In the dying days of last year, the talented Liverpool footballer, Rhian Brewster, gave a newspaper interview in which he spoke with great eloquence about the number of times he or one of his team-mates had been racially abused by an opponent in the 17 years of his young life. He counted five in the last seven months alone.
The interview was deeply disturbing. It painted a dispiriting picture of the career of a young black footballer who has already grown used to complaints about his treatment being met with lack of interest, or disdain, or half-hearted punishments administered to his abusers. It had left in him a legacy of disillusion, cynicism and hopelessness. The system, he felt, was broken.
The reaction to his revelations was swift and compassionate and angry. We were all suitably appalled. Everyone agreed that something really must be done and that it was about time FIFA and UEFA, in particular, began to take the problem seriously and stopped trying to hurry it back into its unlit corner. It was imperative, we said, that black players should feel empowered to speak out.
Since making the complaint, defender Holgate has suffered further abuse via social media
The treatment of Holgate shows how black players are on trial whenever they speak out
Eight days later, during an FA Cup third-round tie at Anfield, Everton defender Mason Holgate and Liverpool forward Roberto Firmino were contesting the ball when Holgate pushed the Brazilian over the advertising hoardings and into the crowd. Firmino, who was rightly aggrieved, rushed back on to the field to confront him.
In the ensuing melee, Holgate believed he heard Firmino racially abuse him. His reaction made it clear he was disgusted. After the game, accompanied by the Everton manager Sam Allardyce and the club’s director of football Steve Walsh, Holgate made a complaint to referee Bobby Madley about what he alleged Firmino had said. He spoke out. He stood up.
What happened next did not quite fit with the post-Brewster fantasy we had constructed for ourselves. In a dizzyingly short space of time, Holgate went from being the victim to being the accused. Within a week, he found out that complaining about what he believed to be racial abuse meant he had signed up for a fight for his own reputation.
Rhian Brewster spoke with eloquence about the number of times he has been racially abused
Has he been supported by the football community? Has he been praised for doing what everyone urged black players to do in the circumstances he found himself in? Not quite. Holgate found, as many other black players have found in the past, that there is rather a heavy price to pay for standing up for yourself.
A pernicious sub-culture of racial abuse has been present in English football for decades.
It is even more sobering when it is obvious to anyone who wants to see that black players still have to cope with vile slurs on an almost daily basis. Bournemouth defender Tyrone Mings gave an interview last week where he detailed the horrific racial abuse he suffers on social media.
Bournemouth’s Tyrone Mings detailed the horrific racist abuse he suffers on social media
When the FA announced recently that they were to adopt the Rooney Rule and guarantee to interview at least one candidate from a black, Asian or minority ethnic background for each managerial post that became vacant, their decision was met in some quarters with a river of cynicism, bitterness, fear, anger and racist abuse.
So after Holgate made his allegation, a social media army went to work to undermine him and find something to deflect attention from the original issue. A handful of offensive, stupid, homophobic tweets that he had written five or six years ago, when he was a 15-year-old, were uncovered.
The lesson is that this is how it often works in football. Seven days after Holgate made his complaint, he finds himself facing the prospect of an FA charge. It is more evidence that, when a black player complains about something, he usually ends up in the dock himself.
Examples are everywhere but you do not have to go too far back to find the last high-profile one. Last year, it emerged England forward Eni Aluko had objected in a supposedly confidential ‘culture review’ to what she considered racist comments by then England manager Mark Sampson. A week later, her international career was over and she was accused of ‘unlioness behaviour’.
Last year the treatment of Eni Aluko by the FA again showed the difficulties black players face
One of the dangerous elements of the Holgate case is the fact it is obvious that, if he had kept his mouth shut after the game, his previous tweets would never have come to light. Nobody would have dug for them. Nobody would have sought to discredit him.
Holgate is finding out how much it costs to do what everyone told him to do and the danger is that he may decide it would be easier to keep his mouth shut and his head down the next time it happens – and that, of course, is exactly what the bigots and the bullies want.
They want to make it clear to black players such as Brewster and Holgate that it is just not worth it. They want to put them back in the box where they think they belong, where they think they should be seen and not heard. They want to perpetuate the system as it exists, where black players are discouraged from having a voice.
At this point, it is worth mentioning that Liverpool have behaved with great dignity and honour as far as the issue between Holgate and Firmino is concerned. Unlike the army of troll detectives on social media, they have not sought to discredit Holgate. They have not attempted to undermine his evidence.
Holgate now faces prospect of FA charge over homophobic tweets sent when he was 15
There have been no leaks and no denials. That does not mean they do not support Firmino. It means that they, at least, are acutely aware of how important it is that black players must be allowed to voice their grievances when they believe an injustice has occurred.
So there has been no comment from them. There have been no leaks. There will be no comment until the FA investigation has run its course. This is an issue that supersedes — or should supersede — club loyalties.
Firmino may be innocent but Holgate believes he was racially abused and the least the game owes him is that his complaint be investigated without being made to feel it is he who is on trial.
If that does not happen, then the status quo of black players being abused and feeling helpless, angry, disillusioned, excluded, marginalised and powerless will never, ever change.
Why do players still argue in face of VAR?
The most interesting thing about the FA Cup tie between Brighton and Crystal Palace last Monday was its illustration of the recidivist compulsion of the professional footballer to search for somebody to blame other than himself.
The Palace players knew that the Video Assistant Referee system was being used for the first time in a competitive match in this country, and they also knew that any particularly contentious issue during the game could be closely analysed with the benefit of a series of replays.
Yet when Brighton’s Glenn Murray scored a late winner that went in off his knee, the Palace players still gathered around referee Andre Marriner at the end of the match to argue that Murray had knocked the ball in with his arm.
Brighton’s Glenn Murray scored a late winner against Crystal Palace which went in off his knee
Despite the game being overseen by VAR, the Palace players still complained for handball
The replays showed that it had not touched his arm and that Marriner and the VAR had got the decision absolutely right — but haranguing the referee has become a default mechanism that will take time to reprogramme.
Afterwards, it was said that the game featured a ‘VAR controversy’. There was, in fact, no controversy.
It was just the inability of a group of men to accept a decision that others were far better-placed to make than they were.