I’ve never been a massive fan of Yasmin Alibhai-Brown. But when she ignorantly waded into the racism in football debate last year with her ill-informed article in the Independent newspaper dated 23rd October 2012 and wrote that Millwall fans “still behave like animals when they watch black players”, my liking of her waned even further. Not only were the comments unfounded but so too were they misdirected: it was a handful of overpaid, egotistical players who were being racist, not the fans.
It wasn’t only me who was incensed by this totally misguided article, but so too were Millwall Football Club, numerous supporters, as also a number of different equalities and anti-racism organisations. These included Lord Herman Ouseley, a lifelong Millwall supporter and founder and Chair of Kick it Out, the football equality organisation. Because of this, the Press Complaints Commission agreed to investigate the article further.
Shortly after, the Independent’s deputy managing editor Will Gore offered an unequivocal apology. Alibhai-Brown offered a less unequivocal apology, instead apologising while also claiming that she had received racist emails in response to the article (no evidence of this has ever been put forward I hasten to add).
Still, the damage had been done and Millwall FC had once again been tarnished by the cheap slur that its stadium on matchday is full of racists and bigots. Like any football club in the country – as also any cricket ground, rugby stadium, racetrack, wherever – get 10,000 plus people together and you’re going to find a small percentage of people who hold unwanted views including those that are racist. It’s not a reflection of the individual club or team, but a reflection of the fact that in society we have racists, bigots, homophobes, misogynists, Islamophobes etc.
So it was with an ounce of pride that yesterday I had the chance to be at Millwall’s FA Cup third round match against Preston North End to witness a black Muslim player captain the team. Nadjim Abdou – better known as Jimmy to the players and fans – has been at Millwall since 2008 over which time he has found a place in the hearts of most fans. Not because of either his ethnicity or his religion but because he has shown himself to be a committed, hard working player that loves playing for Millwall FC. And yesterday, Jimmy was rewarded with the captain’s armband, something that the fans roundly cheered and that he himself took a lot of pride in.
Any racist chanting or insults thrown? None whatsoever. In fact most fans were talking about Jimmy’s professionalism given that his 3 year old son Ilyas is currently undergoing treatment for leukaemia.
This was no tokenism though. Jimmy has for some time been seen as a valuable player. Last season he won the fan’s Player of the Season award. The season before, the fan’s voted for Tamika Mkandawire. Interesting that two seasons running, Millwall’s “animal” fans overwhelmingly voted for black players !!!
But these are not one-off examples. For almost two decades, Millwall FC has been taking positive strides to try and change the legacy that continues to dog it to the present day. As Lord Ouseley wrote in the programme for Millwall’s match against Huddersfield Town FC shortly after Alibhai-Brown’s article:
“Has Millwall got it all right? No! Has Kick It Out got it all right? No! Have the football authorities got it all right? No! Is any club perfect in respect of equality and inclusion? No! But a few have done more than most and are good exemplars and leaders on inclusion, equality and fair treatment for all…Millwall has worked tirelessly to deal with all anti-social and unacceptable behavioural matters involving football at The Den”
And that’s what I witnessed yesterday, a football club that has changed beyond recognition but remains – in the eyes and minds of the misguided at least – one that has failed to throw off its legacy from the 1970s. That is not the club I saw yesterday and it’s not the club that many others see either.
So to Alibhai-Brown, I direct the phrase made famous by the seemingly drunk Delia Smith a few seasons ago at Norwich: “Where are you?” Not at Millwall clearly !!!
Instead, here’s to a brighter future for Millwall FC. To Millwall’s first black Muslim captain, Jimmy Abdou (and of course his son and family). And more pressingly, to a more informed understanding for all those misguided souls out there like Alibhai-Brown.