“Liverpool Football Club is deeply saddened by the passing of club legend Tommy Smith. Smith, who gave almost two decades of remarkable service to the club and was affectionately nicknamed the ‘Anfield Iron’ by supporters, has died at the age of 74.”
“The video circulating online, showing vile discriminatory chants being aimed at one of our players, is dangerous and disturbing.”
The above are extracts from two separate statements issued by Liverpool Football Club on its official website and disseminated across social media channels on Friday, April 11.
The latter was released first, condemning in the strongest possible terms the chants by a group of Chelsea supporters of “Salah is a bomber” that were captured and shared online ahead of their team’s Europa League match against Slavia Prague on April 10, just three days before Chelsea’s trip to Anfield. The former came later after news broke of the ex-Liverpool captain’s passing and was met with an outpouring of grief online.
Buried among the reminiscences and glowing obituaries was the odd mention of an interview Smith gave in which he made comments so brazenly racist that upon first reading, one might be forgiven for assuming he must have been joking. But he wasn’t; it was not burpy, alcohol-fuelled bleating or heat-of-the-moment rage bubbling over into shouty abuse – these were the considered thoughts of a man who made over 600 appearances for Liverpool, many as captain, and won nine major honours in doing so.
The interview, with author Dave Hill for his biography of John Barnes, Out of His Skin: The John Barnes Phenomenon, took place in 1988 and was recorded by Hill, whom Smith would later attempt to sue. But the comments, made about black former Liverpool player Howard Gayle, were published in Hill’s bestseller a year later and Smith’s views were sealed in ink:
“He suffered from a black man’s attitude towards the white man. See, everybody thinks whites have an attitude towards blacks. In reality it’s blacks who have a problem with the whites… I used to call Howard the ‘White Nigger’. Now that is a compliment. It was the only way I could find to describe that I thought he was OK.
“I’m not prejudiced but if a coon moved in next door, I’d move, like most white people would. If my daughter came home with a nigger, I’d go mad. But I’m only being truthful and normal.”
To conflate Smith’s comments in 1988 with the embarrassing and moronic chanting of a group of football fans in 2019 would not be constructive. Indeed it does the group of morons a disservice. The morons, at a stretch, have the excuse of being part of a crowd and the feeling of immunity and anonymity that affords. In Smith’s case, however, it was just he, a Dictaphone and Dave Hill.
On Sunday, the Anfield stadium announcer incorporated a tribute to Smith into the minute’s applause for the 96 victims of Hillsborough, whose 30th anniversary was the next day. It is hard to accept that there wasn’t a single person watching who spent that minute gritting their teeth, as a man who couldn’t even properly articulate his fondness for a black teammate was being remembered through misty eyes.
It would be unfair to single out Liverpool for special criticism; Manchester United, through its in-house television channel, have kept ties with former manager Ron Atkinson after a live mic picked up his deeply offensive racist tirade about Marcel Desailly during a BBC radio broadcast in 2004; John Terry continues to be employed within the game as assistant manager of Aston Villa and is occasionally invited onto the mainstream punditry circuit as though he never shouted “F-ing black c**t” at Anton Ferdinand.
But it is useful to focus on a single case study when trying to examine the double standards that exist within English football where racism is concerned. Liverpool’s whitewashing of history reflects a refusal, nay inability to look inwardly when trying to eradicate this plague. It is the height of hypocrisy to one minute eulogise about a man who was so open about his disdain for another race and the next be so castigatory of a group whose words were comparatively mild.
It is a double standard that has been noted and criticised by Kick it Out, the organisation that tasks itself with challenging discrimination and promoting inclusivity in English football. Last year the organisation’s chairman Lord Ousely slammed the FA’s “shameful silence” over the coverage by elements in the UK media of Raheem Sterling’s personal life.
Is it absurd to suggest that the Chelsea morons would have incurred milder sanctions had they led their beloved blues to Champions League glory? Is it laughable to consider that the Tottenham Hotspur supporter who threw a banana skin at Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang might have gotten away with it had he been on the other side of the advertising hoardings? It is difficult to laugh when you consider the light sentence handed down to John Terry in 2011 or Kenny Dalglish’s staunch public defense and justification of Luis Suarez’s racial taunting of Patrice Evra in the same year.
It is easier to ban for life a group of nameless, faceless yobs than it is to hand the same punishment to a member of the English football establishment. And until the FA, the Premier League and the individual clubs involved with both stop with the hollow condemnations and start with examining their own uncomfortable relationships with racism, we shall have to assume that they just don’t care enough to do so.