brentford
Raj Dohia, IT consultant, Liverpool
Peter John-Baptist, quality controller, Wealdstone
Juliet Mayne, administrator, Crystal Palace

Can you remember the first time you experienced racism at a football match?

Billy I’ve watched Brentford for 25 years and followed England since 1988. I started to go during the whole skinhead era – and there were loads of skinheads at Brentford. I was one of only two black people and I used to get a lot of hassle, even from our own fans – abuse like, “There ain’t no black in the Union Jack, send the bastards back.” Getting beaten by your own fans on the terraces used to happen a lot too. I see the guys now and they’re all repentant – they’re in their forties and they say: “I’m sorry Bill, we were so stupid.” It doesn’t excuse things but they’ve realised their mistakes. I remember it clearly though; it was a frightening place as a teenager.
Peter I’ve been supporting Wealdstone for 24 years and I went to my first England match in 1980. You’d hear people shouting racial abuse, but I was in school and a lot of it went over my head. I grew up in the ’70s when some of the stuff you’d hear on TV you just wouldn’t get now. They say a programme like Love Thy Neighbour was a way of highlighting how stupid racism was, but when you’re eight and you’re watching a comedy series where someone’s calling his next-door neighbour a “coon” and a “wog”, it becomes almost normal. You learned to live with it.
Juliet I’ve been supporting Crystal Palace since I was at school and following England since 1997. I’ve never had racism aimed directly at me. The first time I noticed it was in Sweden. An England fan behind me was giving Henrik Larsson grief. Not that I found it shocking, but I felt I had to turn round and say something – and it really shook him up. With hindsight it doesn’t seem the most sensible thing to do but I feel strongly about it.
Raj I’ve supported Liverpool for 20 years and I’ve been going to England games for three years. I remember things like the John Barnes banana incident from when I was growing up, but I think the thing that stopped me going to games was the perception that the media has always given –  that if you’re Asian you can’t go to games because you WILL get beaten up, you WILL get abused. That stopped me for many years.
Billy Racism at football has definitely diminished in comparison to the ’70s. Back in the day it was actually quite scary. If you were black you had to be careful if you walked past a pub in case people ran out and chased you down the street. I was only 15 when I went to my first away game and I didn’t know anything about violence – then 50 Reading fans came round the corner and asked us who we were. My mate just said, “Leg it” and I ran down the road chased by 50 of them shouting, “Get the fuckin’ nigger.” I was lucky to survive. You wouldn’t get that kind of problem these days.

OK, but has racism really diminished in British football, or does it now just manifest itself in different ways?

Billy At England vs Wales I was with an Asian girl who goes to lots of England away games. We noticed two guys who we’d both first met in Japan – they hadn’t seen us and all of a sudden they started to sing, “I’d rather be a Paki than a Turk.” It wasn’t the whole crowd, it was just these two. My friend went up to one of them and said: “That song you were singing is offensive to me.” I think these days there’s a certain level of ignorance. The guy didn’t realise he was being offensive – but to a lot of people it’s offensive.

In club football, which fans are the worst?

