Racism has always been there in football. The most disgraceful I’ve ever known it was when I went to Leeds United and they sang: ‘Ain’t no black in the Union Jack’. That’s how bad it was when I was at Fulham in the early 1980s. I came into the dressing room – as an 18-year-old kid playing at Elland Road – and I was a bit upset. The manager, Malcolm McDonald, who had given me my debut, said to me: “You’ve got two choices, you either get on with it or you get out of the game.”
At QPR they used to sing a song about me – “He’s small, he’s black, he’s England’s full-back (or centre back as I was at the time).” Did I take it personally, because they called me black? I could have done.
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Later, I played at Old Trafford for QPR just before Manchester United signed me and they sang a song about ‘shooting a n****r’. Did that bother me? Not really, it was because I made a big tackle on Lee Sharpe and it made a huge thump. It kind of woke everyone up. I had a bit of a laugh about it – I made my fingers into the shape of a gun and put it to my head like I’d shot myself. I looked at it and said: ‘You ‘can’t do anything about ignorance here.’ These were the same fans that then liked me when I played for United – so that’s some football supporters.
But I also took it as a positive – it was a sign that I was doing something right and upsetting them. And more fool them, because they were paying their £10, £15, £20 to have a go at me. At the end of the day they are ignorant and stupid because if they hated me that badly and were truly racist, they wouldn’t have paid money to watch black players on the football pitch. They’d show it with their feet by marching out of the ground. They were just ignorant sheep who followed other people.
Fast forward to today with the Lukaku chants. They are trying to be supportive because they appreciate him but have done it in the wrong way. I’m sure they can find better songs about him.
It's even worse outside of the Premier League. If you step outside that arena, it’s still there because there is no-one out there to police it. In the Premier League there are stewards, even fans to police it. But if you take a step down, to the Championship and below, if you go to watch a match in the Bostik League or National League, the stewards are local, they’re not going to go and grab one of their friends, who they know from the local pub, who is abusing someone who is black, or Indian, or Chinese.
So it’s more localised. It’s being covered over in the Premier League because there are thousands of people to police it, and they are doing it well. Anyone seeing someone abusing a black player will look at a steward and say: ‘I want him removed’.
It's the same with a player – if he goes to take a corner and is getting abuse from a fan, he’ll say 'I won’t play until that person is removed'. When I was playing and defending a corner and the fans are behind the goal, I couldn’t turn round and say 'I want the whole of that terrace removed'!
Back when I was at Fulham, there was no-one out there to help. I couldn’t go to the papers, they wouldn’t back me. There was racism in every industry. They didn’t write in the paper that Paul Parker suffered racial abuse from Leeds fans.
As a black player during that time – and we all grew up to love football with Terry Connor, a young John Barnes, Winston White and Leroy Rosenior – we knew when we went to grounds we would get abused.
And, although it has improved, there’s still a lot of racism out there. England is more multi-cultural now compared with the early 80s and late 70s when the likes of Chris Hughton first started. It’s a generational thing. Every decade it is getting smaller and smaller. But you can’t stamp it out because of the way it’s working at the moment.
We have a Kick It Out campaign, but you ask is it really working, it is really making a difference, really shouting it’s message? It’s OK. The good thing is kids are mixing in schools, mine had five years of schooling in Singapore and mixed with all colours and creeds, and they’ll come back and talk about what clothes the others are wearing, not that they are Chinese or Indian, from Vietnam or Africa. That’s starting to happen across the UK.
Even so, if a child walks up to my kids and calls them a ‘black so and so’ I would not blame them, I’d blame the parents. You are not born racist. It comes from the parents and the people around you.
So there are other ways of tackling it and still a lot of work to do – not just in the Premier League.
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