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© PA Images - Kanchelskis at Palace: One of Rodney's most memorable games

Fans For Diversity: “Do the right thing, even when no-one is watching”

Racism has been a huge talking point in recent months and, while football has thankfully moved on from the 1970s and 80s when groups like the National Front tried to use the terraces as a place to recruit members, that doesn’t mean supporters can rest on our laurels. 

There is still work to be done to ensure football is for all, and the Fans for Diversity (FFD) campaign has been at the forefront of that in recent years, so it seemed a good time to have a catch up with FFD Guidance Group volunteers Paul Kirton and Rodney Cyrus, as well as campaign co-ordinator Anwar Uddin.

Paul runs Grassroots Football UK while Rodney hosts the On and Off The Pitch podcast. Both were youngsters who loved playing and watching football while growing up in the 70s and 80s.

Over to Anwar, Paul, and Rodney to hear about their experiences and views on recent events…

Rodney: My obsession with football started in the 70s when I was seven or eight. I asked my mum and dad to stay up and watch the football on Saturday night and that was that. I played in the park, on the streets, for the school and local Sunday teams.

I grew up in south London and at school I had a wide friendship group – black and white, Asian – and everyone just followed who they wanted! Lots of Arsenal, a few Spurs, Liverpool, Millwall and Palace. My dad came here from Jamaica when he was 14 so his experience as a youth was being chased by Teddy Boys and that made him careful – he never took me to football. My introduction was through TV and I liked the way Manchester United played, so they were my team.

Anwar: That’s interesting as a lot of fans from BME background, myself included, gravitated towards “TV teams” because our parents warned us off going to grounds back then as they could be racist places, so you didn’t necessarily follow your local team.

It’s understandable and one of the big aims of the FFD campaign is to engage young supporters to get to games of clubs who might be on their doorsteps but they’re maybe a little intimidated to visit.

Growing up my family supported Spurs but we never went to games and it wasn’t until I was a West Ham United youth player that I really got to see that side of things. And even then the pub culture which surrounds football can be intimidating for fans who aren’t used to it.

That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with pubs and a few pints before the match but there’s nothing wrong with other ways to experience the game either. It’s just about having those options.

A good example of that is Bradford City’s Valley Parade, which is in a predominantly Asian community but as a player [editor’s note – Anwar played almost 300 professional games] when I was heading to the stadium or warming up I’d never see that. There wasn’t really any Asian representation in the stands. So we’ve really got behind and supported Bangla Bantams who’ve done loads in the local community to build their own type of matchdays and get youngsters along to games and make sure they grow up Bantams fans.

Paul: I’m mixed race and was brought up in a white household in the north east. I loved football and lots of my friends were white or Asian and I was the only person of colour in my school. Players I knew from Asian backgrounds often broke away from traditional leagues ‘cos of abuse or hatred but I went into “mainstream” football.

There are still Asian teams and Asian leagues and I’d like to try and reach back into those leagues and say “why not give the mainstream leagues another shot?”. History and memories will give a perception of what it was like but actually the reality might be different now.

There are loads of Asian kids playing in Sunday leagues and five-a-side but as they progress there are fewer in academies. You have to ask what’s happened? Ability alone isn’t what’s holding kids back.

Rodney: When I go to Old Trafford there’s a black kid that sits behind me with his grandad in the east stand. That’s an experience I never had at that age! The roar of the crowd. Singing and chanting. I was a Radio Rentals fan! Watching results and games through a shop window.

As I say, my dad never felt he could take me to football but I took my youngest brother when he was 15. We got hold of tickets for United at Palace – Kanchelskis and the green and yellow kit. I’d taken on the role of the dad, in a way.

I’ve always been aware of being different at games, in terms of the colour of my skin, and there have been occasions when I’ve heard racist language. Sometimes the person or the people around them acknowledge it and say “sorry he doesn’t mean you” or they just ignore it. I think it’s instinctive with some people – they don’t “get” it and probably use that language all the time.

Paul: Have I experienced racism in football? Yes. But racism isn’t football. Racism is in society and football is in society. There was no reporting system I was aware of in my day and I suffered as part of the “norm”. But my love of the game outweighed the fear of being abused and I never got it from my team, it tended to be the opposition.

How can I channel my personal experiences and utilise them into a positive force for good? So lots of the content we promote at Grassroots Football UK is about the positive aspects of the sport. If participation rates fall across any demographic we have to ask why?

What’s stopping black or LGBT people being involved in the game? And not just stop at the question, what actions can be taken to address these issues in the short, medium and long term, a diverse game is a stronger, more beautiful game?

Rodney: The only way to make progress is to agree that something is wrong before we can move forward. It’s a central plank of mediation. The Black Lives Matter (BLM) slogan on shirts is part of the conversation until we can all talk about what really matters and how we can move forward collectively.

It’s about treatment, job opportunities, access. Everything. BLM stands for more than ill-treatment by police. It’s across the board. Sports, education, criminal justice, politics. Everything, as it’s all entwined, and that’s the conversation we’re currently seeing.

Paul: In a way, I don’t like campaigns! Equality should be sewn into the fabric of society. Is there racism in football? There’s racism in society and it’s not a weekend campaign or a one month campaign. What I’d like to see sewn into all elements of society are the four pillars of diversity – inclusivity, participation, governance, and respect.

When you’re under fire it is possible to build a bigger fire and fight fire with fire, but unfortunately that doesn’t always help and can actually create a bigger fire. Sometimes the media fuels the flames too and makes this fire even bigger. I think what really makes a difference is doing the right thing, even when no-one is watching. That’s the water which dampens the flames.

#FootballVoices

As part of the FFD campaign, a joint project by the Football Supporters’ Association and Kick It Out, we’re running a series of #FootballVoices interviews speaking to fans from a range of backgrounds. 

FFD wants all fans to feel they can be part of the game, regardless of their background. That isn’t about sanitising the game and taking away what makes being in a football ground special; the raw atmosphere of defiance and jubilation which home teams want to build, and which away teams want to challenge.

It’s about acknowledging and developing matchdays which can be enjoyed by everyone – whether you want to bounce for 90 minutes after a few pints or give the mascot a cuddle and sit with the family. Pies and pakoras; Bovril and beer; a rainbow flag? It matters not once we’re in the stadium, we’re all fans with the same goal.

Being visible, being welcomed, being accepted. It’s a difficult journey for some and we want to make it easier, making football a place where people can enjoy our national game without fear of discrimination and abuse.

Want to get involved? We’d love to hear from you. Email: anwar.uddin@thefsa.org.uk

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Funding partners

  • The Football Association
  • Premier Leage Fans Fund

Partners

  • Gamble Aware
  • Co-operatives UK
  • FSE
  • Kick It Out
  • Level Playing Field
  • Living Wage Foundation
  • SD Europe