Many facets of football continue to move on at a breakneck pace nowadays – so much so that the game is virtually unrecognisable from the game I first fell in love with whilst watching Harry Redknapp’s Bournemouth in the old Second Division during the late 1980s.
Hooliganism was seen as the biggest issue for the game back then and whilst that particular issue hasn’t been eradicated totally, trouble between rival supporters is rare in the modern era due to robust planning by police, local authorities and clubs themselves. Overseas, it still blights football in many countries, especially Eastern Europe, although that is for another time and place. Along with frequent trouble before, after and during matches too, football also had an issue with racism. If anything, during my formative years watching the Cherries, the discrimination of black footballers was more prevalent and noticeable on the terraces and in wider society too.
My first ever Dean Court hero was Luther Blissett, a player who was born in Falmouth, Jamaica, before moving to England and he came through the ranks at Watford. He joined Bournemouth in November 1988 and in his home debut against Hull City, netted a brilliant four-timer, thus endearing himself to the Cherries faithful. Blissett went onto become something of a Bournemouth luminary because of his success and goalscoring record although the same couldn’t be said for George Lawrence, another black player on the Cherries’ books at the time. In all honesty, Lawrence, a big-money capture from Millwall, flopped on the South Coast, but he copped a lot of flack from supporters which looking back now was unnecessary and possibly due to the colour of his skin.
At the time, Lawrence wasn’t the only player that failed to deliver for Bournemouth, but he seemed to be singled out for the largest amount of terrace consternation. Other, similar under-performing members of Redknapp’s squad seemed to escape the jeers, but those reserved for Lawrence were louder than the rest. Was this racism? Or merely coincidence? The truth probably lies mid-way between the two, but as time has worn on, as a football fan and a journalist, I subsequently discovered that the treatment of Lawrence was something that had occurred previously, would do in the future and still does now.
The disgraceful recent events in Bulgaria, where England players Tyrone Mings, – a player born and raised in the West Country – Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling were racially abused by a section of home supporters in Sofia demonstrate that this form of discrimination is still part of our game.
How and why in 2019 is it acceptable to abuse young black men, who are superstars and role models, in their place of work is beyond comprehension. Much of the blame lies fairly and squarely at authorities such as UEFA and FIFA, the supposed guardians of our game, for failing to properly deal with racism.
Every time an issue of this nature has arisen, the carpet is lifted and out comes the sweeping brush. This perpetual occurrence is simply not good enough, much like the ridiculous ‘three-step protocol’ that UEFA established and England followed. The players, despite claims by some observers that they made the right decision by staying out on the pitch, did not.
The first sign of any racist signals, jeering or chanting should have meant game over, the innocent party (England) awarded the game and the perpetrators, on this occasion Bulgaria, banned from all international competition until they clean their act up.
Unfortunately, the correct action will be galaxies apart from what punishment is handed out and authorities have a dreadful record dealing with issues like this and in certain instances, past actions have set a precedent for conduct nowadays. The first and most notable occurrence for the game on these shores came in 1925 when Jack Leslie, an inside left with Plymouth Argyle, was called up to play for England. However, Leslie never pulled on the Three Lions because after his selection was announced by the press, the FA then declared that those reports were a mistake.
Some years later, the player claimed that he was dropped because of his skin colour as Leslie was black. Remarkably, it took 53 years for Viv Anderson to become England’s first ever black player and I am sure that if Leslie had not been cast aside for non-footballing reasons, then those views that existed then, may not be around now.
When Anderson was selected for England in 1978, a reporter with the Daily Mail spoke to Leslie, then working as a bootman for West Ham United, about the confusion surrounding his call-up and quick retraction. Unsurprisingly, Leslie backed up the claims that it was because of his skin colour, although initially, he looked back fondly at the moment in which his then Argyle manager Bob Jack broke the news of an England call-up. “I’ve got great news for you. You’ve been picked for England,” said Jack.
Understandably, this dominated talk at Argyle with Leslie adding: “Everybody in the club knew about it,” he mused. “The town was full of it. All them days ago it was quite a thing for a little club like Plymouth to have a man called up for England. I was proud – but then I was proud just to be a paid footballer.” The reaction to Leslie supposedly winning international recognition in the city was very much because the people of Plymouth viewed him positively. He had a long and successful career which saw him pull on a Green’s shirt over 400 times and Leslie found the net with regularity too.
Because of this, there has been little if any evidence to suggest that Leslie received any form of abuse from the terraces at Home Park or at away venues. However, it became clear as Leslie continued his interview, that the power-brokers running our game were almost silently peddling their agenda in an era where a white ascendancy was very much prevalent.
Suddenly, after much fanfare, talk of Leslie playing for England subsided and reports then emanated that he had been selected as a reserve. But even that statement proved to be false as he never trained with England and it is understood that his name never appeared on any FA document in regard to selection because, in those days, teams were picked via a committee.
“All of a sudden everyone stopped talking about it,” he remarked. “Then the papers came out a day or so later and Billy Walker of Aston Villa was in the team, not me. I didn’t ask outright. I could see by their faces it was awkward.
“But I did hear that the FA had come to have another look at me. Not at me football but at me face. They asked, and found they’d made a ricket. Found out about me daddy, and that was it. No one ever told me officially, but that had to be the reason.”
Like the governing bodies in 2019, the FA simply closed ranks and pretended there was no real issue with these disgraceful actions. Even the local Herald paper in Plymouth ran an article with a reporter commenting that ‘my pen is under a ban in this matter’.
A clear indication that the FA and no-one else for that matter was willing to look closely and admit the real reason why Leslie was omitted: he was black. That would be the right thing to do, but football since 1925 has been ducking and diving the subject of racism and at times, been complicit in it’s non eradication.
Unless change is forthcoming, the beautiful game will continue to be blighted by toxicity which leads to black players being discriminated against, just because of their skin colour. It is not tolerated in any other industry and sporting discipline, so why should football be any different?