Sport - Jason Cowley finds football still racist

Britain is becoming obsessed with race and in football it's worse than ever

My father took me to see West Ham United for the first time in 1974. I was eight years old and shouldn't really have been there, for I was an Arsenal fan, something that always baffled him. I remember very little about the game, beyond that Derby County were the opponents, that it was a drab, goalless affair and that the Derby winger Alan Hinton (I think that was his name) wore white boots.

My father was born in Upton Park and much of his childhood was spent in Forest Gate, where the late-Victorian terraces of the East End give way to the open scrubland of Epping Forest. West Ham was his home team, his pride. Yet he was a reticent man, a child of the Blitz, and I was often embarrassed, when he took me to West Ham, to see him singing "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles", as he swayed in time with the strangers around him.

I watched West Ham a lot in the mid-to-late Seventies - after which I began to see my own team, Arsenal. There is one player, in particular, from that period whom I have never forgotten: the Bermudan-born Clyde Best, one of the pioneering black players of the English game. Best was heavy and clumsy - and missed more opportunities than he scored for West Ham. He was never popular; I often heard him being abused from the terraces, by both home and away supporters. The abuse was sometimes virulently racist.

The Seventies were a time of rapid change in football, not least because the first generation of British-born black players was emerging. It was routine back then to hear these players mocked and jeered from the terraces and, off the field, to hear their commitment and discipline being questioned by those who should have known better. There were progressive managers, such as Ron Atkinson of West Bromwich Albion, who had three outstanding black players - the late Laurie Cunningham, a thrilling winger who ended up at Real Madrid, Cyrille Regis and Brendon Batson. West Brom were often targeted by the racist element at West Ham, some of whom sold the National Front's magazine Bulldog outside the ground - the same magazine that would later award WBA a "golden banana" for having the most black players in one team.

It is often complacently accepted that racism has all but disappeared from the modern game, certainly at the highest level. In truth, it is, if anything, getting worse. A report in the December issue of Searchlight concluded: "Just as the decline of racism within football during the late 1980s and 1990s reflected the declining importance of the issue of race within society as a whole, so the present rise stems partly from the growth of racism within society generally . . . The present 'war on terror' has brought about increased suspicion, hatred and outright hostility to Muslim communities in Britain."

It can be dismaying to return to England after travelling overseas, because your experiences of home, for so long devoured by habitualism, are suddenly revitalised. But there was something especially dismaying this time to return, as I have from Australia, to discover that every second story in the newspaper was, in one way or another, about race. Britain, it seems, is becoming as obsessed with, and riven by, race as America. Which is why the decision by West Ham to sign Lee Bowyer has proved controversial. Bowyer may not have been found guilty for his part in a mob attack, involving four Leeds players, on an Asian youth outside a nightclub, but he remains perhaps the most reviled player in the game.

Is he racist, as many, including the Daily Mirror, allege? Should West Ham have signed him? Bowyer, who was born in the East End, is a combative player, blessed with great stamina and a kind of wild courage. But his personality, as manifested on a football field, is deeply repellent, as was evident when he stamped on the head of an opponent during a Uefa Cup match last month. Many, including Clyde Best, have called on him and his new club to sign anti-racist proclamations. But such declarations of intent are misguided. What matters is what you say and do, not what you sign. Bowyer now has a chance to redeem himself, in a West Ham shirt. Will he take it?