FOR YEARS, people have been selling non-league football as a civilised world, “real football for real people”, supported by the theory that this level of the game is one big happy family, a community motivated by the enjoyment of football in a malice-free environment.
Just days after England’s players were subjected to racist comments and chanting in Bulgaria, Haringey Borough’s football team walked-off the pitch after racism allegedly reared its ugly head once more. Two men in the Yeovil area were arrested the following day on suspicion of racism.
Of course, racism at any game damages reputations and hurts people, but for non-league it is a blow in a different way. It demonstrates that not even a match played in front of a homely, small crowd, where people may have parted with £ 10 to watch a FA Cup tie, is immune from anti-social and criminal behaviour.
Yeovil have only just returned to the non-league fold, but there can be no excuse for what happened. They have been circulating a world where smart-arse jibes can get lost in bigger crowds, but in the more communal atmosphere of non-league, every comment can be heard and attributed. It should have been relatively easy to pinpoint the culprits. In non-league grounds, stewards and club officials are invariably (and understandably) reluctant to confront bad language from the terraces. Surely, it should not be left to a referee to deal with it?
CNN International’s Ben Morse asked if Haringey’s walk-off represented a watershed moment for the game in England. He spoke to journalist Darren Lewis, who said: “We’ve got to a stage where black players can no longer leave it to the authorities.”
One Yeovil fan, speaking in a Somerset newspaper, believed the incident was not as clear-cut as reported: “Suggestion in the away end is that this kicked off after the penalty was awarded when the goalkeeper sprayed fans with a water bottle. Fans stood next to the flashpoint are adamant there was no racist abuse.”
However, Cameroonian goalkeeper Douglas Pajetat said he was abused, spat at and had bottles thrown at him by Yeovil fans. Defender Coby Rowe had insults thrown at him all through the game. “The referee couldn’t guarantee the safety of the players,” said Haringey manager Tom Loizou.
The Kick it Out charity, which seems closely associated with Haringey Borough and is headquartered close by, noted that in 2018-19 there were over 400 reports of racism across professional and grassroots football.
It’s not the first time that Haringey Borough have been involved in a controversial incident. At a FA Cup tie two years ago, they claimed opposition fans racially abused the wife of one of the Heybridge party.
Club chairman Aki Achillea told the Enfield Independent: “What worries me is that we are potentially going to be targeted in the future because we not going to escape those who say we walked off because we were losing.”
Ironically, at De Montfort University in Leicester two weeks ago, John Barnes highlighted the “walk-off” protest as something that could be very contentious if the victimised team was losing when they left the field.
This sorry tale is a reminder that English football has to get its own house in order. Greg Clarke, Chairman of the FA, told the Times: “We shouldn’t take the moral high ground. We should join a movement to drive racism out of our game and have zero tolerance for it.”
Apparently, the game is to be replayed. It will be interesting to see how the case proceeds and also if the non-league community comes out in force to support Haringey.