Juliet I was shocked when I went to see Leeds at Filbert Street a few years ago and I heard their fans singing, “You’re just a town full of Pakis.” You go to watch Leicester in the same way that you go to watch Palace – the majority are white, but you also see Asian and black fans and there’s a comfort in that, but to hear the whole away section singing something like that was shocking.
Raj The irony is that in Leeds there are a lot of Asians, but Leeds United have a big problem.
Billy Leeds were actually one of the first and most prominent anti-racist campaigners back in the early-’80s. They were very proactive in the anti-racism campaign because of their problems. Is it that kind of experience that deters many black and Asian fans from coming to football?
Billy Yes. My mates will say, “I’ve got £30 in my pocket. Why would I spend it going to a game where someone’s shouting, ‘I’d rather be a Paki than a Turk?’” Until the game cleans its act up they can’t expect people to come in.
Peter English football culture is quite narrow and you have to get into it to be part of it. People’s perceptions are that football is about sitting in a pub for an hour before the game. Rightly or wrongly, that’s how some people perceive it, and it’s going to be a long time before that perception goes. Strip away all the trouble and the racism and that perception will stay for a long, long time.
Billy During France 98, I organised a bus trip to Jamaica versus Croatia in Lens. We had 50 people on the coach, young and old, but only six of them had ever been to football before. When we got to the game there were sound systems, barbecues, rum punch… basically the experience on offer was an experience they were into. People were saying that if they’d known it was like this they would have brought 10 friends. Presented like this, people were getting excited about the football experience – but in England it’s too much about [Cockney accent] “This is what it is and if you want it you’ve got to come in.”
Peter My family’s not from Jamaica, they’re from Dominica, but I went to see Jamaica play Brazil last year in Leicester and I’ve never seen so many black people in a football ground in England. There must have been 15-20,000, many of whom were my age or younger; whether they don’t feel English or they don’t feel comfortable going to see England play I’m not sure. I’ve got two brothers and although I feel English, they don’t – and we all grew up in the same house.

In the run up to Euro 2004, there was a lengthy debate about the amount of England flags on cars and in pubs, implying it was connected to a rise in racism and anti-European feeling. Do you agree?

Billy England fans used to take the Union Jack to games and when you’d see the flag of St George, 98 percent of the time it was a British Movement thing. Scary. Any time I saw that flag it scared the shit out of me because you knew what was going to come with it. As we got into the ’90s and things began to simmer down we had Euro 96 and that was the first time I went into the grounds and saw images of kids: they had black kids, white kids, Asian kids, Chinese kids – all with their faces painted with the St George’s. That took the flag away from the fascists and put it in the hands of the kids.
Juliet I understand how people get emotional about the flag, but your emotion should be geared to wrestling it back – it belongs to everyone, not to the BNP.
Peter Before I left for the last World Cup I was driving around West London and I’d never seen so many England shirts worn by black people or that many flags hanging out of windows in predominantly black areas. Possibly a lot of young people who’d grown up liking Des Walker in 1990 or Paul Ince at Euro 96, Ian Wright playing for England, maybe they looked at them and thought, THEY seem to be accepted by fans, why shouldn’t I wear the shirt? Whether they’d actually go to games I don’t know.
Raj It’s a reflection of how society has changed since my parents came here 30 years ago. It’s a very different place and it’s being reflected in football – maybe not in the stadiums every week, but it is obvious when a tournament comes along. It’s become a celebration. Euro 96 was one big celebration, France 98 and Euro 2000 bigger still – and more black and Asian people started to think, Sod it, it’s a tournament and we’re going to enjoy it. It’s a generational thing too: first- and second-generation kids are viewing England as where they belong. Who are they going support?
Billy Things are getting better – particularly with the tournaments. Euro 2004 was brilliant. The amount of Asian fans that turned up gobsmacked me. I saw groups of 10 or 15 guys at a time, guys who had never been to an England game before. I asked some of them why they’d come and they said, “We just thought it would be a laugh.”

How did you feel about the racism during England’s recently friendly in Madrid?

Peter I was there. The monkey noises were the worst I’ve heard for years. Worse than Slovakia.
Billy My mate said he’d never seen so many middle-class racists. Everyone talks about racism and neo-Nazism, but when you’ve got the middle classes doing it, it’s a serious problem.
Raj My first England game was away to Slovakia and it could have easily put me off, but Slovakia is years behind England. You wouldn’t see the same kind of behaviour in England now. We’re a step ahead – more than any other European country.
Billy Interestingly, three England fans came up to us and said, “Those Slovakian bastards are racially abusing our players. They’re out of order.” It was almost like they were defending our honour. I’ve never actually seen that before.
Peter I’ve been hearing that for a few years. In Rome in 1997, when Sol Campbell touched the ball he got the inevitable chanting from the Italians, and a high percentage of the England supporters turned to them and were booing and whistling the Italians for doing it. That happened when we played Germany in Charleroi too.

