How non-league football can show the way in fight against racism

Football may be facing a temporary stint behind closed doors, but longer-term, it is at one with the world outside. If the world takes a knee, football does too.

Mike Procter proved an interesting interviewee for Kevin Anderson back in the day / Picture: Getty
Mike Procter proved an interesting interviewee for Kevin Anderson back in the day / Picture: Getty

Our sport is full of keen, motivated energetic young men and women. A joy to watch for us who are not so young, who look on benignly and wish we still had the same energy. My elderly knees creak a bit, but I’ll gladly take one when the cause is justice, equality and human dignity. And not for the first time, quietly and modestly, non-league football shows the way.

There is no debate anyway. Racism stinks. If it were not so offensive, it would be laughable. You might as well snipe at me for being left-handed, or at Borough boss Danny Bloor for having no hair.

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The issue isn’t new. At 16, I was writing a weekly football column for the Gloucester Citizen – well, it paid fifteen bob a week, which was better money than a paper round. And in the summer of 66, mesmerised by Portugal’s Eusebio in the World Cup – and with the radical fire of youth – I highlighted their talisman. If he had been born, say, in South Africa, I wrote, you’d never have heard of him.

Eusebio is led off the pitch in tears after Portugal's defeat to England in the 1966 World Cup / Picture: Getty

The editor called me in. “Young man, you will keep your politics out of my newspaper.” He was a frightening figure and shamefully I didn’t argue. But we cannot keep politics, or more correctly ethics and morality, out of our sport, or our of our daily lives.

A couple of years later, I was at the University of Sussex, marching (between lectures) against apartheid and joining Amnesty International – an organisation which I still support half a century later. And during a vacation, I bagged a cracking interview with Mike Procter, the Gloucestershire and South Africa cricketer.

That was around 1969, and in the slipstream of the Basil D’Oliviera affair, South Africa was ostracised, and Procter – a decent and thoughtful guy – was pleading for sport to be a kind of corridor towards progress. The editor liked the story, and over the decades since then, we have learned – in journalism and elsewhere – that you cannot keep sport and social issues apart.

In sport at a local level, and my beloved non-league football, we can actually show the way. And here’s why.

Raheem Sterling speaks eloquently about racism in football / Picture: Getty

Racism is vile and hopelessly ill-informed, but it is also cowardly. When idiots can hide in a crowd or behind a social media persona, prejudice and bigotry fester. But non-league football is the opposite of anonymous. Just like other local sport from cricket to bowls to the weekly parkrun, everyone knows everyone. Go to a game at The Oval, The Saffrons or Priory Lane and every face is familiar, every foible known and every word audible.

In a stadium of 50,000, even a tiny minority of contorted angry faces or snarling insults have a place to hide. Down at the Lane, a poor old lino who misses an offside has no escape from the crowd’s wisdom – but at very worst, it will come with humour or a dash of irony.

Tell a player off for a poor pass, and you might need to glance sideways in case his indignant mum, dad or girlfriend is standing close by. But were someone to fling a racist insult – and it literally never happens – there would be nowhere to hide. They would instantly feel as tiny and as brainless as a woodlouse.

At the Borough and at every single other small-scale football club, we are family. We mix, social distancing permitting, in the clubhouse after a game. We know each other’s birthdays and we coo when one of the players brings his partner and new-born infant to a game.

We truthfully don’t even notice ethnic background. We don’t care tuppence. If Danny signs a striker, it doesn’t matter if he is black or white or Martian as long as he can shoot straight. And of course, as long as he is a decent, reliable team-mate.

There is a wider picture. This week Raheem Sterling, among others, has been speaking with passion and eloquence about equality and social justice. Absolutely right. Former player, and wise spokesman for the game, John Barnes wondered aloud on Radio 5 Live this week why BAME footballers are still under-represented as coaches and managers.

That, and other questions, still needs addressing. Perhaps, so far, we have only inched towards answers instead of striding towards them. Social change and social progress is better made steadily rather than in tidal waves. Better by ordinary, modest people than by highly-charged mobs. Well, that’s the non-league perspective anyway. One throw-in, one friendship and one half-time cuppa at a time.