Thursday, 25 October 2012

They Don't Throw Bananas Anymore

Thirty-seven years ago, Laurie Cunningham stepped onto the Hawthorns pitch for the first time and endured ninety minutes of racial abuse from the massed ranks on the Brummie Road terrace. He was playing for Orient, and roughly twelve months later he joined Albion. This might seem strange, given his earlier treatment by the club's supporters, but the reception he got at the Hawthorns was regrettably par for the course for a black player in England back in the 1970's and 1980's.

Cunningham joined the Baggies and was quickly followed by Regis and Batson. The racist chants on the Brummie Road stopped, because even the dumbest knuckle-dragger on the face of the planet understands that you cannot chant racial abuse at the opposition's black players without insulting your own black players. Large-scale racial abuse, as witnessed last week in Serbia, died out in England -- not because English fans became more enlightened, but because most teams employed black players. Their fans were confronted by the same contradiction that the Albion fans had faced when Cunningham arrived at the club. Society has also moved on, and terms that I grew up with are no longer acceptable. Fans have also become more enlightened, and maybe one of the first steps on that journey was accepting black players at the football clubs they supported.

At some point, racial abuse of black players became a line which fans understood should not be crossed, and today, it comes from the odd individual or John Terry. Back in the 1980's, as football slowly responded to the problem of racial abuse, the apologists for the fans' and players' behaviour used the now well-established, but somewhat tarnished, 'banter defence': "Yes, the words are rude and insulting, but they are in jest; we mean nothing by it," and, in the case of the players, they point to the post-match handshakes, so all's well that ends well. Frankly, it sounded pathetic at the time, and with thirty years of hindsight, it is sickeningly complacent.

Thirty years on, and the banter defence is deployed to justify tit-for-tat chanting between fans at Sheffield and Liverpool over incidents that involve the tragic loss of life, rape, and child abuse. Sorry, that is not banter; it is sick, and no less sick than racially abusing a black player. It is time to draw a new line, as far as fan and player behaviour goes.

Football's problem is that clubs have siege mentalities -- us against the world -- and too often are swift to condemn the actions of rival fans and players without acknowledging, let alone condemning, their own fans' and players' shortcomings. The game's leaders need to make a stand, not just condemning the opposition, but their own fans -- a braver course of action. Warnock had a stab at it following the incidents at Sheffield, but, being Warnock, blew it with a throwaway remark about Kirkland going down like a ton of bricks. Martin O'Neill's condemnation of Sunderland supporters' chants concerning Steven Taylor was much less unequivocal, and O'Neill deserves credit for that.

Equally, when players transgress, the clubs need to look beyond their immediate self-interest and not try to defend the indefensible. Liverpool's response to the Suarez incident was lamentable, and Chelsea's rank cowardice in not stripping Terry of the captaincy sent mixed messages to fans and players. Put simply, if I were to racially abuse a customer or colleague at work, I would be out of a job, and I would not enjoy the support of my employer if criminal proceedings were bought. In truth, nor would a youth team player at either club, who would be hung out to dry for a similar offence. The message is clear: Suarez and Terry are a little bit too important to their respective clubs to be challenged when they step over the line. That is why the FA need to be steadfast in their approach with regard to player discipline, because too often clubs fail to stand up to the star players.

Fans need to take a long, hard look at themselves and try to understand how witty they would find a chant about their own loved ones who had died in tragic circumstances or had been sexually abused. It is a question of your dignity as a human being: How far are you prepared to let yourself be dragged into the sewer by the tribalism of football? Think about that, and just don't join in; nobody makes you. If fans persist, then the authorities should take action. A couple of Man United v Liverpool games behind closed doors might bring a few fans to their senses.

I have an ongoing love affair with football, but there are times when the passion spills over into something ugly, making me more than a little uncomfortable. I understand the keen rivalry between clubs, particularly local derbies with decades of history, but when that turns into naked hatred, we all need to pull back from the brink.

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