What did you make of the recent Dwight Yorke incident – and the Birmingham City chairman’s comments about it?

Billy People like David Sullivan, Big Ron and Frank McLintock are not white hood people or Ku Klux Klan, they’re people with an old-fashioned attitude in a modern game. The reason this game isn’t moving on is that there are too many people stuck in the ’60s with a completely archaic way of thinking. How can we get new people in with a new way of thinking when the game is run by old donkeys, people with an old way of thinking?
Peter There’s a lot of resentment from the older fans about the way the game has been marketed over the last 15 years – they don’t like the fact that the country and football have changed.
Billy We’re not saying racism is an epidemic, but it’s still there in places and needs to be wiped out. Ten or 20 years ago it was far worse, but even if an incident involves just one or two people, like at Blackburn, it’s too many. The authorities need to make sure it doesn’t happen again; once people realise the authorities really want to bring new fans in, my mates might think, These people are really serious about it and they’ll start to come.

It seemed that even the fan responsible for abusing Dwight Yorke realised he’d done something that was socially unacceptable…

Peter He turned himself in.
Billy It becomes socially unacceptable when you’re caught though, that’s the problem. When you’re caught it’s, “Sorry, I didn’t mean it, I’m not really like that, I’ve got lots of black mates.” That’s rubbish, I’m not interested. People have to realise it’s unacceptable beforehand so they don’t do it. The trouble is if they’ve got these thoughts in their mind and you can’t get rid of it – you can’t change a person, but you can make it more comfortable for people who want to go to games.
Have the laws that require ejection from grounds for racial abuse had any real effect?

Billy No. Has anyone ever done it?
Juliet I have friends who are season-ticket holders at West Ham and for a whole season they sat near three blokes who would verbally abuse any non-white player. They complained – verbally and in writing – and every week these people still turned up to the matches. If in practice the clubs do nothing about it, what’s the point?
Billy I don’t think any of us here are politically correct, we just live in the real world. But if we try to change things, people say, “Oh, I hate all these politically-correct left-wingers.” No: we just want to live in a situation where things are right.
Peter Many fans want to hang on to the old days: standing on piss-soaked terraces yelling abuse.
Raj They’d love to see no women, no children, no blacks – just a group of guys, pissed up and having a banter and abusing anyone they want. The fact is that the game has moved on now.
Billy The game is TRYING to move on. The era has moved on, but some people haven’t moved with it and there aren’t enough people in the game in positions of power who understand the situation. I’m not saying you must have a raft of black and Asian people in those positions, but there are not enough people in positions of power who have enough compassion to understand the situation. If you speak to any black footballer they just say, “It’s just part of the game, some managers are terrible – they call us all kinds of stuff, we just ignore them.” Until we have people in these positions who can start neutralising what is happening then we’ve still got a problem.

How long will it take until we see thousands of black faces at run-of-the-mill club games?

Juliet It will happen, but it might not happen in five or 10 years, and it won’t be until dinosaurs like Jimmy Hill and Ron Atkinson have gone and there are positive steps being made to have more black pundits, trainers and managers. Then you’ll see more black people, more women, more kids.
Peter To be honest, I don’t give a shit who’s in the ground and what colour they are. I’d just like a situation where people can go to a game and not have to worry about the colour of their skin.

Interviews: February 2005.

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Nick Moore is a freelance journalist based on the Isle of Skye, Scotland. He wrote his first FourFourTwo feature in 2001 about Gerard Houllier's cup-treble-winning Liverpool side, and has continued to ink his witty words for the mag ever since. Nick has produced FFT's 'Ask A Silly Question' interview for 16 years, once getting Peter Crouch to confess that he dreams about being a dwarf.