Comment: As the Bulgaria outrage subsides, anti-racism charities must be supported to reverse the trend back home

As the insatiable news cycle of the national sports media prepares to veer away from the issue of racism in football for another few months, much-needed education continues not in a far flung land, but right here in Blighty.

Monday, 21st October 2019, 6:00 am
Updated Monday, 21st October 2019, 8:03 pm
Bulgaria fans in the stands after an anti-racism announcement over the Tannoy during last week's clash against England in Sofia.

The reality is that little will be heard of the racism issues facing the national game – and indeed others according to rugby union star Maro Itoje – until the next sorry high-profile incident comes around.

It’s the nature of the beast. Opinion pieces will cease and the camera lenses honed in on Eastern Europe will be directed back towards VAR, failing managers or warring WAGs. But with reports of racism in football rising year-on-year in the UK, the commitment of charities aiming to put a break on that charge is not to be questioned.

Show Racism The Red Card (SRTRC) are a charity established in 1996 with the aim of educating school children on the absurdity of racism. Their workshop arrived at Rotherham United and Sheffield Wednesday last week on their annual tour of ‘most of’ the nation’s football grounds and presented their wares to kids from three local schools.

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It’s a continuing effort that is much-needed in these splintered times. Reports of racism in football rose by 43 per cent last year according to official Kick It Out figures, with a 75 per cent rise in faith-based discrimination, which includes Islamophobia and antisemitism.

Alarmingly, some 40 per cent of these incidents were reported from within youth football. Hate crimes in general society have more than doubled since 2013, with 78,991 cases reported in England and Wales alone in the last year.

Paul Kearns, Deputy Chief Executive at SRTRC, delivered the workshops alongside former Premier League star and charity ambassador John Beresford, and maintained the scourge of racism at home is as challenging now as ever.

Paul said: “As an education charity we’ve seen a growth in racism over the past few years whether that’s an anti-Muslim sentiment or anti-immigration. We’ve seen that build over the last six or seven years. Racism is evolving and we’re having to change and adapt our message to deal with that.

Sheffield Wednesday winger Kadeem Harris admitted he suffered racist abuse during a game as a teenager

“We are making progress and we are heading in the right direction, but it doesn’t take much to go backwards and we need to re-double our efforts to make sure that doesn’t happen.

“These high-profile cases shine a spotlight on what’s happening every day out in society and our schools are being subjected to those kind of messages.”

Whitewashing of these domestic issues in some quarters may have overlooked this reality this week, but speaking in the days after Gareth Southgate’s side were twice forced to stop the game in Sofia, Sheffield Wednesday’s Kadeem Harris admitted the threat was very real. He was racially abused on the pitch just a few years ago.

“I have experienced it once on the pitch,” he said. “I think it was in the Under-18s at the time playing a reserve game.

Sheffield Wednesday manager Garry Monk spoke about about the racist abuse of his teammates here in the UK

“There was one fan giving it, but at the time it just gave me more incentive to do well in that match.

“I don't know if racism in football is rising, but I think there is a spotlight on it.”

Sheffield Wednesday boss Garry Monk delivered a passionate condemnation of the scenes in Bulgaria while admitting the issues we face at home.

Asked whether he had witnessed racism on these shores, Monk said: “A few times. Black teammates of mine have been racially abused at games.

“There wasn't much awareness, there wasn't so much of a highlight on the authorities doing something about it. It was difficult.

“We were teammates with those players and the teams we were in were always a very close-knit group so it was always hurtful to everyone.

“On two or three occasions that happened to a few of my black teammates and I felt for them really badly. I felt angry about it.”

Those statements are not to paint the Hillsborough club faultless in their handling of racism, of course, far from it. Whatever your view on how the Fernando Forestieri case has been handled, to allow his suspension to end on Friday without starting the FA’s mandatory education course was absurd in the extreme; to describe it as an ill-timed PR oversight would be very generous.

Kick It Out Head of Development Troy Townsend was outspoken in his criticism of both club and player when commenting on his failure to start the course, claiming the 29-year-old should not be allowed to play until he has done so and questioning the message it sends out.

Social media is providing authorities with new challenges in tackling bigotry. There was a 12 per cent rise in reports of football racism on social media last season and Wednesday’s Harris, 26, is in no doubt as to what should become of the culprits.

“We need hefty fines and maybe prison time,” he said. “You also need to get people looking at who is behind that profile, because sometimes it's difficult as it's not always the same name.

“But there are people who can find who is behind an account, and when they do that find that person, they should be dealt with harshly.”

Appearing at the SRTRC event at Hillsborough alongside Cameron Dawson, Owls midfielder Massimo Luongo, of Indonesian descent, said he suffered racism at school. He commended the work of those organisations and admitted no such effort is made in his native Australia.

“It’s stepping stones,” he said, “we all wish it would go quicker but that’s how it is.

“It’s about educating the kids about other cultures. Days like today are so important and it’s brilliant what they’ve done. It needs to happen more often.”

But funding over the past 23 years has dwindled dramatically, says Kearns, who has worked with SRTRC for 14 years. Asked whether the organisation has their own all-guns-blazing PR team, Paul laughs, explaining that resources for all charities are increasingly stretched. Staff numbers have shrunk, resources diminished.

“We go to as many clubs as we can,” Kearns says, “most of the clubs are on board with the campaign and as a charity we can only afford to work with so many every season. We tend to work with at least 50 every year.

“It goes from Liverpool, the champions of Europe, right down to League Two and even some lower league teams. We’re really lucky to have the support that we do.”

Together with other organisations such as Kick It Out, Paul and his team present a united front against the scourge of racism despite being forced to swim against an increasingly choppy financial tide.

If the moral indignation quite rightly shown by the media and public towards the scenes in Bulgaria last week is real, surely it is organisations such as Kearns that require genuine support. The money is there, after all. It’s vital we get our own house in order too.