Matthew Brown on player power, principles and racism in the modern game
Suddenly player-power seems to be all the rage. But the England squad weren’t the first footballers this season to stand up to their employers on a matter of principle. Just a few weeks earlier, former Chelsea striker Mark Stein and two of his team-mates declared they would never play for Dagenham & Redbridge again following allegations of racism against the Daggers manager Garry Hill and the club chairman Dave Andrews’ instant and unequivocal backing for his man.
The incident happened at half-time during a Nationwide Conference game against Telford on September 6. Fitzroy Simpson, Telford’s former Manchester City midfielder, claims that Hill “fronted up” to him in the tunnel and called him a “fucking black bastard”. He complained to the club, the Conference, the PFA and the FA. Hill denied it and Andrews accepted his word without further ado. “I have known Garry for a long time and I back him 100 per cent,” Andrews told the Epping Forest Guardian.
But Stein was outraged that the club didn’t take it further.“Other players from the team heard it and for me that was enough,” he says. “I wasn’t happy that the club did nothing and felt action had to be taken.” Stein asked for his contract to be terminated, while fellow players Mark Smith and Leon Braithwaite also said they no longer wanted to play for the club. Braithwaite has since made his peace with Dagenham, but Smith has moved on.
Stein claims the allegations were just too important to ignore.“I had a good relationship with Garry,” says Stein. “But I’ve got principles on certain things and I felt I had to take a stance. We’re in a multicultural society now and those sort of comments just shouldn’t be said or heard in 2003. The time’s come when something’s got to be done.”
Indeed it has. It is ten years since the PFA and the Commission for Racial Equality launched the national campaign to kick racism out of football. Many well meaning words have been spoken and written about the issue since, and it has become a staple concern of all “mainstream” football authorities. But, according to Piara Powar, co-ordinator of Kick It Out, as the organisation is now known, this is the first time players have explicitly refused to play because of racism, and marks “an important step” in the campaign.
“Symbolically, it’s a big move,” he says. “There are stories of black players in the past who deliberately missed penalties in protest at abuse from fans. But no one’s publicly protested like this before, putting their careers on the line. Stein is saying he doesn’t care if the FA find Hill guilty or not, the fact that it was alleged is enough.”
For Powar, Stein’s actions illustrate the “shifting nature of the debate on the issue” – alongside John Barnes’s recent complaint that black managers get only one chance and Gérard Houllier’s warning that he’ll take his players off the pitch if they encounter racism.
Of course, some will say it’s easy for Stein to take such a stance now. He’s approaching the end of his career and already training for the next one – in physiotherapy. But as Powar says, “it still takes bottle to take that kind of stance”.
For Stein, the son of a South African anti-apartheid activist, racism is simply an issue that just can’t be compromised, it marks a line he will not cross. “I still love playing but I don’t know if I’ll get another club,” he says. “I sometimes think I might get tarnished, but this is so important to me that I can’t worry about the consequences. With something like this I’ll put my neck on the line. My Dad was a political activist who fought against racism in South Africa all his life. So why should I have to put up with it here?” Why indeed? The FA’s investigation is “ongoing”.
From WSC 202 December 2003. What was happening this month