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'I was a racist - but football changed me written by Kevin Mitchell

This article is more than 17 years old for the Guardian Newspaper

From National Front to the Vince Hilaire fan club - football leads the way in softening ingrained prejudice. Kevin Mitchell reports

Let's call him Lenny. He prefers not to give his real name because what he wants to talk about can still touch raw nerves, as well as cause misunderstandings.

Lenny has followed Millwall since he was a teenager in the mid-1970s and has seen racism uglier and more violent than any of the images that have returned to our television screens in recent weeks like recurring nightmares. His upbringing, family and neighbourhood shaped his attitudes. Growing up in Sidcup after a start in Hackney, he encountered few ethnic minorities and says, 'All black kids were known as "wogs" or "coons". Our fathers used these terms, so did our uncles, and we saw no wrong in using this terminology. We thought it was the norm.' There was one black kid at his secondary school. He was known as 'Golly and 'he didn't seem to mind his nickname at all'. But contact was still minimal. Understanding probably even more so.

'The first black players I saw in the flesh were Trevor Lee and Phil Walker for Millwall. They used to play in games, where, if the opponents had black players, they were subjected to all sorts of racial abuse, while Walker and Lee were cheered from the rafters by the same people. I openly admit to my share of racial abuse at the time.'

He remembers a Panorama programme 'glorifying' the deeds of Millwall's small but violent army of away fans at the time.' Millwall had its own share of black football hooligans back in the 1980s,' he says.' People would laugh and joke with them, stand alongside them in a fight, but would racially abuse players in the ground an hour later.'

He remembers a League Cup tie away at West Bromwich Albion when their centre-forward, Garry Thompson, was pelted with bananas and the ball ran past him out of play. 'It was something me and the people I mixed with found hilarious,' he says. Lenny was at Wembley the night Viv Anderson was booed by England fans on his debut.

All of this informed his growth. But then he changed. He saw Millwall change, slowly but for the better. He saw the club reach out to ethnic minorities, as well as to their white hinterland. And he is fiercely defensive of their good name. Like most Millwall fans, he objects to their linger- ing bad reputation and reckons they do more for racial harmony than many clubs.

He also grew tired of the ugly ways of his youth. Seven years ago, Lenny, who had played to county standard, became involved in boys' football and now runs his youngest son's team. 'I am involved with a small local boys club. By being around Millwall and being involved directly with a club, my attitude towards racism, in general, has changed dramatically from what it was 20 years ago.

'My sons, who have been brought up in a more tolerant society to what I knew as a child, do not even contemplate a person's colour. I'll still laugh at jokes about black or Asian people, the same as I would about Jewish, French, fat, thin or ugly people. Does this make me racist or a hypocrite? That is for you to decide.'

He has no doubt that football has changed the racists, rather than the reverse. Lenny's honesty was impressive. So was Kevin Day's. A Crystal Palace fan who grew up in the same era, Day recalls recalls lighter moments in unpromising situations, as befits the comedian he is. 'I remember one exchange,' he says, 'between a big, pot-bellied skinhead, who shouted out to John Barnes, a beautiful black man, "Why don't you fuck off back where you came from?" Someone turned to this bloke and said to him, "He's just come from our penalty area, so don't be telling him to go back there ".'

It was only when the individual elements of the mob were separated from their herd that they even vaguely resembled members of the human race. More often than not, though, football was a jungle, where the majority kept their mouths shut and the easily-led minority performed like chimps, ironic given the way they would characterise black players.

Day, now a respected writer and television presenter, admits to brief membership of the National Front in South London when he was a teenager in the 1970s. It took the death of his lifelong black friend Richard Campbell in custody in 1980 to 'make the scales fall quickly from my eyes'.

Day left the NF, moved to the left, stayed there and, at the Edinburgh Festival in 1993, won many admirers for presenting a very public self-analysis of his past in 'I Was A Teenage Racist'.

William Cook, in the Guardian, wrote of Day's performance and observations: 'His fellow racists emerge as confused rather than malicious men who retreat into painful politeness when confronted with a black face.'

Day says now, 'Sometimes I wish it would be forgotten. But I knew it had to be said. And it's important to say it now.' Day understood racists better than most sociologists (and a few journalists) who had observed them from a distance, like ants in a laboratory. A couple of decades on from the bad days, we discussed what had changed, even as the racists seem to be struggling out of the swamp again. Among the light-hearted moments back then, we agreed, were many more that resembled the moronic monkey-chanting in Madrid when Spain played England 10 days ago, the bug-eyed screaming at Dwight Yorke at Blackburn, then more of the same, bare-chested and unapologetically fascist, in front of the TV cameras at the Bernabeu again last week.

Are these isolated incidents, or a sign of a return to the days of hate? Certainly they are no longer commonplace.

'Twenty years ago,' Day says, 'it would have been a foolhardy or brave person who stood up to a racist in a football ground. Now it would be a foolhardy person who made a racist comment.

'I've spoken to my dad about this. In the late 1960s, when there were only one or two black players, notably Clyde Best, it wasn't really a problem because they were perceived as a novelty.

Then, all through the 70s and the early 80s - and Britain was a very harsh place in those days - that's when the problem really started.'

There seems to be a consensus that, initially by accident and lately by design, football has helped to drown out racism.

Michael Martin of True Faith, the Newcastle fanzine, says: 'Many factors combined to end widespread racist abuse at Newcastle United (campaigns, education, CCTV, legislation etc) but for me the biggest impact came in the club signing black players, who everyone just had to idolise (Andy Cole, Les Ferdinand, Tino Asprilla). That cracked it.'

When more black players began to break into the top flight in the early 1980s, racists feared an 'invasion'. They hit out every week. Then, when players such as Ian Wright and Mark Bright at Palace, for instance, established themselves, the mood softened. They were here to stay. And they were good. Maybe the racists, like hooligans, just got bored.

Day remembers Palace as being not as bad as some grounds. 'Vince Hilaire, really, was the first prominent black player we had. Then in the late 80s and early 90s, the team that got to the Cup Final, seven of those players were black and were mainly from the area. So there was never really a problem at Palace.'

But there were still noises, and no noise came more controversially than from the Palace chairman, Ron Noades.

'I think under Ron Noades Palace were the sort of club who did what they had to do,' Day says. 'They put the appropriate signs up. And then Ron came out with that statement about black players not liking it much in the heart of winter. It was an astonishing thing to say.' Advertisement The effusive Wright, who was starting to excite Palace fans at the time alongside the articulate Bright and several other black players, told Day, however, that Noades was 'the best football boss I'd ever worked with'. Leon Mann, of the Kick It Out anti-racism campaign, says: 'Many people in this country just don't have interaction with ethnic minorities, and football - as the national game - helps that process. The iconic status of many black players over the years has helped to break down stereotypes, and the reception of black people in society as a whole has changed alongside that process.'

There is no denying clubs have been won round, some more easily than others. 'It's hard to say,' observes Day,' which was more important: the fact that more and more black players were coming through and then it became impossible to boo a black player on one side but not on the other, or whether the clubs' own policies to eradicate racism were starting to work. Probably a bit of both, although I've got a feeling a lot of clubs initially only paid lip-service to [the campaign].

Certain clubs have been exemplary, like Charlton and, to their credit, Millwall, doing everything they could do to root out systemic racism.'

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