Stripes like a zebra
Aberdeen Manager Derek McInnes was commendably clear in his condemnation of one of his own club’s supporters this week after a video surfaced online of Scott Sinclair taking a penalty during the League Cup Final. A person very near the camera in the Aberdeen end of the stadium shouted in an unmistakable manner, ‘Ya black bastard!’ as the Celtic winger lined up to take the kick. The Dons boss said….
‘it’s an absolute disgrace, the ignorance of an uneducated fan shouting racial abuse, any racial abuse, in this day and age, is shocking. It’s embarrassing for the individual. It’s not a club issue for me. It’s the individual. That type of comment was maybe normal practice in the Sixties and Seventies, and it was appalling then and shocking then, and even more so now. It’s shocking that Scott Sinclair and any other player is still subjected to that.”
Last year we had Moussa Dembele being called the same thing at Ibrox and once more a smart-phone camera recorded the moron in question. Sinclair was abused at the same venue by a grown man acting like a monkey. Some questioned if we as a society had moved on at all since the 1970s and 80s when such behaviour was sadly common in football all over the world. Indeed far right groups often sought to recruit young men at football matches as far afield as Upton Park and Ibrox.
Having lived through some of those times I have personal experience of supporters of all hues behaving poorly. It would be disingenuous to say my own club hasn’t had its share of idiots from time to time. Indeed the way Mark Walters was treated at Celtic Park by a handful of morons in 1988 was as disgraceful as it was repugnant. The Celtic support in general were deeply embarrassed and angry by the behaviour of that handful idiots who threw bananas onto the track. Worse was to come for Mark Walters at Tynecastle a week or two later when he was pelted with bananas while taking a corner. We cannot shy away from this. It happened in our own stadiums and streets, it was disgraceful and it must never happen again. There are no mitigating circumstances it was just idiots being idiots and thinking it was okay.
The Celtic fanzines of the time ripped into what they called ‘racist arseholes’ in the Celtic support who had dragged us all down. They were also quick to point out the hypocrisy of Rangers fans’ outrage over the Walters incident given that they had filled the air that day with the usual anti-Catholic/Irish bile which made up most of their songbook then. It was too much for some to recognise any kind of moral equivalence between their own ‘FTP’ songs or ditties about being up to your knees in Fenian blood, and what happened to Walters. Therein lies part of the problem; we get habituated to hearing such songs and they lose some of their potency as insults. Equally, some are habituated to singing them and pass it off as banter, not really hateful. Sometimes it takes an outsider to look at it all with fresh eyes and ask us why we tolerate such base behaviour. Calling it ‘tradition’ or ‘culture’ really doesn’t excuse what is in essence thick, unadulterated prejudice.
I have an acquaintance who tells me he’s a ’90 minute bigot’ who sings it all at football then returns to being his normal self when the football is finished. I try to explain you either find those songs acceptable or you don’t but he’s happy with his ‘Jeckyl and Hyde’ approach to it. ‘You know me,’ he told me one day, ‘I have lots of Catholic pals.’ I nodded and told him this was all the more reason to drop the silly songs.
The advent of foreign players pouring into Scottish football meant that most clubs now have players from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds and our heroes are of many hues. We occasionally see or hear things will hark back to a darker time, a time before our society evolved in the more tolerant place it is today. It is far from perfect but it is satisfying to see so many willing to add their voices to the condemnation of racist behaviour in Scotland. There can be no standing on the side-lines with this one. It needs calling out without fear or favour wherever it rears its ugly head. These days of Brexit and increasing xenophobia have emboldened some of our less enlightened citizens to think they can once again air their prejudice with impunity. It’s up to us all to say; we’re not going back to the bad old days. We’re not standing for it in football or anywhere else. Too many men and women have suffered the rough tongues of racists and we need to work to educate those who are still receptive to it that this is simply not acceptable.
Leo Durocher was a baseball coach of some repute in the major league of the USA in the years after World War 2. Notoriously bellicose and mouthy ‘Leo the Lip’ was also absolutely ruthless and often ordered his pitchers to hit the batters with the ball deliberately. ‘Nice guys finish last’ was his usual comment when challenged on his approach to baseball. He was loud, brash and a hard drinking coach but when it came to winning he was focussed and determined. He spotted a hugely talented player and was determined to get him into his Dodgers side. The player was Jackie Robinson and his signing caused huge controversy because he was black and the Major Leagues simply didn’t play black players in that era. Durocher was determined to get Robinson into the team and faced down those in his own club who were unhappy with a black player in the dressing room. He told a meeting of his unhappy players with typical bluntness….
"I do not care if the guy is yellow or black, or if he has stripes like a fuckin' zebra. I'm the manager of this team, and I say he plays.’
When Robinson lined up with his grumpy team mates to play the Philadelphia Phillies, some of the Phillies players and officials called him a ‘nigger’ and suggested that he go ‘back to the cotton fields.’ This had the unexpected effect of galvanising his team mates behind him and he was accepted by them to a much greater extent. They came to realise team was more important than the individual members and Robinson’s fine play soon convinced many that it wasn’t so bad to have a black guy in the side after all. The fear, fed by unthinking prejudice, turned out to be groundless. Robinson was a pioneer and many followed in his footsteps.
So I say well said to Derek McInnes, it can be hard calling out one of your own but it is the only way to shame someone into thinking about their behaviour. There were undoubtedly children near or beside the voice bellowing out his prejudice at the League Cup final but thankfully they’ll be educated by the wiser heads and indeed by the Aberdeen manager himself that this isn’t a role model to follow. Bigotry in all its forms is an evil we must all fight. It isn’t about club loyalty or throwing mud at others, it’s about the decent majority at all clubs saying, ‘no, we’re not having it.’ Just as drink driving was greatly reduced by becoming socially unacceptable, so to bigotry and racism can be expelled to the fringes of society. There will always be foolish people prepared to say foolish things but in the end it tells us more about their personal ignorance than their intended targets.
They fail to see how their prejudice harms not only society in general but also themselves. An old Chinese proverb says; ‘hatred corrodes the vessel in which it is stored.’ It’s up to us all to nip this pernicious weed in the bud whenever it appears. To paraphrase the inimitable ‘Lippy Lou’ Durocher:
"I do not care if a guy is yellow or black, or if he has stripes like a fuckin' zebra. If he wants play for my club or join us in the stands backing the team he’s more than welcome.’
Racists are not.