Why black lives should matter to Sheffield football fans...

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Sheffield was the birthplace of modern football. In Sheffield FC, it has the oldest club; with Hallam FC’s Sandygate it has the oldest ground; and with Wednesday and United, it has one of the oldest and finest derbies in the world.

Sheffield was also the first city to have a black professional footballer player appear for both its major clubs.

Ghanaian born goalkeeper Arthur Wharton made Yorkshire his home in 1884, at the age of 19.

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He reportedly played a single game for Sheffield Wednesday in 1888, before moving on to Sheffield United in 1894 – where he was back-up to the best-known goalkeeper of the 19th century, William Foulke.

The Arthur Wharton Statue is unveiled at St George's Park... (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)The Arthur Wharton Statue is unveiled at St George's Park... (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
The Arthur Wharton Statue is unveiled at St George's Park... (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images) | 2014 Getty Images

The first black player ever to play for England, Viv Anderson, called Sheffield home during the early nineties as he helped Wednesday reach two cup finals. The city also saw Danny Baath, one of only 54 British players of Asian origin to play professional football, play at Hillsborough.

Sheffield has always led the way when it comes to embracing diversity. The city, according to Sheffield City Council, is 19% black and minority ethnic – but is this diversity replicated on the terraces at Hillsborough or Bramall Lane?

Neither of Sheffield’s major clubs sell out every home game, yet I have seen little evidence of them reaching out a hand to the city’s ethnically diverse populations. Welcoming all the communities of Sheffield into the stadiums would build bridges, help create understanding, and give everyone something in common – football is the ultimate conversation starter that avoids religion, politics, or money. It could be done easily, and it would help increase the fan base for decades to come.

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Our city’s history means the football fans of Sheffield have a responsibility to be ambassadors for the beautiful game. This responsibility means that we should never turn our backs on those in our society who need allies – and right now, black communities really need their white neighbours to step up.

As we switch on the news and see the President of the United States turning the armed forces on communities who are protesting yet another murder of a black man by police, it is easy to dismiss this as an American problem. It isn’t.

Derek Bennett, Jacob Michael, Kingsley Burrell, and Kevin Clarke are just some of the names of black men who have died in police custody in the UK. And a police officer is facing a murder charge following the death of former Sheffield Wednesday player Dalian Atkinson. Atkinson was tasered by police while having a mental health episode in his father’s house in Telford. He suffered a cardiac arrest on the way to hospital and lost his life.

Our black and minority ethnic communities have long been under attack from institutions that have racism running through their core. You need look no further than the investigation into the murder of Stephen Lawrence, the black British teenager murdered in a racially motivated attack in 1993. His family had to fight for 20 years to see justice done.

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Around the world, black communities face prejudice, abuse, and unfair targeting and provocation by police forces.

Being football fans, we can relate to some of that. There barely seems to be a month go by without us seeing a football fan bleeding from the head after being hit by a police baton, or fans being kettled behind stadiums, marched through traffic, and forced onto overcrowded public transport.

If you know that police brutality and ill-treatment can happen to you because you’re a football fan, then you know it happens to others because of the colour of their skin.

As a Sheffield Wednesday fan it made my heart sing – as we reflected on our 2005 playoff final triumph on social media – to see pictures of our defender, Liam Palmer, at that game in Cardiff. He’s a Wednesday fan born and bred, a supporter from childhood, a player in adulthood. He is living one half of our city’s dream. What saddens me though is that if we were both to walk home from Hillsborough after a match, he would be 40 times more likely to be stopped and searched by the police than I would[2].

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Black players are also far more likely to face abuse from the stands than their white teammates, as high-profile players like Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford have recently experienced.

I want to see more action by players and clubs to tackle racism, and this includes walking off the pitch when racist abuse happens. But it has to be the whole team, and it has to be every time. There should be no grey area when standing up against racism.

In America, the NFL bullied stars like Colin Kaepernick and others who took a knee to protest the killing and persecution of people of colour. They knelt alone, and it wrecked their careers. That’s why I believe all players should walk off.

Some football fans say that this action is inappropriate, but it is a way to force a change in culture. After all, how many times will people travel to a game and see it abandoned because of racism before they start calling out the racists? I believe it could quickly become an effective way to make matches safer for everyone.

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So much has changed in the last 50 years, but there is still a long way to go. Sheffield gave the world modern football, and the city can birth to a new way of being, where no one has to fear football fans or football stadiums.

Sheffield United legend and the first Premier League goalscorer, Brian Deane, said just last month on the Undr The Cosh podcast, “As a young black kid in them times, it was kind of a different environment. Going to football matches could be quite intimidating, so I used to stay clear.”

I don’t want what Brian Deane felt to ever be felt by another child of colour in Sheffield again.

As we come out of coronavirus lockdown and begin to play again, we have to have the serious conversation with ourselves – what kind of football clubs do we want in our city?

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I’d like to think we want clubs where, whenever and wherever we wear the shirt worldwide, people will flock to talk to us because they know we’re good people. We want to follow the path laid out by the likes of St Pauli, Dulwich Hamlet, and Clapton CFC, and provide a safe environment for anyone who wants to be part of our community.

If we stand for nothing, we will fall for everything, so I ask you, as the fires of hate burn all around us, to speak up for equality, to speak up and to call out people using racist language. Make sure that whichever turnstile you go through when football returns, everyone is welcome.