When Brendon Batson recounts his childhood, some of the stories of the racist abuse he suffered are scarcely believable to someone who has not lived through his experiences.
After he was born in Grenada in 1953, Batson moved to England when he was nine. His talent for football flourished to the extent he was picked up by Arsenal in 1969 as an apprentice and eventually became the club’s first black player.
During a career that spanned 11 years, the right-back became a pioneer for black players, particularly at West Brom where he played alongside Cyrille Regis and Laurie Cunnigham as part of their legendary 'Three Degrees'.
But even before he stepped on the pitch Batson was battling racism.
“Growing up as a schoolboy was challenging,” Batson tells Standard Sport. “There was a lack of education, a lack of knowledge.
“People had got views on black people, on ethnic minorities, that were totally unfounded. You know, people said to me when I first came to England - did you live up a tree? I couldn’t understand the question, much less give them an answer.”
Society has changed since then, but the battle with racism today still exists. There was a grave reminder of that last week when Greg Clarke was forced to resign as chairman of the Football Association for his comments to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport select committee.
Clarke, who apologised for his words, referred to “coloured footballers” and said there were “a lot more South Asians than there are Afro-Caribbeans” in the FA's IT department because “they have different career interests.”
“Those comments were so outdated,” says Batson. “Years ago people used to talk about how they’ve come from a certain generation, but I think that’s a load of codswallop now.
“He did the right thing [by resigning]. He didn’t drag it out. He realised his mistake, and we all make mistakes, but the higher you go, the bigger you fall.”
The challenge for the FA is where they go now and there are growing calls for appointing a black man or woman as the next chairman, with England defender Tyrone Mings saying it would be a huge step forward.
Batson, who has worked as a special adviser to the FA and is Trustee of the Professional Footballers’ Association, agrees that would be a significant move, but he says it must be the right person for the job.
“It is a bit like Kamala Harris being vice-president [of the United States],” he says.
“That in itself is fantastic. Of course, we had Barack Obama and Michelle Obama too. That’s fantastic, but they’ve got to be up to the job - that’s the main thing.”
One person Batson, who received an OBE for his services to football in 2014, believes could be up to the task is Paul Elliott - who was the driving force behind the FA’s new Football Leadership Diversity Code.
“I think he is very capable,” says Batson. “I think he could have other areas he might want to get personally involved in but certainly, if he doesn’t feel it is appropriate now, I think he is one definitely for the future. He is definitely a credible candidate.”
Whoever the FA appoint, Batson is adamant the organisation must take the lead when it comes to creating equality in football.
He believes good work is being done - particularly with the Football Leadership Diversity Code that was launched last month in a bid to increase BAME and female representation in senior executive jobs and coaching roles - but more action must follow.
“I think there is a big onus on the FA as the guardians of the game,” says Batson. “The FA can take a lead in showing they are taking positive steps to being more representative.
“If you are looking at football there is a lot of warm words being spoken. I don’t think there is enough action to meet those warm words.”
Given his work in combating racism over a number of decades, Batson has seen many “false dawns” but he says he is a “born optimist” and hopes change could be coming - particularly as he continues to work with Show Racism The Red Card.
Even in lockdown, the charity is continuing to educate children and yesterday Batson took part in a Q&A over Zoom with children at Rhyl Primary School in Kentish Town.
“It is very important that young kids realise this is something they’ll have to carry on, because racism, homophobia, bigotry, everything, has been perpetuated forever and a day,” says Batson.
“But hopefully it will shrink and shrink and shrink. I will be well gone then, I will have met my maker, but one day, who knows, perhaps we will not have to have these discussions.”
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