Society’s problem with racism has been highlighted even more than usual over the last few months and the Black Lives Matter badges and banners were evident at Project Restart games, as well as the players taking a knee. Do you think these symbolic gestures, although raising awareness, are enough or should football do more? Also, given wider society’s problems, is an inclusive, prejudice-free game a fantasy?
“Even if it’s a fantasy, we should still try to make it a reality. An example is Paul Elliott, who chairs the Inclusion Advisory Board, they say he’s on the board at the FA but he sits in a corner and doesn’t even have a vote on things! How offensive is that to a distinguished, black former player who’s played at the highest level? He has more football experience and expertise in his fingertip than anyone else in the room, let alone the diversity and knowledge of what that means in the game.
We’re fortunate in this country now that we have a very media-savvy, socially-aware, emboldened group of players like Marcus Rashford, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Raheem Sterling who use their platform well and that can only be a good thing. I think it helped once people realised that the Black Lives Matter principle and sentiment was separate to the images of looting and riots they’d seen in the media, which was maybe attributed to the Black Lives Matter movement. I think games behind closed doors was a benefit as, it’s sad to say, that I think there would have been some boos for the taking of the knee if there had been full stadiums.
The FA, Premier League and media all need to do more, though. I’m a 50-odd year old white guy and if I look around the press box, we absolutely have to do more and we have to look at ourselves. Saying that, there are a lot of reporters who are absolutely committed to promoting greater diversity and don’t have that prejudice that might previously have created a barrier. When I started out, it would have been difficult for a black journalist or a gay journalist but now it wouldn’t even be mentioned so that’s absolutely a positive step in the right direction.”
Do you think women in the game experience similar problems? Although they are beginning to take prominent roles in journalism and media, their credentials often seem to be questioned more than their male counterparts. Is the solution simply continued exposure to show that they’re just as capable of talking about football, an example being Alex Scott?
“Alex Scott is there because she talks so well and she does her research. You have to put the hours in and she absolutely does it, certainly more than certain male pundits who are not at her level. If you met her, you’d instinctively want her to do well because she’s one of life’s characters and very intelligent - a real force of nature. I also really enjoy Karen Carney on the radio, she’s great.
I think we’re in a better place now than we were but I think if you look at it through the prism of social media, there are a lot of trolls out there. You have some idiot in the upstairs bedroom of his Mum’s house having a go at them but that’s not the reality of the industry and that’s not how they’re perceived in the industry. The one thing they all have in common, people who’ve made it in the industry is an incredible work ethic and they all deserve to be there. I don’t know how some people deal with the abuse that they get, whether they’re a black, gay or female journalist or pundit. I’m a white, heterosexual, posh guy so I don’t get too much abuse. I probably should get more, really!”
Mental health in football seems to go through phases of being discussed and it’s often as a result of an article, such as the recent Michael Johnson piece in The Athletic, or a tragedy such as the loss of our beloved Gary Speed. How do we sustain this conversation and who are the people to do it?
“I think clubs are good but could certainly do more and there are club foundations who do great work in this area. There’s been a change in the media in actually writing about mental health issues more and with a greater empathy and this is hopefully raising awareness and breaking the stigma, which is important.
At the start of lockdown, I rang up several younger journalists who I knew would be struggling and I’m not sure that would have happened 5-10 years ago, having that conversation. I spent about 18 months with Michael Carrick, helping him write a book and part of it was a conversation about him reading something from Jonny Wilkinson opening up about his struggles with mental health and how this led to him being able to talk about it. We started discussing language and separated ‘I’ve got depression’ away from ‘I felt depressed after’ and it led to me reflecting on the language I use to make sure that I was using it more accurately.
I think it’s great that people are talking about it more. Danny Rose was very powerful, talking about it during the World Cup and he was very clear that he wanted to get that message out. I’ve done interviews with players where I’ve had to check whether they were willing to get that message out there during their careers but most players are keen to these days.
You mention Gary speed and it just brings back so many memories. My favourite memory, I’d arranged to see Bobby Robson and the press officer said you’ve got 25 minutes with him and I thought well that’ll be the first two questions!
So after 25 minutes, she comes back in and says your time’s up and Bobby said, ‘We haven’t even got to Italia 90 yet!’ Gary Speed is sitting in the corner laughing away. There was just the three of us in the room and Gary was his driver. They lived in the same area so he was giving him a lift back and I looked at him and he just said, ‘that’s the gaffer’ with a big smile on his face.
He was just such a genuine, great, lovely man and it was such a deep sadness that we hadn’t picked up on any of his issues. I hope, on the back of what happened with him, that football picks up on these things and people open up more. Recognising it and talking about it is so important.”