ONE OF the most iconic photographic images of the 1980s is of Liverpool’s John Barnes back-heeling a banana at Goodison Park after a fan threw it his way during a Merseyside derby. The photo says a lot about an outstanding, gifted footballer trying to ignore a bout of racism by nonchalantly and intelligently using his skill to dispose of an offending item. Barnes received plenty of similar insults as a player as most youngsters did when they were introduced to the English game in the 1960s through to the 1980s.
Football provided something of a safe haven for racism, but it wasn’t the only place where people felt they could abuse or mock anyone who was not white – and seemingly get away with it. It didn’t take much to remove the protective veneer normally reserved for everyday interaction and for individuals to resort to unacceptable behaviour in the confines of a football stadium.
Under the carpet?
For a while, attitudes changed, or at least that’s what we are told. Was it really just a case of sweeping prejudice under the carpet, ignoring racism, or consigning it to a world of whispers, sniggers and veiled references? That is, until 2016 when confusedly, politics granted a license for some of the supressed sentiments of intolerance and ignorance to return to daily dialogue. Since 2016, racism, anti-semitism and xenophobia have once more crept to the surface of everyday life. But did they ever really leave us? Did we just turn a deaf ear?
John Barnes did most of his talking on the pitch, largely because he had little choice. During a period where racist chants were not uncommon, how often did the subject get discussed in the media or on TV? Racism was, to a certain degree, consumed by the great hooliganism dilemma.
|John Barnes MBE – career record
Born November 7, 1963
Club career: Watford, Liverpool, Newcastle United, Charlton Athletic
Appearances: 781 Goals: 198
England debut: May 28, 1983 v Northern Ireland. 79 caps, 11 goals. World Cup 1986 and 1990.
Honours: FL Championship winner – 1987-88 and 1989-90
FA Cup winner – 1988-89 and 1991-92
FL Cup winner – 1994-95PFA Players’ Player of the Year: 1987-88
FWA Footballer of the Year: 1988 and 1990
When Barnes scored a wondrous goal in the Maracana Stadium in 1984, he was abused by a group of right-wing England supporters who claimed he was not English. Many of Barnes’ predecessors and peers had to listen to monkey noises, racist chants and jeering whenever they took the field. All too often, crowds would laugh them off, but today, there might be looks of horror and embarrassment, but we should not kid ourselves that it doesn’t exist anymore.
Earlier, in the late 1970s, West Bromwich Albion’s trio of Laurie Cunningham, Cyrille Regis and Brendan Batson were among the most high profile black players to make a real impact on English football. But part of their success was attributable to them being seen as something of a novelty act. The media, fans, commentators could not resist calling them “the three degrees” as a reference to the all-female “Philly soul” group, The Three Degrees. Was this not a form of racism – something which Barnes refers to as unconscious bias?
Speaking at Leicester’s De Montfort University, as part of Black History Week, Barnes was keen to try and set the record straight over his recent comments on incidents that have been widely perceived as rascist: actor Liam Neeson’s admission that he once wanted to kill a black man after learning that his cousin had been raped; and more recently, Bernardo Silva, the Manchester City midfielder, sending a tweet that compared team-mate Benjamin Mendy to a Portuguese sweet.
Barnes has come under fierce criticism on social media and has been accused of being an apologist for racists after offering some personal insights. Other people have suggested Barnes, part of the so-called “Black Elite”, has betrayed his roots. He takes a more holistic view of the problem and considers racism in football is not just a problem for the sport, but a much broader symptom of people’s behaviour . “We convince ourselves that we don’t discriminate, but we all discriminate against different sections of society,” he said.
Barnes was approached by an anti-racism group to become their chairman, but he came to the conclusion that his agenda was not aligned to what the group was looking for. “I wanted to make it wider than just about racism in football, I wanted to talk about inner-city issues, knife-crime and other problems that contribute to the racism debate.”
Although the focus of the media is on players like Raheem Sterling, notably when he was abused at Chelsea, Barnes encourages black players to not just talk about their own encounters with racist supporters, but to also discuss the communities where they grew up and the obstacles they faced. There are blatant examples of racism within football, but unconscious bias is there all the time. “Black people have invisible banana skins thrown at them every day of their lives,” said Barnes.
He added that most real racists don’t get caught, as they are careful about vocalising their discrimination, but the tension, the undercurrent of contempt is there. Conversely, it is the unconscious racist that gets highlighted in most cases, because they are not necessarily aware they are being intolerant and frequently expose themselves.
Nevertheless, Barnes was adamant football is an industry that does provide the platform for black players to share in equal opportunities. While this may be true, the ongoing discussion around the lack of black managers goes on.
Is Barnes missing the point of the complaints made by thousands of people about the antics of Bernardo Silva? While some might consider it harmless, what Barnes and others – indeed, all of us – have to realise is that society has changed dramatically since the 1980s. Whether it is race, colour, sexuality or disability, the way people treat each other is markedly different from Barnes’ time as a footballer. But his insistence that racism is an issue for the greater society remains relevant.
John Barnes was a brilliant footballer, and good ambassador for the game. He is 55 years of age and classed as a “baby boomer”, a demographic that has been scapegoated to a certain extent in recent years. He’s a successful member of the black elite and as such, very privileged. His success has sufficiently cushioned him from some of the prejudices of the age. All of these factors set him up as a target if he has unconsciously become out of touch with the modern narrative. In spite of that, the fact he has had to endure and overcome racism in his own career surely earns him to right to be listened to?