The return of Premier League football behind closed doors could drive an "explosion" of abusive social media messages, according to Troy Townsend of Kick It Out.
England's top flight resumes on Wednesday after a three-month break caused by the coronavirus pandemic, but all matches for the remainder of 2019-20 are due to take place without fans present as part of strict health protocols.
The build-up to the league's return has coincided with worldwide Black Lives Matter demonstrations in the wake of the death of George Floyd, who was killed in police custody in Minneapolis last month.
Last weekend also saw clashes between police and violent protestors in London, many of whom appeared to be affiliated with far-right groups.
Premier League teams will wear shirts emblazoned with 'Black Lives Matter' instead of their names for matches this week, while league officials have assured they will support any player who takes a knee as a show of solidarity with the movement.
But after the repugnant scenes in England's capital last week, Townsend, who is head of development with UK anti-discrimination body Kick It Out, is worried much of that anger could be channelled online when there are so many games taking place without supporters.
"Football is tribal anyway, so that's going to make it a battle and a challenge in the first place, but these platforms also are a home for vile, dominantly racist abuse," he told Stats Perform News.
"That would be my massive concern now: particularly as football is going to be running the whole weekend at different kick-off times, there's going to be a lot of anger spread around the whole day. We have to acknowledge there's going to be a lot of appreciation that football has just returned and there is many a good fan – sometimes we forget about this – there is many a good fan who actually does just like the football conversation on a platform like that. If you get some real, honest fans, it is a very, very good platform and it's the only way they can engage at the moment.
"But the minority always speaks louder and one tiny bit of racial abuse, whatever form that comes in, is one that will absolutely get exposed, as it should do because one is too many, but I honestly fear an explosion.
"I only had to look at a tweet on Friday, after the Premier League statement that the names would be replaced with the Black Lives Matter logo and messaging, I only had to look under that tweet to tell you how far we have to go, how much certain people do not give a damn and are quite insulted by the fact this logo is managing to go on their club shirt.
"We think it's pulling us all together and the genuine people are being pulled together, and I must give a shout-out to all the people who are taking this time to educate themselves, to acknowledge the fact that maybe they have their own biases and have said things in the past but are very much open and honest about it. There have been so many of those people who have reached out and said, 'Troy, you've shown me stuff I wasn't aware of in myself' and you've got to applaud that, whilst we still have to appreciate the minority are still making a very loud noise and it's that noise we have to douse as much as we can.
"The more we can recognise that we all have experiences that can help people appreciate and understand just that little bit more, the better. We need to be more open with each other and have these difficult conversations and appreciate we have some way to go in our own learning. And I think that's one of the biggest positives to come out of all this: because people have the time, they'll take the time to look at themselves and appreciate that, actually, they're not the person they thought they were in terms of their own cultural understanding, and how it impacts on other people. Now is the time for those people to take stock. That is a massive positive and long may that continue."
While he hopes the focus on the Premier League's return will help to bring a greater awareness around Black Lives Matter and the need for social change, Townsend is eager for the movement not to lose the momentum it has built over recent weeks.
"The media platforms, the broadcasters and everybody is actually really conscious about this," he said. "I just hope we don't leave it at the door, we don't use it as a tick-box exercise and think 'We've done this now, we can crack on and enjoy the game' because the players have been part of this in terms of activating the conversation around this and those that have gone peacefully on marches as well. It's an important issue for them, it's affecting their lives, it's always part of their conversations and you can tell by the wave of emotion on social media that a lot of it is heart-breaking."
One of the most poignant images of the recent unrest was when Patrick Hutchinson, a black man, carried a white counter-protestor to safety after Hutchinson and his friends realised he was at risk of being trampled.
It might not be the moment to inspire permanent change, Townsend admits, but it will at least offer hope of a better future.
"I have to mention what Patrick Hutchinson did, in taking out one of those protestors on his shoulder – that is something that maybe, maybe could bring people closer together," he said.
"Do I think it actually will? No. It might make the person who was injured on his shoulder think a little bit differently and maybe influence the people around him by acknowledging that his life could have been ended. The reason Patrick and his group of friends went in was they saw a human being. Not black, not white – a human being was in danger of losing his life. And why would we want that on our patch? That doesn't serve anybody.
"That iconic image – this is the generation's image that hopefully will drive unity. That is the image that hopefully will make people think 'there is hope'."