Last Sunday I was making my way to Tynecastle Park to see the Hearts/Rangers game, full of optimism. I rounded the corner from Gorgie Road into McLeod Street when I spotted a familiar figure with a Hearts scarf around his neck and a bundle of leaflets in his hand.
Willie Black, the tireless anti-fascist campaigner whom I have known for nigh on 40 years, was standing with a group of fellow-travellers spreading their message of anti-racism. He told me that the leaflets had been well received with many Hearts fans voicing their support of its contents and their total opposition to the rumoured attendance at the game of Stephen Yaxley Lennon, otherwise known as Tommy Robinson which prompted the current leafletting campaign.
The leaflet, with the bold title of “Football For All, No To Islamophobia”, states: “We know from leafletting Tynecastle and other Scottish grounds last year when we mobilised against the racist ‘Football Lads Alliance’ that the vast majority of football fans oppose racism. Clubs have invested time and effort in anti-racist initiatives. Extreme racists and the fascist right must not be allowed to use football fans for their political agenda.”
Having been a regular attender at games throughout Scotland for more than five decades I am only too well aware of how far we have moved on since the 70s and 80s when sectarian singing was rife and the abuse of black players was accepted as being the norm by many football fans.
But it is evident that we still have some way to go! In 1988, Mark Walters (believed to be Rangers first black player) was subjected to monkey noises and banana-throwing when he made his debut in the New Year league clash against Celtic at Parkhead. The Celtic ball boys had to clear the pitch of the offending fruit and Frank McAvennie, the Celtic forward, said that what had happened at the game “left him sickened and embarrassed”.
I was at Tynecastle a fortnight later when Walters was subjected to the same treatment from a section of Hearts fans which prompted John Colquhoun, the Hearts winger, to run over to the corner of the pitch to remonstrate with them.
Although we seldom witness such distasteful incidents on the same scale nowadays (at least within these shores) there is no doubt that the racist element amongst fans which still exists is intent on hijacking football to promote their hateful views. Why, just last Sunday a Tottenham fan threw a banana skin at Arsenal players who were celebrating a goal although this time the club has acted quickly by imposing an indefinite ban from future games with immediate effect and a police inquiry has also been launched.
There is no doubt that the increased number of black players has played a role in diminishing the racist fans’ efforts, with a healthy contingent of black and ethnic players in both teams at Tynecastle Park on Sunday, but it would be folly to just dismiss the perpetrators as a lunatic fringe. News bulletins constantly remind us of the rise of far-right groups in Europe particularly in former Soviet-bloc countries and their cross-border link-ups with similarly minded groups in an effort to spread their propaganda and extend what influence they have.
As Willie Black’s leaflet says: “When the far-right is normalised, racist attacks increase. There have been a series of racist incidents in our city over the last six months.” It concludes: “Football is for everyone, women and men, black and white, LGBT+ and straight, disabled and non-disabled, people of all religions and none. We must show that Edinburgh is a welcoming place for all, both on the terraces and on the streets.”
Football is played and supported by “Jock Tamson’s Bairns” and racists are not welcome!