What Ron Atkinson said last week was wrong, pure and simple, but he’s not the BNP voting racist that he’s been made out to be by some people.
As I said to Paul Elliott of Chelsea fame the day after, he’s made a big mistake which has cost him his reputation and a million quid a year. To treat him like a murderer or a paedophile because of one remark is a bit excessive. Paul’s very anti-Ron and said, “I know, but he can’t use a word that for hundreds of years was synonymous with slavery. We didn’t have names, we were only called ‘nigger’.” My reply to that was, “Paul, hand on heart, have you never called someone a ‘Paki’ or ‘a white so-and-so’ without thinking? Not only that, but you know and I know that black guys address each other as nigger. If a word’s wrong – and nigger is – none of us should be using it.”
What’ll hurt Ron most is having people he’s worked with attacking him like Robbie Earle did last week in The Evening Standard. I was surprised at just how venomous Robbie was given the helping hand he got from Atkinson when he started as a pundit. I know for a fact that Big Ron gave him a dig out on a number occasions which doesn’t excuse what he said after the Chelsea/Monaco game but points to him being ignorant rather than racist. Carlton Palmer said exactly that when he came on the radio show I do for TalkSport in England – “Yeah, he called me this and that but there was no malice behind it and, anyway, we all say stuff we shouldn’t.” On the other hand, Brendan Batson who was with him at West Brom was adamant that, “I can’t forgive Ron for his comments”. There’s a big divide.
Looking at the broader issue, there’s far less racism in football than there was when I was a player. Words like ‘coon’ and ‘Sambo’ were commonly used in the dressing-room, as were dodgy nicknames like Chicken George from Roots which was given to one of the black lads we had at Millwall. I was called ‘un sale blanc’ – ‘dirty white’ – when I was in France, so it wasn’t just an English thing. Bit by bit players came to realise that wasn’t acceptable and you wouldn’t dream of saying anything like that now to a fellow player.
I have to say that during all of this, Marcel Desailly has behaved with great dignity. He could have been on every front-page in the country taking a pop at Ron, but no, he rose above it. He’s an interesting background, which is that he was brought up in the Ghanaian capital, Accra, by a mother who had four children by three different men. She met a French diplomat there who eventually took her and her family back to Nantes in France. He was a white man called Marcel Desailly, so that’s where little 4-year-old Odenkey Abbey got his new name. For whatever reason, Marcel Sr. never told his son that he wasn’t his real dad, which meant that he grew up thinking he was half-white.
What bearing that has on things I don’t know, but it’s a fascinating story which is extremely well told in his book.
You wouldn’t have thought it from reading the papers, but there were a couple of games played last week including Ireland’s away-trip to Poland. I’ve said before that I don’t consider any friendly to be meaningless, but there were times when I thought I was watching a testimonial. Both sides looked like they couldn’t give a monkey’s who won which was a bit of an insult to all the Irish fans who paid hundreds of Euro to be there. The clean sheet was more to do with Poland being rubbish than our wonderful defending, and apart from a couple of speculative long-distance efforts we didn’t do anything up front. The only plus point is that a couple of lads got to make their debut, and will therefore be bedded in if Brian decides to use them in the World Cup qualifiers. There’s been a bit of criticism aimed at Roy Keane for pulling out but everything I’ve heard from Old Trafford points to his injury being a genuine one. As for Alex Ferguson not wanting him to play in friendlies, I don’t think it’ll be a problem next season when Roy’s at Celtic!