Despite having written about both professional and grassroots football on various occasions, in particular my disillusionment with the behaviour of some coaches that allege to be ‘passionate’ about the game, I was still shocked by a sorry episode that I was privy to last weekend.
As with most weekends, I went along to watch my 11 year old son play for his football team, Pensnett Panthers FC. Last weekend, they were up against Coseley Town FC in a Stourbridge & District Youth Football League (SDYFL) Division 3 match. For context, Coseley are a team vying for promotion, Pensnett are at the foot of the table.
The match began pretty amicably until Pensnett took an unexpected lead. Within an instant, the mood changed and the coaches for Coseley and their linesman especially began to ‘motivate’ the players. For ‘motivate’ here, feel free to read ‘whip them into a frenzy’ and/ or ‘intimidate’ depending upon which team the players on the pitch were turning out for.
As the teams reached half time, I think the scoreline remained at 1-0. I say I think because the events of the second half were such that I found myself so distracted by what was going on around me that the score became an irrelevance.
With the change of ends, so the linesmen changed sides. The Coseley linesman – an extremely aggressive and vociferous man – took up his role in front of the parents. For those who are unaware, parents are segregated from coaches in the SYDFL – each has to remain on opposite sides of the pitch – and parents have to remain at least a metre from the pitch, standing behind posts and rope to ensure they do not encroach on the pitch or the players. The linesmen therefore have to run up and down the touchline in front of the parents for one half of the game each.
The Coseley linesman began by screaming at his players, informing them in various ways that they were much better than Pensnett and should win easily. I’m being generous to him here: he wasn’t as generous with his assessment of the Pensnett players or their respective abilities.
Within minutes he was asking a parent who muttered that he might have made an incorrect decision:
You telling me I’m wrong? What do you think, I’m blind or thick?
Then, as the 11 year old boys that were being subjected to little more than child abuse by coaches and a linesman – all I hasten to add in the name of being ‘passionate’, a sad euphemism for abusing young children on a football pitch – one of the Coseley players committed a horrible foul. Falling to the ground, the Pensnett coach ran onto the pitch to administer first aid (the referee had stopped play) only to be greeted by the shout of the linesman:
What’s shithead doing on the pitch?
He did this across the pitch, within earshot of the players and assembled watching parents.
One parent, holding a baby that was no older than 18 months, questioned the linesman’s behaviour. His response was to turn, square up to the parent (and baby) and gesticulate aggressively.
Given that I’m the Chair of the Birmingham County Football Association’s Race Equality Advisory Board, I felt some responsibility to try and address what was in my opinion, a rapidly deteriorating situation especially as the coaches from both teams were now arguing on the pitch (again, in front of the players).
Telling the linesman that his actions and behaviour were completely unacceptable, he responded by becoming even more aggressive and telling me to:
Get out of my face
I was standing about two metres away from him. I told him that if he didn’t stop, I would be making an official complaint about him. This seemed to anger him even more resulting in him becoming more abusive, more aggressive and more dismissive of my role as Chair and of the County FA per se.
As this was occurring, one of the Pensnett coaches sprinted across the pitch to come to the ‘defence’ of his linesman. Without allowing me to explain what was going on, he too told me that I should keep quiet and that I knew nothing about ‘the game’ (I guess, they would both describe ‘the game’ as the ‘beautiful’ game without any irony whatsoever).
Within minutes of the restart, one of the Pensnett players was brought down in the penalty area. As the referee awarded a penalty, the Coseley goalkeeper could be heard calling the Pensnett player:
A diving black bastard
The goalkeeper, like his team-mates and opposition were 11 years old, possibly even 10.
The response by the linesman and coaches of Coseley was unbelievable. They jumped to the goalkeeper’s defence and tried to inform everyone that it didn’t happen. The referee, who unbelievably DID NOT award a straight red card to the player, instead asked the Coseley team to substitute the offending player for somebody else.
As the game re-started and having identified who my son was, so the linesman encouraged his players to target him. As one of the Coseley players ‘took him out’ (another euphemism, this time for committing a foul), the linesman – a grown man I hasten to remind you – ran onto the pitch and gave the offending player a ‘hi-five’.
But it was as the match came to a close, my heart sank. Hands were shaken and the mood was one that what had gone before was entirely justified as they were an integral ‘part of the game’.
And sadly, they are right: racism, abuse and intolerance are a part of the game.
Despite the sincere and genuine efforts of those who sit alongside me on the Birmingham County FA’s Race Equality Board, the ethos and message underpinning those such as the FA’s ‘Respect’ campaign, and organisations like Kick It Out, Football Unites Racism Divides and Show Racism the Red Card, the fact remains that racism, abuse and prejudice continue to permeate the game. Burying their heads in the sand, this fact remains because far too many are unwilling to acknowledge it. They prefer to ignore it and even deny that it occurred, as can be seen in the events of last Sunday.
Immediately after the event, the coaches and linesman from Coseley denied that it happened.
At the end of the match, I approached the referee and asked him to ensure that the racist and other incidents were noted down in his match report. He looked at me and said that he didn’t hear anything (in hindsight, this was obviously why he didn’t award either a red or yellow card – maybe it was too much paperwork or hassle).
The coaches from Pensnett stated that they did not want to pursue a formal complaint against Coseley, it was only that ‘things got a bit out of hand’.
The parents – excepting one or maybe two – all just walked away.
Part of the game? Of course it is.
But part of the game not because it should be but because – in principle at least – these week in, week out incidents just do not happen. No complaints, no mention in the match report, no recognition or remedy.
This cannot happen.
Consequently, I have since reported both the behaviour and the racism to Kick It Out (2 March 200) and will be doing the same to both Birmingham County Football Association and the SDYFL in the next day or so. Let’s see what the outcome is.
Sadly, my expectations are that whilst different words will be used, the message will be that it’s ‘part of the game’. And if that’s the case, what can be done about it?
This work by Chris Allen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 UK: England & Wales License. Based on a work at www.chris-allen.co.uk.