Under-12s side prove grass-roots issue with racism
Youth coach tells Jim White why her experience highlights failure to tackle problem outside of elite
ast weekend at every L Premier League game, banners were flourished proclaiming “No Room For Racism”. On stadium screens, videos played showing prominent players insisting there was zero tolerance in the game for racist abuse of any kind. It would simply not be accepted.
June Kelly might be forgiven if she had watched the public demonstration of such resolve with a wry smile. Because June, who founded the Abraham Moss Warriors grassroots club in Manchester 20 years ago, has just found that, at its lowest level, the game seems incapable of mounting a proper response to racist abuse.
Last March, June was on the touchline watching her team play a league game. The Warriors are based in Cheetham Hill, such a multi-cultural area of Manchester that, between them, the 450 children and 200 adults who play regularly speak 29 languages.
June established the club in 2000 hoping that for many of the firstgeneration immigrants in the area, football would provide a step on the path to integration. But what the coach heard as the game progressed was somewhat less welcoming: one of her players was being repeatedly racially abused by an opponent.
“That wasn’t the first time; it was a bad season last season,” she recalls. “Of the 19 seasons we’d run the club, we had the most incidents. All told, we had eight occasions when our players were being called the p-word and the n-word; one of our Asian lads was asked by an opponent where his suicide vest was.”
So disturbed had June become by the increasing levels of routine abuse, the next time it happened she decided to act. At half-time in the game she spoke to the opposition manager. He ignored her. She told the referee what had gone on. He said he had not heard anything, so would continue with the game.
So she rang the local league organiser. She was told that the league would support her if, following any further incidents, she took the players off the pitch. When the same player was abused in the same way by the same opponent again, she took action. After informing the referee, she instructed her players to walk off.
“I didn’t care if we forfeited the game, that wasn’t the point,” she says. “It was just I couldn’t allow my players to be subjected to that sort of abuse.” It is worth saying at this point that the game was in the local under-12 league. The lad being abused was just 11 years old.
But it is what happened afterwards that made June think Saturday’s noisy insistence on zero tolerance was just hot air. Because nothing happened. She called the local league organiser,
‘I was banned for taking my players off – they told me I was being disrespectful’
who made a complaint to the local Football Association. But no action was taken.
Perturbed by the lack of movement, she contacted the equality and inclusion organisation Kick It Out, which took up her case with the Football Association. The Manchester FA was instructed to investigate the case. And, eventually, after five months, the abusive boy was banned for five matches. But that was immediately overturned on appeal. As for June, she was informed she had been banned for a match.
“I got disciplined for walking off,” she explains. “They told me I was being disrespectful and they had no alternative but to issue punishment. But I’d told the opposition coach, I told the referee, I spoke to the league. What else am I supposed to do to protect my players if no one does anything?
“How does that seem fair? It was the first time in 20 years I’d ever been disciplined. But they said they had to follow the letter of the law.”
In which case, if they are to take their own initiative seriously, the organisers of our game at the grass roots need urgently to re-examine their procedures. Because at the moment the experience of Abraham Moss Warriors’ under-12 team suggests there is one rule for the England players on the field in Bulgaria and another entirely for young children hoping to have a bit of fun on a Sunday morning.
Sticking together: June Kelly (left) with players from Abraham Moss Warriors in Manchester