16 August 2012

Paul Elliott's little white lie


by Brent MacFarlane | Guest Contributor 

“In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.”

From Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ Speech – 28th August 1963
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Paul Elliott has a dream.

Paul’s dream is to rid the British game of racism, and as he has told us all as many times as we will listen that he will not stop until that dream is achieved.

It’s a grand dream, a dream that society in general should be striving to achieve, not just football. But while football can only help modify the behaviour in the grounds, it can’t stop the prejudices that exist in everyday life.

For myself, the biggest shock of the summer and indeed last season didn’t come from the fact that racism has not been eradicated from our game. It was that some footballers are even bigger scumbags than we all imagined. Even as I write today, Arsenal youngster Emmanuel Frimpong has recently been fined £6,000 by the FA for a tweet describing somebody as ‘Yid Scum’.

But despite the inevitable setbacks, Paul Elliott has worked tirelessly to achieve his dream. In 2003 he was awarded an MBE for his work with young players and his involvement with anti-racism initiatives in football. His work was again recognised this year in the Queen’s birthday honours list when he received the CBE for his services to equality and diversity in football, with special recognition given to his roles with UEFA and the Football Against Racism in Europe network (FARE). Paul had received the highest honour awarded a player from the Premier League era, and, as Kick It Out were quick to remind us all, was the first black footballer to achieve the CBE award.

But there are people out there who think racism hasn’t exactly been altogether bad for Paul. Let us not be misunderstood at this juncture: no one (certainly of sane mind) at all is advocating that the man deserved to be abused for the colour of his skin. I can’t stress enough how wrong I believe that to be and how heartfelt sorry I am that anybody from any walk of life should suffer in that way.

However it must be highlighted that there is a feeling in certain circles that Paul has often embellished the truth to suit his own agenda and further his career, and after looking at all the facts I find myself amongst them.

I, like many Rangers fans, first became aware of Paul Elliott in July 1989 when he signed for Celtic from Pisa for £650,000. He was a ball playing centre half; big, good in the air and strong in the tackle. He read the game well and was not shy to put it about in true Scottish fashion - 16 bookings in his first season is testament to that.

In an interview with The Scotsman on 22nd October 2002 Paul told a story about his time in Italy:

"It was difficult throughout my career - there was monkey-chanting and booing, and I was the unfortunate victim of having a banana thrown at me.  Actually, it’s one of my funniest stories," he said of [an] unsavoury incident, which happened in a game between Pisa and AS Roma in the Italian capital.

"I remember I was having a terrible time in the match, and somebody threw a banana which hit my leg. I actually picked up the banana, peeled back the skin and ate it, then threw it back at the offender.

"I remember talking to journalists afterwards, and they said: ‘Paul, why did you do that?’ I told them I was having a bad time, I had a much-improved second half and that was because of the nutritional value from the banana."

This horrific and shocking incident clearly didn’t put him off Italian football for good as he took a job circa 1995 as a pundit alongside show regular James Richardson on the channel four programme ‘Football Itallia’. (I actually have a memory of him being quite good at it.)

Incidentally, at the time of his signing Scottish football was still rightly suffering an embarrassing racism hangover of its own. In two of the most shameful incidents, some 17 months prior, Paul's former Aston Villa teammate Mark Walters was showered with bananas and monkey chants from Celtic fans at Parkhead, and again two weeks later by the Hearts fans at Tynecastle. 

Walters called the latter the worst experience of his football career, and while Celtic did publicly denounce the actions of the fans, the Scottish Football Association remained silent on the racist abuse in two of its member's grounds.

Elliott and Walters would cross swords four times in the Old Firm Derby during Paul's first season in Scotland. The final meeting of that 1989/1990 campaign came at Ibrox in front of 41,926 where Rangers thrashed Celtic 3-0, Mark Walters scoring the first on 28 minutes.  

Having lost the Scottish Cup 4th Round 1-0 to their oldest foes two months before, the Rangers support understandably were enjoying the moment, much to the distaste of Paul who made the mistake of giving the wanker sign to Copland Road end. 

The fans responded by booing Pauls every touch, so much so that he tried to pass the booing off as racism even going as far to point at Mark Walters then himself as if to say, ‘but he’s black too’.

Thankfully the incident didn’t put Paul off his stay in Scotland, and in that same 2002 interview with The Scotsman he said, "During my time in Scotland I had a wonderful time; the Scots are amongst the nicest, most sincere and compassionate people you could ever meet.”

However, in a speech to the Runnymede Trust at their conference concerning ‘Cohesion Equality Diversity’ on the 19th January 2005, just over two years removed from his interview with The Scotsmans, Paul unbelievably had this to say about his time in Scotland: “I served my time in Italy. From a professional point of view I felt I’d done a job, and then it was time to move on again and I moved to a place in Scotland. Scotland – there’s a strange mix: ‘Vodka & whisky’ - we call it ‘racism & sectarianism’.

“There are certain games that bring out the best in some people and the worst in others. One is called the ‘The Old Firm game’: Celtic V. Rangers. I recall my debut for Celtic, which was against Rangers in front of 67,000.”

