Football people of a certain vintage will have felt a wince of disbelief that the game’s anti-racism campaign, Kick It Out, is 25 years old this season, marking a generation of struggle and remarkable progress.
Reflecting on how profoundly attitudes have changed over the quarter century, the campaign’s chairman throughout, Lord Herman Ouseley, points to the outpouring of admiration for Cyrille Regis when the former West Bromwich Albion trailblazer died in January at the age of 59.
Regis, his two West Brom teammates Laurie Cunningham and Brendon Batson, and a handful of other black players came through in the 1970s, when racist abuse rained down routinely from terraces and the football authorities never had much to say about it. When Regis died tributes were paid from all areas of the game’s establishment and fans at clubs where black players were once so abused stood for minutes of genuine applause.
Ouseley says: “Even 10 or 15 years ago I am not sure we would have seen the warmth and praise for Cyrille Regis that we saw this year. That tells you something about how the game has changed.” Formerly the chief executive of the London borough of Lambeth, in 1993 Ouseley was chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality when he became the voluntary chairman of the inaugural Let’s Kick Racism Out of Football campaign.
He adds: “The players have had a huge part in it, with their ability, and having the inner resilience to cope and succeed. I don’t want Kick It Out to take the praise; our job is to help football to be better.”
Citing Regis as an example encapsulates Kick It Out’s own course; the campaign was established after he retired, with the worst years of football’s public racism receding, and it has played a great part in encouraging the culture which celebrated him.
In 1991, the Football (Offences) Act made “indecent or racialist chanting” a criminal offence, a landmark step in recognising football’s disgrace and taking serious steps to outlaw it. Keith Alexander, at Lincoln City, was appointed as English football’s first black manager in 1993, the same year Paul Ince became the first black player to captain England.
But there was still widespread racist abuse into the 90s and a climate of fear among the minority ethnic communities in neighbourhoods around many of the grounds, recalls Piara Powar, who was appointed Kick It Out’s national coordinator in 1998. He and Ouseley both recall that despite the campaign being funded by the FA and Premier League as well as the Professional Footballers’ Association from 1997, many senior people in football were not greatly interested.
Powar and Ben Tegg, the campaign’s only members of staff then, wrote to all 92 professional clubs introducing themselves and the aims of the campaign. Only five replied. “There was absolute apathy, the issues were seen as inconsequential,” says Powar, who in 2010 became executive director of the Fans Against Racism in Europe (Fare) network. “In the 1980s if you were part of a minority you expected to get abused in daily life; in football, behaviour which now seems unbelievable was happening freely. The worst was over, but in the 90s it was still there.
“Other than Brendon Batson [then deputy chief executive of the PFA] you didn’t see any black administrators; there were no women visible anywhere – I remember it seemed a huge step when the FA appointed Kelly Simmons.” In 2000 she was appointed head of football development; she is now director of the national game and women’s football.
Ouseley remembers arm-twisting and “shaming” clubs into taking part in the campaign, sometimes by telling chairmen that their closest rivals were signed up. It began with an eight-point plan, with posters at grounds, focusing on eliminating racism from football, and widened after 1997 to address all forms of discrimination.
Many fans were already making strong efforts to oppose racism in the stands; Powar gives credit to wider cultural improvements over the years, and clubs gradually engaged more fully with the campaign. Now, Ouseley is able to promote more optimistic aims: increasing the diversity of coaches, administrators and supporters, and football as a vehicle for social cohesion, from the grassroots up.
Kick It Out came through arguably its most challenging period in 2012, after the high-profile bans for racist abuse handed down by FA disciplinary panels to Luis Suárez and John Terry, the latter having been found not guilty in a criminal prosecution of verbally abusing Anton Ferdinand. A number of black players refused to take part in Kick It Out’s annual day of action, including Regis’s nephew Jason Roberts, then at Reading, who protested at lack of progress, particularly the paucity of black coaches.
Ouseley acknowledges that some people involved with Kick It Out felt hurt, believing the players were targeting the organisation that had worked for years to make a difference, but says he respected Roberts making his case. “He felt we didn’t do enough; we talked, and I accepted; I don’t shy away from criticism. We should engage with people on these matters and see what we can learn. It is positive if players are articulating an issue; Jason Roberts was carrying more influence than us – I tell players they underestimate their power.”
Ouseley welcomes the FA’s newly announced three-year plan to become more diverse, with its aim by 2021 of having 20% of its coaches from black or minority ethnic backgrounds, and 11% in leadership roles at the FA. With racist hate crime and xenophobia on the rise again after the toxic anti-immigration rhetoric which fuelled much of the Leave campaign in the Brexit referendum – “we had a lot of lies,” Ouseley says – he is urging football to be an area of society which brings people together. “We’re looking to the game helping to achieve cohesion, with different groups, black and white, mixing with each other and getting to know each other. Football can give leadership.”
A remarkable 25 years since its formation, English football and the country around it are very different, but there is still a great deal of work for Kick It Out to do.
The Guardian Sport
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