Tuesday 24 April 2018

No room for grey areas in black and white issue

Eamonn Sweeney

Twenty odd years ago, I was covering an FA Vase match for a newspaper in Essex. It was a decent game with an especially absorbing duel between the centre-forward on the home side, a guy of Pakistani extraction, and a centre-back for the visitors, a grizzled veteran who'd played a couple of hundred games in the Football League.

With the game nearing the final whistle, the duel began to turn somewhat narky and as both players tussled for a ball near the sideline, right in front of where I was standing, there was some kicking and elbowing. As the throw-in was about to be taken, the defender looked his opponent in the eye and snarled, "black cunt".

A frisson ran through the crowd. There were some approving peals of laughter, the match was being played in one of those Essex towns which had a reputation for racism and 'keeping the blacks out'. But there were also people who shook their heads disbelievingly in acknowledgement of the fact that a boundary had been crossed.

For my part, I remember being stunned by the sheer ugliness of the moment. The older reporter who was with me persuaded me not to write about it. What was the point? I'd have the devil of a job proving it. I was 20 and not very experienced and left it at that.

Several months later, I was covering another team in the area as they played a pre-season friendly. They had two new strikers, two new black strikers, who got four goals between them as the side romped to a 7-0 win.

Afterwards, I enthused about the performance of the newcomers to a member of the Board. "They're going to score a lot of goals for you this season." He shook his head. "We've already got W and X and Y and A on the team. If they all come back, we can't sign those guys. People wouldn't put up with that amount of coloureds on the team." The two strikers weren't signed.

The reason the English FA takes a very serious line against racism is because it has a venerable and ugly history within the game.

In fact, the history of race relations across the sea is a fraught one in general. When I lived in London I was going out with a nurse who worked in a south London hospital. One of the patients she looked after was a woman named Cherry Groce who was paralysed from the waist down and in considerable discomfort.

She had been accidentally shot by the police in 1985 as they searched the house for her son. The policeman who shot her was cleared of all wrongdoing but the incident led to the Brixton Riots of that year, as the shooting of Mark Duggan led to riots in London last summer.

Then there was Stephen Lawrence, stabbed to death in a racist attack in south-east London in 1993. Almost two decades later, this case has finally come to trial.

I once lived in south-east London, in New Cross where, in 1981, 13 young black people were burned to death in what their relations alleged was a racist attack. Four years prior to that in what was called The Battle of New Cross, local residents had fought ferociously with members of the National Front who were holding an inflammatory march through the area. Racial feelings tended to be pretty raw in that corner of London.

A mile over the road from New Cross is Peckham. It's where Anton Ferdinand was born and reared. So when someone like John Terry is accused of uttering a racist epithet to someone like Anton Ferdinand, a lot of emotions come into play. Saying that it's the same as someone from Mayo being accused of calling someone from Roscommon a 'Roscommon cunt' merely displays the worst kind of ignorance. Roscommon men don't get murdered by Mayomen because of the colour of their jersey.

The FA should be commended for their zero tolerance policy towards any hint of racism in football. Yet we still hear the silly objections about 'PC gone mad'. And when I hear this I wonder, suppose PC really has gone mad? What's the problem if it has? Are we somehow diminished because people can't use racist language with impunity?

The phrase Political Correctness drives me daft anyway. It's mainly used by bigots, the implication being that we all think the same way they do, it's just that we won't admit it.

But that's simply not true. I remember when Dónal óg Cusack's homosexuality was an open secret among journalists. At a press night in Killarney someone suggested that it would be a great thing if the Cork goalkeeper came out. A well-known GAA journalist scoffed, "Oh, it's easy for the PC trendy liberal Dublin media to say that but if he did the average GAA fan would never put up with it."

He was wrong. The average GAA fan had nothing but admiration for Cusack. Most of us aren't bigots. We know it's wrong to call someone a black cunt or a queer or a Paki. PC doesn't come into it, it's a question of good manners and decency. Irish people, above anyone, should see that. It's only a few decades since landlords put up the 'No Irish, no dogs, no blacks' signs in England.

I have no time for people bemoaning the fate of Luis Suarez. It's not long since those same bemoaners were defending Ron Atkinson calling Marcel Desailly "a fucking lazy thick nigger," on the grounds that Big Ron was a lovely old gent who'd actually employed a few darkies on the Hawthorns Plantation in his time. The FA have got plenty of things wrong over the years. But this time they've got it dead right.

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