THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

Dean Windass had to deputise in goal after Bradford City goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts was sent off. As Mark Douglas reports, this was not the end of the controversy

The name Donovan Ricketts probably doesn’t mean much to most fans. For those not familiar with League One, he’s Bradford City’s 6ft 4in first-choice goalkeeper. And he’s black.

He’s also the player who was shown a straight red card for making an alleged abusive gesture, apparently reacting to racist abuse at Southend United on December 10. Without a substitute keeper on the bench the Bantams, propped up by stand-in Dean Windass, fought a frantic rearguard action for 70 minutes, eventually hanging on for a draw.

After the game an emotional Ricketts declared that his reaction was prompted by continued racial abuse from a small section of home fans. Furious Bradford officials immediately confirmed they would appeal against the sending-off – pointing to the fact that the police had arrested a fan during half-time.

The fallout from the incident began almost as soon as the 6.06 phone lines opened. From Bradford there was righteous indignation. Posters on Bantams internet sites claimed a racist minority of Southend fans had won them an unmerited point and fingers were pointed at referee Paul Armstrong for apparently condoning the racist abuse. No one mentioned the club’s almost identical embarrassment in 2003, when Millwall keeper Tony Warner claimed racist home fans had prompted him to raise a fist to the Valley Parade kop when the Lions snatched a late winner.

Similarly Southend fans leapt to the defence of their club. Home supporters were split over whether anything racist was shouted at Ricketts, but most seemed to agree that their visitors have been too quick to pass judgment. One irate supporter even threatened to have a Bradford fans’ website that had been particularly vocal on the incident removed from the web.

An incendiary situation needed level heads prepared to ask some searching questions. What it got instead was the Football Association’s disciplinary committee. In the aftermath of the game, the committee decided to limit the remit of the appeal to whether Ricketts’ gesture was serious enough to be considered a red-card offence – effectively arguing that the racist abuse was a matter for the police. In the event they ruled in favour of the referee.

The FA hearing spectacularly missed the crucial point: even the most myopic of committee-men ought to have been able to spot that the racial abuse – whether perceived or real – was the nub of the issue. The Roots Hall incident symbolised the kind of lazy, almost casual racism that goes quietly unpunished at football grounds across the land every Saturday. It is an altogether more difficult issue for FA to take on and one they were wholly unprepared for in Ricketts’ case.

To fans and officials on both sides, it seemed the incident had been left unresolved. Bradford, shorn of their first-choice goalkeeper for two games, leaked seven goals and tumbled out of the Cup, only exacerbating the feeling of injustice. And in Essex a whole swathe of Southend fans feel their club have been unfairly tarnished by the accusations. Thanks to the FA’s toothlessness, the claims will never get the thorough investigation they merit unless the Crown Prosecution Service decide to take supporters to court. The single Shrimpers fan who was arrested was bailed by Essex police in late December.

Not for the first time, a chance to address football’s reaction to casual racism was lost in a fog of self-interest.

From WSC 228 February 2006. What was happening this month

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