Despite a successful season, not everyone is impressed with Sunderland. Joe Boyle looks at how the club has reacted to accusations of racism in the stands
Perhaps Sunderland have had it a bit too good recently: top of the league by miles, a cup semi-final, a media-friendly boss, a superb, packed stadium and a favourable press.
And then we go and get hit by accusations of racism. The problem became public during the two Worthington Cup games against Leicester. Complaints came in from visiting fans to the Stadium of Light about abuse hurled at Frank Sinclair and Emile Heskey. Then, to the embarrassment of many Sunderland fans, the live coverage of the second leg at Filbert Street brought the sound of monkey noises into people’s living rooms.
Racism is definitely coming back,” says Peter Daykin of fanzine A Love Supreme, who are currently running a survey about the issue. “There’s no question about it.” Elsewhere, various Sunderland mailing lists have seen intense arguments. Some people say racist expression is prevalent, others that they haven’t heard a thing. Some claim the club is doing enough, others that it hasn’t even started to face up to the problem. There has also been the thorny debate about the lack of black players in the side. In short, quite an email punch-up.
The internal debate has coincided with external criticism. First, Searchlight, the magazine that monitors right-wing activity, pinpointed Sunderland as one of the country’s top five worst clubs, citing the involvement of fascist Combat 18 members in the area.
Next, in light of the Leicester game, Kick It Out, the organisation set up to combat racism in football, approached the Sunday Sun, a north east tabloid. The ensuing story, sensationalist in tone, infuriated the club, who were further stung by the impression given that they were slow off the mark in the face of serious accusations. Chief executive John Fickling emphasised the club’s determination to impose bans, but stressed that it was just individuals. “We have not received any communications from Kick It Out alleging their concerns,” he added. “If we had, we would have responded immediately. The club refutes their allegation that Sunderland has a big racism problem.”
Lesley Callaghan, the club’s communications officer, is equally forthright, particularly about the club’s aims to prosecute rather than “simply to eject and move the problem elsewhere”, citing the recent example of undercover operations at three matches leading to a man being arrested and charged for racist chanting under the Football Offences Act. She added that, “since the Leicester match we have received a number of letters from supporters on the subject: more than half were from members of ethnic minorities stating that they regularly attend games at Sunderland and have never been a victim, or experienced any form of racism. I think this demonstrates a need to keep all the issues in perspective.”
The last, defensive sentence suggests that the club, who have shown much deft PR acumen over the last few years, do feel a bit hard done by, especially at the hands of Kick It Out. “Relations between ourselves and the club aren’t too hot,” admits Kick It Out’s Piara Powar. “But the easiest way to deal with the problem is to sit down with an organisation like ourselves and draw up a list of measures: publicity in the matchday programme and over the tannoy, get the players involved, look at the security measures and how stewards are empowered to act.”
In response, Callaghan claims that, since Leicester, the club has stepped up use of the programme and tannoy announcements and points to the involvement of Peter Reid, Lee Clark and Niall Quinn in the Show Racism the Red Card (SRRC) campaign.
Ged Grebby of SRRC is certainly less critical of the club than is Powar. He too has asked for a meeting, and expects this to take place with Kick It Out and the Commission for Racial Equality also present. “We think that the club has acted swiftly,” said Grebby, pointing out a strong statement by Fickling on page three of the matchday programme following the Leicester game. “But there is a problem with stewarding: they’re more likely to pull someone for swearing than for racist abuse.” Reluctant to criticise poorly paid stewards, Daykin is pessimistic: “The club has said all the right things. But there seems so little you can do. We feel quite desperate about it.”
Racism in football remains prevalent, if not resurgent, and this season Kick It Out has received complaints about abuse throughout the game. But if there is a perverse glimmer of optimism, it is the rise in the number of complaints, a sign that Sunderland supporters are fed up with the shame of being associated with racists. There are signs too that the club has acknowledged a problem. And, as Peter Daykin says, “the sooner we admit we have a problem the sooner we start to tackle it.”
If that fails, £45 million on Ferdinand, Vieira and Yorke should do it.
From WSC 146 April 1999. What was happening this month