To black footballers, I say: walk off if fans abuse you

I once toyed with being a sports journalist. I couldn't quite penetrate the cricket mafia, but I got one or two pieces on athletics in the Sunday Times. Then came the biggie: an assignment to follow two black players who had burst on to the scene at Millwall. They were called Trevor Lee and Phil Walker, and they were both forwards who ran with the ball seemingly tied to their laces, dancing around defences at will.

I interviewed them and followed them in training for a couple of days or so, and then, one Saturday afternoon, I had to visit The Den, Millwall's notorious East End ground. All my friends warned me against going; one or two suggested an away game as an alternative. They told me that Millwall supporters carried knives and were well-known racists.

As soon as I arrived, there were mumblings of "that fucking darkie", even from the better-behaved section of the crowd. I chose deliberately to sit among the rabble, as part of my piece would deal with relations between the black players and the white spectators.

Both Phil and Trevor played their socks off on that cold, dark Saturday, and the supporters gave them their all. But once the game was over, this was forgotten. The talk was of niggers, spades and darkies. There were one or two very ugly moments, a glimpse of cold steel, until I convinced a police officer to rescue me. He simply could not understand the state of mind of any black person who, for whatever reason, would visit The Den. My career as a journalist covering sport had come to a swift end.

Back then, there was only a smattering of black players, and it seemed that racial abuse was fundamental to the culture of football. Blacks, too, walked with bananas and perfected the monkey grunt in order to be part of the crowd.

In spite of the valiant efforts of the Let's Kick Racism Out of Football campaign, the abuse continues. The young Costa Rican, Paulo Wanchope, was absolutely devastated when West Ham supporters latched on to his racial characteristics. Yet West Ham once boasted that, having signed Clyde Best from the Caribbean, they were in the vanguard of anti-racism. Mrs Howe, born and bred in the East End, says not so. The Watson clan, to which she belongs, took her to a couple of home matches. She could not stomach it. To this day, she has an aversion to the game. She tells stories of her ex-husband, a Sierra Leonean, who felt that it was just a part of the game. He didn't mind; it was only good-natured banter, he said.

Do black players feel this way? Their numbers are increasing every year; this is the moment to make a dramatic stand. Emile Heskey, formerly of Leicester and now of Liverpool, went to Italy to represent England; the racial slogans and abuse knew no bounds. He took it all, in the name of England. And you know what blew my mind? The reporters congratulated him on his stoicism. The Negro, you see, had turned the other cheek. He had been tamed.

What could he have done? He could have walked off the pitch, watched by millions the world over, with a lingering strut, head high, inviting Beckham and the rest to follow. The following Saturday, black players could have demanded a minute's silence before every match. The slogan should be "Get ready to rumble".

The football authorities would soon design new rules, once the revolt spread throughout this nation, a la Stephen Lawrence. Teams should lose league points if they are unable to calm their thugs - face suspension from the league for a season, even. We need Draconian penalties. The entire football fraternity must fight for the elimination of this cancer before all else.

Please note: I am not recommending that some outside force act on behalf of beleaguered black players. Many of them are fine footballers and, in the Premiership, many make a great deal of money. But they should not allow their silence to be bought. I repeat my advice to them: "Get ready to rumble."

Darcus Howe is an outspoken writer, broadcaster and social commentator. His TV work includes ‘White Tribe’ in which he put Anglo-Saxon Britain under the spotlight. He also fronted a series called Devil’s Advocate.

This article first appeared in the 27 November 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of stealthy wealth