Henry McDonald: Football needs a civility code to tackle hatred

Anyone like myself who both played and watched football in the 1970s and 80s can tell you all you need to know about the repugnant side of the beautiful game.

Saturday, 20th November 2021, 9:13 am
Updated Monday, 22nd November 2021, 2:38 pm
An East Belfast FC player endured horrendous insults about his one-year-old child. A reminder that while the legedary Liverpool coach Bill Shankly once said football’s more important than a matter of life and death, in fact a child’s life is far more important than a game

As a lad in the Ballynafeigh Youth football club in the South Belfast League between 1976-79 I witnessed and was subjected to infrequent but hurtful anti-Catholic sectarian abuse on the playing pitches of Ormeau Park.

Even though our manager was a proud member of the Orange Order from the Upper Ormeau the side was comprised of young Catholic as well as some Protestant players who all ran out together united in the colours and design of the Hibernian home kit.

Sometimes we were targets of sectarianism before, during and after matches.

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Henry McDonald is a former Guardian and Observer Ireland correspondent and author of books including a biography of David Trimble and 'INLA: Deadly Divisions'

Yet despite all that there was a genuine spirit of unity among Ballynafeigh Youth’s team and its volunteer staff which transcended such bigotry.

The bigots never broke us.

Attending Everton matches in the next decade I was shocked and sickened sometimes with elements of our own support who threw bananas at black players and chanted vile racist bile from the terraces.

The maltreatment of stars like John Barnes at our ground was unforgiveable and inexcusable.

Yet go to Goodison Park today and that kind of behaviour mercifully will result in the guilty parties being ejected from the ground, arrested and hopefully barred for life from the stadium.

Alongside hooliganism racism has severely dissipated around stadia across the UK although pockets of prejudice remain as we have seen recently in Yorkshire cricket.

Sectarianism too is far less tolerated than it used to be in grounds across Northern Ireland including Windsor Park and much of the latter has to do with the sterling work of Michael Boyd and his team when he was the IFA’s Director of Football Development.

Unfortunately, the nasty side of football locally and nationally still raises its ugly head occasionally as was the case last month when an East Belfast FC player endured horrendous hate-filled and sick insults from a small of knot of so-called ‘supporters’ at the Grosvenor Recreation Centre.

Until he walked off the pitch in protest on 83 minutes Danny Purkis had to listen to obscene threats to his one-year-old daughter as well as abuse about his wife and mother.

His ordeal took place in a Northern Amateur League Premier Division clash with Immaculata.

Players from the west Belfast outfit told Purkis that those behind this revolting conduct only turned up because Immaculata was playing a team from the east, that normally these people don’t follow their team.

It was not only a disturbing outbreak of brainless bigotry but the incident also caused deep embarrassment for Immaculata, a club with a long, honourable record in junior football who undoubtedly will act against those responsible.

The IFA has a new president, the energetic progressive minded Conrad Kirkwood whose roots lie deep in junior football.

He has Herculean tasks ahead of him to reform and progress the local game, and as an Irish League follower I wish him well.

Perhaps one more item though could drop into his In-Tray — the creation of a binding ‘Code of Civility’ that clubs should sign up to and make clear to any supporter that these rules apply to them as well.

As for those soccer ‘supporters’ whose words of hate drove Danny Purkis off the pitch they should get a life or at least gain some proper perspective on their own existence.

Less than a mile from that pitch up the Grosvenor Road and you turn left into the Royal Hospital complex. At the further end of the site there is the Royal Hospital for Sick Children.

I was in there once about 13 years ago when my youngest daughter had to be rushed in for emergency surgery due to appendicitis. She was in the ‘Children’s’ for about week inside a ward where even more ill kids than her were being treated for life threatening illnesses.

The harrowing, heart breaking sights and sounds I experienced inside that hospital have haunted me ever since.

I gave thanks that the wonderful medics and nurses had healed my child. And to this day whenever I feel engulfed by problems in my own life I try to think of to the pain, the heartache, the struggle of those young patients back then and agree with Alan Sugar’s line that ‘you really have no problems.’

Legendary Liverpool manager Bill Shankly was once allegedly quoted as saying: “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death. I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.”

Even for Evertonians like this one Shankly was a likeable soul but his musings on life, death and football were misplaced if not misquoted.

Life is far more important than a game especially the life of a child like Danny Purkis’ little girl who incredibly became the target of hate-mongers.

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