After several players from the England Men's football team were racially abused on social media, MHFA England Ambassador Matt Alexander reflects on his own experience of growing up with and working in football, experiencing racism, and what we can all learn from the team's courage on and off the pitch.
I can’t watch penalty shootouts.
When I was 11 or 12, I missed a penalty in game at youth level, and I’ve struggled with them ever since. So I cannot begin to tell you the nerve Bukayo Saka would have needed to step forward and take that penalty, with that much pressure on him, last Sunday night.
As soon as he missed, my phone started to buzz with messages, but not about the result. They all said words to the same effect; racism is on its way. My brother simply said; ‘race relations at an all-time low’. These young men had shown incredible courage in front of the nation, and they were subjected to a level of racism I have never seen before. The fact it felt
so inevitable is probably the thing I find hardest to contemplate.
As a Person of Colour who has always been involved in football, both personally and professionally, I have a layer of resilience now that these young men may not have. I shouldn’t have had to build that up – no one should – but I was born in a small, predominately White town, where that was expected of me. ‘Sticks and stones’ was often the coping mechanism for People of Colour like me at that time.
My Mum is White (and her family is Italian, which made the final complicated!) and my Dad is Black, from a West Indian family who arrived in this country on the Windrush. When I had to fill out forms asking for my ethnicity, I often had to tick both Black and White. I think about Barack Obama and Lewis Hamilton, how they conduct themselves, and wonder how they have coped with that feeling of not fitting in. I sometimes still feel like I don’t fit in.
There are things I’ll never forget growing up. I once left a shop and ended up in the middle of a National Front march. Being spat on and racially abused as a twelve-year-old – that stays with you for a long time. My Dad was also a player before he was a manager, and I still hear the names that he was called on the terraces. He was so strong, but it definitely had an effect on me. I’ve heard plenty of those same racist words and jokes since then, but I’m always told they ‘aren’t about you, mate’.
We hear a lot about education as a solution to this problem – I wasn’t taught anything about Black history. Things have improved in that respect, and I have learned a lot more from my daughter now than I ever did, but my concern is that the people sending these messages and saying these things are not interested in being educated. We have to make them accountable for their actions instead. I have spent enough time in tech and cyber-security to know that it can be done, but currently the lack of consequence from sending racist abuse on social media protects them.
I’ve distanced myself from football now, but I think there is a lot we can learn from this group. The thing that sets apart Tyrone Mings, Marcus Rashford, and Gareth Southgate, when they speak about these issues, is that they speak with true authenticity. They speak their minds despite leaders, governing bodies and a huge number of online critics disagreeing with them. I joined MHFA England as Ambassador because I have experienced mental ill health and want to change things. I’ve known a lot of footballers over the years that will say they haven’t, but I know they have struggled daily. I love how this group are prepared to wear their hearts on their sleeves and show both incredible courage and vulnerability.
Gareth Southgate is the model of an inclusive leader. He’s been through heartache and is very open and truthful about the way that it affected his life. You can see with every decision he makes, he thinks about how it will affect each of his players. You feel like he would understand you, whoever you are, wherever you came from. Modern football is a game of chess, and he understands that his players are people, with different skills, experiences and attitudes. That’s what an ally looks like. A boss tells you what to do, a leader shows by example, and Gareth Southgate is the future of football in this country.
I am immensely proud he was able to do that, but he had to make sacrifices, take pay cuts, and dedicate his life to breaking down those barriers. He always said that if he ever won the lottery, he would buy a football club so that he could open all those doors for people who couldn’t break through themselves. He felt like that was the only way it could happen, because those circles were so closed off to people like him.
There has been some progress since then but there is still a long way to go. When I became CEO of Notts County Ladies, I was told I was the only Black CEO in football in the country. There needs to be more diverse representation off the pitch, in the boardrooms. There are more Black coaches working in the game, but there still seems to be a big gap between that and getting the top jobs.
Football is a universal language, so I hope the example Gareth Southgate and his crop of talented, diverse, and sensitive players can be a real driver for change in this country. They now have a lot of responsibility and expectation on their shoulders, just like my Dad did, and all pioneers like him. Fortunately, they seem to recognise it, and as Marcus Rashford has already demonstrated, when football leads the way it becomes difficult to go against the tide.