WHAT I’d really like this Christmas is a signed photo of Tommy Smith. Smith is not a household name outside of his native Liverpool. But within the city of his birth he is a legend.
Tommy Smith scored the greatest goal ever scored by the nation’s greatest football team. On a sweltering night in Rome in 1977, Liverpool were locked in a desperate struggle with German side Borussia Monchengladbach. The winner would be crowned champions of Europe, but the momentum of the match was shifting away from the Merseysiders. An early goal had been cancelled out, and only a defiant save by England goalkeeper Ray Clemence managed to keep Liverpool on terms.
Then, in the 64th minute, Liverpool won a corner. Steve Highway, the languid number nine, floated the ball in from the left, Smith attacked it, arriving just ahead of two fatally distracted Borussia defenders, and a header bulleted into the top corner of the net. A late penalty sealed the victory, but it was Smith’s goal that had won the game and set his team on course for a period of unprecedented domestic and European dominance.
I would love that photo. I really would. But I won’t be getting it.
The reason is an interview Smith gave to journalist and author Dave Hill for his book The John Barnes Phenomenon which examined the impact of Liverpool’s first truly successful black player on the club, city and wider footballing world. Speaking about another former black player, Howard Gayle, Smith said, “Howard suffered from a black man's attitude towards the white man. See, everybody thinks whites have an attitude towards blacks. In reality it's blacks who have a problem with the whites". He added that as a form of affection, "I used to call Howard the 'White Nigger'. Now that is a compliment. It was the only way I could find to describe that I thought he was OK”. Just to remove any lingering doubts about his attitude on matters of race, Smith added, "I'm not prejudiced but if a coon moved in next door, I'd move, like most white people would. If my daughter came home with a nigger, I'd go mad. But I'm only being truthful and normal”.
Tommy Smith is a football hero. My earliest childhood memories are of Liverpool games and goals. I used to hold a Kop season ticket. The moment I got Kenny Dalglish’s autograph on Hoylake golf course remains the greatest of my life.
But there are some things in life more important than where the next three points are coming from. This week Liverpool football club forgot that.
On Tuesday the team’s striker Luis Suarez was found guilty by the Football Association of using "insulting words" towards Manchester United’s Parice Evra that "included a reference to Mr Evra's colour". He was banned for eight matches.
The response of the nation’s greatest football club to the news their star player had been found guilty of using a racial epithet to taunt an opponent. Humility? Dignity? No. Instead a cascade of self-righteousness and self-indulgence. “Luis Suarez needs our full support. Let's not let him walk alone,” was Kenny Dalglish’s trite response. The club itself chose to attack, yes attack, Evra, stating “that the accusation by this particular player was not credible”. This despite the fact an independent panel had just ruled the claim he was abused by Suarez was entirely credible.
The verdict was, according to the club, “extraordinary”. Despite the fact Suarez is reported to have admitted calling Evra a “negro” or “negrito” in his native Portugese. Suarez, and the club’s, defence is apparently based on the argument “negrito” can be used as a form of “affection”.
Now, it may well be that in a crowded penalty box, in the heat of a bad tempered encounter with Liverpool’s most bitter domestic rivals, Suarez was suddenly seized with affection for Evra. Overcome with the emotion of the moment he may also have chosen to give voice to these warm feelings in his native tongue.
But it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if Suarez has a black grandfather, or done charity work to “encourage solidarity amongst people with different backgrounds”. We either adopt a zero tolerance approach to racism, or we don’t.
Let’s invert the argument. What if the FA had ruled calling an opponent “negro” was acceptable? What would be the experience of black players up and down the country? The taunt of “negrito” would blight professional, sunday league and school matches up and down the land.
"Black bastard" bad. "Negro bastard" fine. "Coon" an abhorrence. "Negrito" a term of endearment. This is not a defence, it is linguistic sophistry.
Suarez has the option of an appeal. He may yet be vindicated. But at the moment he is a guilty man. And the least Liverpool football club could do is show some awareness of that fact.
Liverpool’s great manger Bill Shankly once famously remarked that football was “much more important” than life or death”. Shankly was wrong.
Independent News Service