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'Racism at grass-roots level is 10 times worse than the pros': How a junior club in Leeds shines an ugly light on football's biggest problem

The Telegraph logo The Telegraph 6 days ago Jeremy Wilson
Racist incidents are on the rise in youth football © Getty Images Racist incidents are on the rise in youth football

Clovio Azie knew that something was seriously wrong as soon as he noticed one of his Chapeltown under-10s players quietly sobbing midway through the first half of a recent match.

“I was concerned because he is not a player who ever complains,” says Azie. He approached the boy and was told that an opponent had called him a “fat black cow”. A complaint has gone into the West Riding Football Association but, around a month on, they are still waiting for a resolution.

Another player’s mother needed time off work after her son, who plays in the under-11s, had been abused. “She was just so upset that she had put her child in a position to access racism,” says Lutel James, who runs the Chapeltown Youth Development Centre. “For some families, it destroys them deeply. For some kids, it has stopped them playing. They feel like they are less of a person. It is heartbreaking.”

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At the end of a season in which racism has so blighted elite football, a Saturday morning visit to Chapeltown provides an alarming snapshot of life at the grass-roots. Tajean Hutton, the grass-roots manager at anti-racism charity Kick It Out, uses the words “war zone” to describe racist abuse at this level. He estimates it is 10 times worse than the elite.

James himself has now lost faith with football’s processes to deal with racism and will this summer launch his own centralised online tool – the “Red Light Stop Racism” button – for people to report incidents. “We have now started preparing young people to expect it – if we don’t, we are setting them up to fail,” he says.

Spending time with Chapeltown, based in an inner-city suburb of Leeds, is at one level an inspiring experience. Three hundred boys and girls, of all ages, abilities, backgrounds and cultures, are not just thriving in what is a clearly a high-quality football coaching environment - they and their families are part of an entire community experience that can stretch to breakfast and lunch in the clubhouse as well as table tennis and pool.

Hoods are banned. Handshakes are mandatory and every success, notably three cup wins over the previous week, is shared across the age groups. Yet speak with the coaches, who are mostly in their 20s, and each also has dreadful anecdotes.

Kick racism out parade before the Sky Bet League 2 match between MK Dons and Mansfield Town at Stadium MK, Milton Keynes on Saturday 4th May 2019. (Photo by John Cripps/ MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images) © Getty Images Kick racism out parade before the Sky Bet League 2 match between MK Dons and Mansfield Town at Stadium MK, Milton Keynes on Saturday 4th May 2019. (Photo by John Cripps/ MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Asher Bailey, the coach of the under-14s team, details another incident this season when one of his players was allegedly called a “black n*****”.

It was reported and a counter-allegation was then made against one of his players, who was himself charged. This was dropped following an appeal and the opposing player did ultimately receive a five-game ban and £75 fine.

Jake Boyd and Kenan Bailey are the coaches of the under-15s and tell me about an eastern European player who they say was called a “f****** immigrant” for daring to celebrate during a game. “We reported it, other people heard but nothing came of it,” says Boyd. Bailey agrees that the abuse can impact deeply upon their players. “It’s an epidemic,” he says.

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Will Bowler, the office service manager and football secretary, has been working at the youth development centre for 40 years and does not hesitate to declare that racism in grass-roots football is “rife” and “getting worse”. James, who has been at the centre for 20 years and also works in crime prevention, is urging governing bodies to accept that current procedures have failed and support his idea for a new mechanism to deal with racism.

“The processes that we have gone through over the years are tokenistic,” he says. “Kids don’t have confidence in the system. Their voices are not being heard when you create this illusion that the people at the top are well positioned to create social change. They have all funded each other, filtered money into different departments and are talking the same rubbish with the same outcomes.

“It’s a joke. It should come from grass-roots now to build a model. You want a central, accountable body that understands it, administers it, dissects it and then pulls everyone to task. The process and fact finding has to be more transparent, open and simplified.

“It doesn’t have to be massive. Say, two full-time staff? If you have never done this, when you have spent millions on [anti-racism] T-shirts and staffing to get nothing done, surely there is a new grass-roots initiative that you can support?”

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The West Riding FA “confirmed that Chapeltown Juniors Football Club have reported a number of allegations of racism” and that, “in accordance with the FA’s policies and procedures for managing discrimination”, those incidents were investigated.

