If you’d asked me in the 90s whether British football was racist I’d have given you an unqualified yes. Back then, I remember sitting on a team bus where a member of the coaching staff was handing out fruit. He threw a bunch of bananas at a black player and snidely remarked, “You lot love them, don’t you?” During a match, another coach in a fit of fury screamed at the defenders in front of me to make sure “that black b****** doesn’t get another touch of the ball.”
The question is posed this week in a BBC3 documentary presented by Clarke Carlisle, the black chairman of the Professional Footballers Association. He started his investigation believing that the game in the UK was colour blind, but concludes that evidence of racism does exist – both at the grassroots and in boardrooms.
As a white English footballer, my experiences of racism are bound to be different from those who have been subjected to abuse. All I’ve had to deal with is a few barbed comments about my nationality when I was playing in Scotland. Whether that constitutes racism underlines the difficulty in untangling the issue.
My own view is that racism has been virtually eliminated from the English game and it’s a credit to campaigns such as Kick It Out and Show Racism the Red Card that that’s the case.
But one area of football that does bear closer examination is the lack of black managers and coaches, especially at the top level. It’s something I find difficult to explain. I’m in the process of taking coaching qualifications and of the 25 people on the same course just one is black. In no way does that reflect the percentage of black players in a dressing room.
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If my experience is reflected across other courses, perhaps the dearth of black managers merely reflects a collective lack of interest in becoming coaches? Or is it because there aren’t enough high-profile figures to inspire black players? Or perhaps they dismiss the idea because of the perceived lack of opportunities to find work?
So how does Britain compare to the rest of Europe? Well, I know from personal experience that the game in Europe is blighted by racism in a way that ours isn’t.
In supposedly liberal-minded Denmark I came across a kind of prejudice I’d not experienced since the early years of my career. African players were openly referred to as stupid. It was a place where “Neger”, the Danish “N” word, was used without so much as a batted eyelid from those who heard it spoken. Racism reveals itself to have numerous faces of hate. Both Polish and Jewish team-mates were regularly jeered by fans – both home and away.
It’s clear to me that we are the country doing the most to combat racism and we should be commended for it. Our dressing rooms are such diverse places these days, racism in any form just wouldn’t be tolerated. And to me, that is the true measure of how far we’ve come.
David Preece is a goalkeeper who has played for clubs from Aberdeen to Barnsley - and in Denmark.
Is Football Racist? is on BBC3 tonight at 9:00pm