Villa had just been promoted to the first division, while Birmingham City still languished in the second, so he took me to Villa Park. My first match was a 1-1 draw with Liverpool in September 1988 – we sat on wooden benches at the front of the Trinity Road stand, close enough to the sidelines to hear the yells of the coaching staff and the thuds and grunts of the players. We went several times a year and when I turned 13 I bought a season ticket.
Over the course of almost 30 years I’ve been to Villa Park every season bar one. I saw David Platt score against Inter Milan in the Uefa Cup, Mark Bosnich make three saves in a penalty shootout, Ugo Ehiogu crash a thumping header into the roof of the net against Spurs. I watched the great Paul McGrath, the dazzling Tony Daley, and the heart-on-the-sleeve Ian Taylor. I sang about Dwight Yorke, Christian Benteke and Gabriel Agbonlahor.
But this season, I won’t be there. Because this season, Villa have signed John Terry.
On 23 October 2011, during a match between Chelsea and Queens Park Rangers, John Terry said the words “fucking black cunt” to Anton Ferdinand. He was charged by the police but despite admitting using those words, he was found not guilty at a trial almost a year later. Terry claimed he had said “fucking black cunt” sarcastically because he thought Ferdinand had accused him of saying it already. As an explanation, it cast enough doubt for him to be cleared. He had no such luck with the Football Association, which banned him for four matches.
In any other workplace, a man admitting to the use of that language would be suspended immediately pending investigation. Even with a not guilty verdict, they would be likely to lose their job. But this is football – and football doesn’t seem to care about racism.
Football’s antiracism body, Kick It Out, currently receives funding of around £500,000 a year from the various football bodies. While that might sound like a decent amount compared with antiracism organisations in other walks of life, let’s put that in perspective. The latest television deal for the Premier League is roughly £2.8bn a year. The Premier League pays Kick it Out £125,000 a year – that’s 0.0004% of the TV income.
This is a sport where a commentator such as Alan Green can mimic a player from Cameroon saying “me no cheat”, and get a mere slap on the wrist (Green is still employed by the BBC). This is a sport where of the 92 professional clubs in England, just two are currently managed by black men. This is a sport where a football manager, Malky Mackay, can make racist jokes and it’s dismissed as “banter”.
The FA finding against Terry has been whitewashed from his record. You will search in vain for any mention of it in the eulogies that greeted his departure from Chelsea at the end of last season; nor has it been mentioned this week in the coverage of Terry signing for Villa.
There was a time when fans paid the players’ wages. When Villa last won the league, in 1981, some of the players were on just £200 a week. Even in the early 1990s, as the Sky money began to come in, young first-team players would be on hundreds, not thousands. The amount of money a club made from ticket sales had a direct impact on the amount it could spend on players’ wages.
That’s no longer the case. The money a Premier League club makes from TV alone is astronomical – last year Sunderland, the worst team in the league, received £93.4m. The bond between players and fans has become ever looser. They are no longer like us. It becomes harder to identify with those on the pitch when a 21-year-old reserve is a millionaire.
Birmingham is a multiracial city; Villa are a multiracial team. The idea of a man who would use such language and show no remorse playing for my team in my city is depressing beyond words. How can they claim to oppose racism when they employ a man with that history?
The only thing I can do is withdraw my support. I’m not naive enough to believe a boycott will make a difference. But I can’t tell my friends “this is my team” and I can’t tell my son “this is your team” if John Terry wears claret and blue. As long as John Terry is a Villan, I’m not.