It is flicking through the glossy pages of the Chelsea programme, going back a few years now, when you come across the article name-checking one of the club’s former youth-team players and perhaps get a flavour of how much has changed in such a short space of time.
In particular, it’s the line three-quarters of the way down that jumps off the page with its description of the player as a “black guy who was the butt of a lot of jokes”. It is an awkward choice of words at the best of times – why mention the player’s skin colour? – but particularly so bearing in mind what we know now and the fact it is referring to one of the boys who now alleges his treatment at Stamford Bridge went a long way beyond innocent humour. According to the author, that boy “was almost too nice to make it in football”. The player will argue it is not a case of being too nice when there were people, two or three times his age, who were allegedly subjecting him to racial abuse.
It is certainly jarring, to say the least, to hear the words that have been alleged, the claims that black players as young as 12 or 13 were treated like “a race of fucking dogs” and the specific allegations against Graham Rix and against Gwyn Williams, a man who gave over 25 years to Chelsea, that have left one of England’s leading clubs facing civil claims from three of their old youth-team graduates.
At least Chelsea, to give them their due, have recognised the seriousness of the issue and I actually have a certain amount of sympathy with the modern-day club bearing in mind, more than 20 years since the alleged events took place, it is a completely different regime at Stamford Bridge now. Their statement says they are “absolutely determined to do the right thing, fully support those affected, assist the authorities and support their investigations” and the club have offered at least one of the three players in-house counselling. Chelsea, I suspect, will be mortified about what is being alleged.
It should be stressed that Rix and Williams have denied the allegations, saying they are fully cooperating with the authorities and pointing out that the police had already decided not to involve the Crown Prosecution Service. There is no wish here to prejudge the civil action but it is also clear that Chelsea need to start interviewing players from the relevant era. Several have indicated they have information that would be useful and Chelsea – one of the clubs to commission a QC-led review into their involvement in the sexual-abuse scandal, investigating as far back as 1950 – have the means to instigate a proper inquiry.
Yet there is also a much wider story here bearing in mind the other headlines in the last week about Peter Beardsley fighting to keep his job coaching Newcastle United Under-23s because of allegations – denied by Beardsley – from Yasin Ben El-Mhanni, a 22-year-old reserve, about racism and bullying.
Before that, there was the racial discrimination that Eni Aluko and Drew Spence experienced during Mark Sampson’s time as England Women’s manager. Add in what Rhian Brewster had to say, when one of the players from England’s World Cup-winning under-17s chronicled his own experiences, and it is difficult to think of another time in football when more people have felt emboldened to speak out.
That doesn’t make it an easy process and it certainly wasn’t pleasant for Aluko to experience the briefing against her from inside the Football Association, the victim-blaming from one or two journalists and all the other nonsense she had to endure after an FA inquiry that, to recap, was summed up by the Professional Footballers’ Association as a “sham” that was “not a genuine search of the truth” but “designed to close down the complaint and absolve Mark Sampson”.
It cannot be much fun for El-Mhanni, either, to be a fringe player at Newcastle and taking on a man who could rival Kevin Keegan’s status, as Jack Charlton once put it, for being the kind of guy who could fall into the Tyne and come out with a salmon in his mouth. Beardsley is a hero in Newcastle, one of the greatest players ever to wear those black and white stripes and, without any idea of how that case will conclude, the only thing that can be said for now is that it is terribly sad someone with his status should find himself in this position, with five other players apparently backing El-Mhanni’s story.
Ultimately, though, it cannot be a bad thing if football has moved into a new age, or is getting closer to it anyway, when footballers who feel they have been victimised are far more willing to come forward than they would previously.
That was brought home after the interview with Brewster, when a former player, with his own experiences of enduring racism, got in touch to say how glad he was that a player of 17, still to make his professional debut for Liverpool, had felt able to come forward. In his day, he explained, black players were given the impression that it was a sign of weakness, not strength, to complain. We were talking about the 1980s, not Victorian times, but the culture was not to say anything, to suck it up and go by the mentality that if you wanted to make it in football it was something you had to go through.
Herman Ouseley, the Kick it Out chairman, summed it up when he talked about how hard it once was – and still is – for many players to speak out. “Certainly anyone with aspirations as a black person to play professional football has kept their heads down and tried to avoid taking on the established status quo of challenging the coach, the trainer or the football manager. They have not gone outside of that arena to try and get redress because, when they have, they have had their heads chopped off. That has been the death of their careers.”
It is certainly a very difficult issue. Frank Sinclair, another product of Chelsea’s youth system, made the point on Twitter that “we grew up in a world of discrimination acceptance” and said it was regarded as a test of character. Sinclair has sided with Rix and Williams and says the Chelsea he remembers was a tough environment where players of all shapes, nationalities and backgrounds, not just the black lads, got stick.
Yet, speaking generally, it is strange if he thinks that, just because someone accepted that culture back then, they should not bring it up now, and perhaps he would take a more sympathetic view if he had seen the evidence from one player about how the alleged abuse – including, he says, physical attacks from Rix and one incident when a cup of hot coffee was thrown in his face – had affected his life, stripped his confidence and, at times, left him wondering if he has the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Perhaps Sinclair, who did not play in the same team, might understand that, by questioning that player’s version of events, he is showing again – even unintentionally – why people in that position feel reticent about coming forward because of the backlash. And there is, always, a backlash, as Aluko, Patrice Evra and many others, most recently Mason Holgate, can all testify.
New procedures have just been announced for whistle-blowing and that at least is a start if the FA wants to repair some of the damage caused by the Aluko affair. Yet that raises other issues, if you recall Greg Clarke’s mea culpa last October when the FA chairman admitted it had “failed”, lost the trust of the public and been exposed for “how out of step we are”. Clarke might have apologised for his description of institutional racism as “fluff” but that will probably always be the comment that defines his time in office.
As for the rest of the organisation, the FA’s own polls show that only 27% of football fans think it is a competent governing body. Even fewer, 24%, have a positive perception of the organisation and I’m not confident those numbers will be improved by the explanation why Dan Ashworth, the FA’s technical director, has quietly been taken off England Women duties. Martin Glenn, the chief executive, would like us to believe it has nothing to do with Ashworth’s handling of the Aluko inquiry. And pigs might fly.
Maybe one day it will be different and the FA will no longer inspire this kind of suspicion. I doubt, however, that will be with this regime and that, in a nutshell, is the problem when it comes to encouraging people to trust the authorities. The damage is done and it feels very contradictory at a time when more and more players have decided that, no, they aren’t going to stay in that world of acceptance any longer.