The fan - Hunter Davies on football and race

Strange and confusing, the double standards at play on race

In the 1970s, football coaches were really racist. At Spurs, there was one trainer who made jokes about monkeys and bananas, and honestly believed no black player would ever make it in England. They couldn't take the bad weather, the heavy pitches, were muscle-bound but chicken when the going got rough, and were basically Fancy Dans.

Fans could be just as bad. Clyde Best, who played 186 times for West Ham between 1969 and 1975, was about the only black player in the top division for most of those years. He took a lot of abuse. I interviewed him in 1971 and he rather brushed it aside, as if he hadn't heard the taunts.

Thirty years later, I met him again in Bermuda, whence he had returned, and he admitted that it had been far worse than I had imagined. "I got hate letters, abuse on and off the pitch. Players said terrible things to me. All black people - nurses, teachers - had to put up with it at that time. I was on my own, as a footballer. My dad told me to stick it out. He said I owed it to everyone to make a go of it. 'It's not for you,' he used to tell me. 'It's for all the people after you.'"

Those who came afterwards were mainly British-born blacks, well used to the weather, the language, the so-called dressing-room banter, and by 1978, with Viv Anderson, we had the first black footballer playing for England. In the 1990s, they were joined by black foreign players, most of them already stars in their own right. Today, in many teams, there is often a majority of black players, native or foreign. In Arsenal's starting team against Spurs last Sunday, seven out of the 11 were black.

I don't think that in ten years I have heard racial abuse at Premiership games, though they say it goes on in the lower leagues. Arsenal fans clearly adore Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira and appear oblivious of their race. Vieira has become Paddy, just as Robert Pires has become Bobby, showing they are one of us.

All fans now know that blacks come in all types and sizes, all shapes and shades - just like, well, everyone else, thus disproving those 1970s stereotypes. Marcel Desailly is clearly one of nature's aristocrats, in looks and hauteur, and speaks three languages. Thierry Henry is more your professional type, lean and wiry, so clever and smart. I can see him with a wig on in court. Shaun Wright-Phillips, one of our home-grown blacks, is small, thin and weedy, so unlike the dear old images of black players with barrel chests and monster thighs. Carlton Palmer always looked clumsy, physically unco-ordinated and ugly. But if you wanted to really scare the bairns, I think Martin Keown, who is white, would do a better job.

Fans are used to the variations, and love or hate players for reasons not connected to their race. It was interesting last Sunday listening to the Spurs fans abusing Sol Campbell, whom they still despise for deserting them. I didn't hear anyone call him a black bastard. Just a common or garden bastard.

Inside the game, they are all brought up together, learn to rely on each other, to kiss and hug, shag the same women, often at the same time, so I can't believe that today any white British player, or manager, has racist tendencies. Even in private. At least that's what I thought, until Ron Atkinson's reference to niggers.

Such an archaic term to use. People have suggested it's his age, 65, and a sheltered, blinkered life, still influenced by those coaches from his youth. He says he didn't know what he was saying, he just blurted it out. Yet as manager of West Brom, he did so much to help the careers of black players. Strange and confusing, the double standards at play when it comes to race.

Shaka Hislop, now goalie at Portsmouth, tells a story of when he played for Newcastle United. He was at a petrol station near St James when some kids aged about 12 started shouting racist abuse. Then one of them suddenly recognised him and shouted, "Hey, it's Shaka." All of them immediately asked for his autograph.

Hislop's initial reaction was amazement, then he walked away without saying a word.