Club set an example for equality in 1970s
27 January ~ Whatever the quality of the teams we've had to support in the last 35 years or so, West Bromwich Albion fans have been proud of the club's status as, to borrow a phrase from the Guardian's Daniel Taylor, "equality pioneers". Albion's determination to give opportunities to Cyrille Regis, Laurie Cunningham and Brendon Batson in the late 1970s and early 1980s was laudable for so many reasons, not least the fact that areas close to The Hawthorns were almost bywords for prejudice. In the 1964 general election, Conservative Peter Griffiths used a blatantly racist slogan in his (successful) attempt to attract the voters of Smethwick.
Slightly later, the National Front also gained significant support in the area. However, Albion themselves seemed to rise above most of this. As late as the 1980s, we felt able to look down from our moral high ground as, for example, sections of the Gwladys Street End sang "Everton are white" or a minority of West Ham fans targeted black players. "Wouldn't happen at our ground," we thought. More recently, we condemned Liverpool's handling of the Luis Suárez affair, confidently believing our club had at least a few basic principles left.
The truth is a little more nuanced. For long periods in 1995 and 1996, there were no black players in the Albion side, leading to suggestions in the Grorty Dick fanzine that the legacy of Regis, Cunningham and Batson was being betrayed. The theme was also addressed in an article for WSC 118 by Jaz Baines. Then there is the ongoing question of why, given the ethnic make-up of the West Midlands, local players of Asian origin have never broken through at The Hawthorns.
As for the present, most of what has happened since Nicolas Anelka performed the now-infamous quenelle gesture certainly reflects badly on Albion. As usual with this type of episode, much of the damage was done in the initial hours, specifically by caretaker-coach Keith Downing's dismissal of suggestions that the gesture had been made for sinister reasons as "absolute rubbish". Downing himself should probably not be the one to take the blame for this.
Inexperienced in the media spotlight, he had just seen his team earn a point from a breathless, high-scoring game in which a previously under-performing striker had scored his first goals of the season. Like 99.9 per cent of British football fans, he clearly had no idea what the quenelle even was. Surely though, someone in the visiting entourage at Upton Park that day could have had a word in his ear, perhaps to the effect that a controversy was already unfolding and that the best response would be a firm "no comment".
Since the day itself, Albion have issued statements that have managed to be both bland and infuriating – and have continued to pick Anelka in their starting line-up. While this is their right, it does raise the uncomfortable question of whether points are being put before principle. With the recent sale of Shane Long to Hull, the side is already an experienced striker short, a situation Anelka's absence would exacerbate. This prospect seems to be distressing Albion rather more than Zoopla's announcement that they will not renew their deal with the club, or the news that other sponsors are "reviewing [their] position". The club's response to these developments was simply to dispatch marketing staff to India to explore "alternative revenue streams".
One thing the club have done is refused to pay Anelka's legal fees as he prepares his defence against the FA charges relating to his gesture. Even this, however, could be put down by cynics to chairman Jeremy Peace's legendary parsimony. In any case, the defence was weakened before it even started by French Jewish community leader Roger Cukierman's "clarification" of a statement Anelka had originally interpreted as supportive.
The FA hearing will now take place in late February. It is at least possible that Anelka will perform well on the field over the next month or so, helping the team earn vital points in their fight against relegation. It will be interesting to see how Albion fans then react if he is found guilty of the charges, but one thing is for sure – the belief that the club should have made more effort to stress the values it fought so hard for back in the 1970s will be more than just a product of hindsight. James Baxter