It says that where “sufficient credible evidence is obtained” charges are raised and an independent disciplinary commission reviews the evidence.

Cases are considered on the balance of probability and a first offence for face-to-face discriminatory abuse carries a minimum five-match sanction. Second offences carry “an entry point of 10 matches”. Clubs are themselves liable for action if there are two or more proven cases in any 12-month period and, as well as potential fines, sanctions come with an FA education programme.

James, though, says that complaining about an incident makes you feel like you have done something wrong. “People get a secondary insult when they report these things,” he says. “It’s not about them [the other team] saying one thing or another, it’s the lack of respect. You don’t get made to feel comfortable. There is a nervousness around racism – it’s easy to ignore and hard to deal with.”

A look elsewhere around the country soon produces many comparable stories.

Brady Maccabi, a London-based Jewish club with 23 teams, say abuse has got so bad that they have been forced to call the police. Social media posts had included references to the team “taking a gas shower”.

View this post on Instagram

Good morning I just want to say , I am not normally the person to talk a lot but when I think I need my point to heard I will speak up. Regarding what was said at the Chelsea game as you can see by my reaction I just had to laugh because I don’t expect no better. For example you have two young players starting out there careers both play for the same team, both have done the right thing. Which is buy a new house for there mothers who have put in a lot of time and love into helping them get where they are, but look how the news papers get there message across for the young black player and then for the young white payer. I think this in unacceptable both innocent have not done a thing wrong but just by the way it has been worded. This young black kid is looked at in a bad light. Which helps fuel racism an aggressive behaviour, so for all the news papers that don’t understand why people are racist in this day and age all i have to say is have a second thought about fair publicity an give all players an equal chance.

A post shared by Raheem Sterling x 😇 (@sterling7) on

Kick It Out reported a sixth successive rise last year of discriminatory abuse and the spate of incidents this season at an elite level prompted England internationals Raheem Sterling and Danny Rose to take a very public stand.

Femina Makkar, the head of operations at Kick It Out, says that she is “indebted” because their willingness to confront racism has encouraged those lower down the pyramid to report incidents. “At a grass-roots level, I think there is under-reporting,” she said. “The things we get through honestly breaks my heart. Under-10s calling each other horrible names. Teams on a weekly basis being subjected to discrimination. They battle on but there will come a point.

“If you have confidence you will use the system. If you don’t you will say there’s no point. Sometimes it is not about the outcomes, it’s about how people are made to feel as part of that process. People want to know the system is working for you and not against you.”

Makkar also highlights a societal “increase in hate crime and hate speech” and the way technology has changed how some racism is expressed. “They don’t have to be accountable – you can almost vomit over people with hate and get away with it,” she says. “This needs a whole system approach.”

Paul Elliott, chairman of the FA’s inclusion advisory board, said that every complaint is robustly investigated and urged young people to report incidents either to their county FA, the national FA or Kick It Out.

LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 02:  Paul Elliott attends the London Football Awards on March 2, 2017 in London, United Kingdom.  (Photo by John Phillips/John Phillips/Getty Images) © Getty Images LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 02: Paul Elliott attends the London Football Awards on March 2, 2017 in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by John Phillips/John Phillips/Getty Images)

“We care, we are passionate, we understand,” he said. “Racism is a societal challenge. Until you start changing racism in society, you can’t change it in football, but what football has got is a fantastic power by players, role models, football clubs who do fantastic work in the roots of the community.”

Back at Chapeltown and James is irritated at how wider society is often cited when football racism is discussed. He sees 1,000 children pass through his youth development centre every week in various sports, schemes and activities and the one message he continually stresses is personal responsibility.

“I tell these kids all the time, ‘Take responsibility for your own actions. If you are not polite to that gentlemen you are going to apologise’. It’s pointless me saying that his mum always talks like that. At that critical point you have got a chance to influence that child.

“It’s OK to make a mistake, but if you do that here you will be put right. I am sick and tired of people like John Barnes saying, ‘We can’t just blame it on football, it is a society problem’. Football is a powerful tool that has a responsibility to contribute to social change. You can’t be responsible for next door but, if there are bad things going on in your own garden, don’t dilute it by talking about everyone else’s garden. That weak temperament is what stops everyone taking isolated responsibility.

“We have got a responsibility to the next generation. We have got to stop banging the same drum. Do something different. Bang a new drum. You might just get a different tune.”

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