CHAMPIONSHIP REACTION: FANS’ RETURN TO GROUNDS SOURED BY 11 SECONDS OF HATRED AT THE DEN
The weekend’s Championship action was marred by the decision of a vocal section of the 2,000 Millwall supporters allowed to attend the 1-0 defeat to Derby County at The Den to boo when both sets of players took a knee at the start of the game in support of racial equality.
Whatever their reasoning for deciding to do this was, it is probably the clearest sign yet that football, and wider society, is not doing anywhere near enough to educate in regards to issues of race, nor is enough being done to eliminate racism from either the game or everyday life.
It feels remiss to talk about another late win for Championship leaders Norwich, or a brilliant game between Brentford and Blackburn in the first match fans could attend at the new Community Stadium, or indeed a first win for Wayne Rooney as Derby manager in the game in question, they pale in comparison to the very real and damaging impact racism continues to have in this country.
Millwall defender Mahlon Romeo, who started the game on Saturday and has played over 150 games for the South London club, was left astounded by the fans’ reaction, telling the South London Press: “The fans who have been let in today have personally disrespected not just me but the football club. And what the football club and the community stand for. What they’ve done is booed and condemned a peaceful gesture which was put in place to highlight, combat and stop any discriminatory behaviour and racism. That’s it – that’s all the gesture is.”
He continued by saying it was “probably the lowest I’ve felt in my time at this club.”
Romeo’s manager Gary Rowett, along with Sam Allardyce and Sam Parkin who were both pundits on the EFL highlights programme on Quest on Saturday evening, were keen to stress the work the club does in the community in the aftermath, but that cannot be used as some sort of excuse to treat this situation lightly.
Millwall as a club responded with a written statement on Sunday that expressed “disappointment and upset” from those who had worked hard to ensure the return of supporters, as well as a promise to work with the FA’s anti-discrimination campaign Kick It Out and “representatives from other appropriate bodies” to “use Saturday’s events as a catalyst for more rapid solutions which have an impact both in the short and long-term.”
The statement was not strong enough.
Banning those who chose to so publicly oppose the stance taken by the players on Saturday should be the first step, ensuring they undergo an educational programme on race has to be the minimum requirement for them ever to be allowed in a football stadium again.
Many of the comments on social media that desperately searched for an angle in support of the actions of the Millwall fans suggested that football should not be “political.”
This argument feels grimly similar to the stance taken by a number of Conservative MPs when Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford was lobbying the government to provide free school meals for children in poverty over the Autumn half-term break – he was told he should concentrate on his football. Although the government eventually relented, there was a clear feeling of resentment towards Rashford, with Brendan Clarke-Smith, MP for Bassetlaw in Nottinghamshire, bemoaning “celebrity virtue signalling on Twitter”.
The fundamental issue Rashford was striving to address was that of feeding children who would otherwise go hungry, just as that of players taking a knee is to create a world free of discrimination and racial injustice. Clouding these causes with issues of finance or history can indeed make them political but neither Rashford nor players who are taking a knee are doing this, the narrative of politics is being shaped by those who are finding a way to be critical.
It should also be noted that a number of Championship clubs, QPR and Middlesbrough among them, have taken the decision to no longer take a knee before games, explaining that they feel the gesture has become hollow and the act in itself is not enough in the fight against racism. Whilst there is probably a discussion to be had about how football can have a more meaningful impact on racism, the stance taken by these clubs should not be conflated with the actions of the Millwall supporters.
Their reaction was a sign that they are not willing to be part of the fight to eliminate racial discrimination from either football grounds or society as a whole, whether that be due to ignorance, prejudice or both.
Alarmingly, the incident at Millwall was not the only show of opposition to players taking a knee in the EFL on Saturday. Colchester United winger Callum Harriott took to social media to express his disappointment at hearing the crowd boo when his side took a knee before their game with Grimsby.
His bravery to call out supporters of his own club is admirable, but it is also a reminder that this issue is not restricted to one football club or set of supporters.
Whatever the intentions of the Black Lives Matter movement are going forward, it played an undeniable role in shining a light on the uncomfortable truth that racism is prevalent in everyday society in the UK.
In the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd, the number of stories revealing a lived experience of discrimination across different ethnicities, age groups and gender identities helped many who had never experienced such unjustified hardship to open their eyes to the issue of racism in the world around them and not see it as some form of nebulous evil that only happens in faraway lands.
The decision that players made to take a knee at kick-off during Project Restart felt both poignant and impactful at the time, suggesting that if the game’s governing body was not willing to take racism seriously, then they would.
The comments made by disgraced former FA Chairman Greg Clarke in November in reference to black players was an obvious sign that those at the top of the game in this country are not yet qualified or willing to tackle racism adequately. How the association deal with the situation at Millwall will be evidence of whether they even seriously care about the issue.
The howls of derision from many of those present at The Den have made it abundantly clear that there is still a long way to go until football can consider itself an environment that is welcoming to all.
As fans return to more and more stadiums across England, we can only hope that there are no more incidents such as those at Millwall and Colchester. Even if this is the case, football as a sport needs to take more responsibility in educating all stakeholders on issues of race, and removing them from stadiums if they are not willing to learn.