Paul’s debut in the world famous fixture had come at Ibrox on the 4th November 1989 before a crowd of 41,598. The game would be remembered for the moment former Celtic hero Maurice Johnstone broke his duck for Rangers against his old side with an 89th minute winner in a 1-0 win for Rangers.

And his full Celtic debut came on 23rd September 1989 at Celtic Park and versus Motherwell, with 27,182 in attendance. In fact, during his time in Scotland the largest crowd Paul ever played in front of was 62,817 in the League Cup Final at Hampden, a game in which he scored and his team lost 2-1 to a Richard Gough winner in extra time. 

The fixture in the prologue to Paul's story, quite frankly, never took place.

But I was more than happy to concede here that it is entirely possible Paul merely got his debut and his first derby mixed up. That was until I read on: 

“I recall I didn’t have the best of games, in fact, I started terribly by scoring an own-goal. Didn’t help on my debut! The monkey chanting, the booing came out, far more vociferous than it’s ever been, and then I made a back pass which contributed to the second goal. So after 45 minutes we were 2-0 down courtesy of Paul Elliott.”

The only game against Rangers that season that Paul’s Celtic trailed 2-0 down at half time was his 28th game for the club, the clash mentioned above at Ibrox: Walters opened on 28 minutes to be followed by a Mo Johnston tally. Ally McCoist scored a third on 78 minutes for good measure for the 3-0 victory.

Furthermore, in Paul’s whole time at Celtic he only ever trailed Rangers 2-0 in one other game, coming on 2nd January 1991 at Ibrox in front of 38,399. Mark Walters again scored in the first half after 35 minutes, but the second goal from Mark Hateley didn’t come until the 78th minute.

(I also feel it’s worth pointing out here that if Paul had scored an own goal and then contributed to a second, the last thing the Rangers support or indeed any football support worldwide would be doing is booing him; we’d be sarcastically cheering his every touch! Perhaps he meant his own fans?)

Paul continued, “The second half of the game, things got better.  The banana throwing wasn’t as bad and I recall a particular incident where, when the ball went out of play, I went to get the ball and there were 3 or 4 bananas, and I actually picked up a banana, took a bite and threw it back at the offender.”

What?

Really, what?! WHAT?!

Now it doesn’t take an intimate knowledge of Scottish football to know that there is a fair degree of one-upmanship between the Rangers and Celtic support, and had Paul Elliott actually picked up a banana, eaten it, and thrown it back at the Rangers support it would have been one of the most iconic images and moments in British football history (up there with John Barnes back-healing the banana in the Merseyside derby at Goodison) shown and replayed again and again and again to all and sundry.

So how then every single cameraman, television commentator, reporter, player, coach, ball boy, fox, and fan in the ground seemed to miss such a ground breaking moment of defiance in one of the most watched derby games in world football is anybody's guess.

And all this before we even look at how it’s a case a cynic might describe as remarkably similar to his time in Italy as recounted to The Scotsman, and supposedly by a fan base who were outraged at the same treatment recently netted out to their own black star. The Rangers support were hardly likely to abuse another black player from any team especially when Mark Walters was on the pitch, which he was - every single time Paul played against Rangers.

Still Paul goes on: “Now, in many respects, I think it was the right thing to do because there were roars of laughter from the opposing supporters and I thought ‘well this is incredible.’ I didn’t want to eat too much and cause myself stomach issues for the rest of the game but within 15 minutes I’d contributed to scoring, via an assist. Celtic were then losing just 2-1. And in about the 87th minute I scored the equaliser myself.  So I felt redeemed.”

Paul played in nine Glasgow derbies, losing six and winning three, drawing none. In the two seasons he spent at Celtic the club only drew once with Rangers: It came at Ibrox on the 15th November 1990, Terry Hurlock equalising for Rangers on 65 minutes with his first goal for the club after Derek White (playing in place of a certain Paul Elliott missing due to suspension) scored the opener for Celtic. The crowd that day was 39,543.

Paul did score twice against Rangers in his time in Glasgow, the first coming the League Cup Final defeat mentioned earlier where Richard Gough and Mark Walters scored for Rangers. His second goal against the Light Blues came in a defeat at Parkhead a month later, Maurice Johnstone and Ally McCoist doing the damage for Rangers, with 50,761 in the seats.

The game in Paul's story still does not exist, but that's not going to stop him: “Now I recall, after the game everybody was delighted, over the moon, and I remember this particular journalist came up to me and said ‘Paul, I know the game is about two halves, but this is ridiculous. How can you be so poor in the first half then play reasonably well in second half?’ He said to me, ‘Well, what was the most influential factor?’ And I said: ‘Well, don’t you know the nutritional value of a banana?' That was said live on television, so all of a sudden, that’s how I learned to turn negative into positive.”

By this point, if this was a Hollywood movie we’d be saying it was far-fetched, and demanding it was immediately turned over. 

As for this supposed TV interview, not only were these remarks not broadcast on live TV - not only is it almost the exact same quote he provided The Scotsman about his time in Italy - it wasn’t said at all! Because like the game, the goals, and the banana throwing, the only place this game occurred was actually in Paul Elliott’s head, he didn’t even manage to get the venue right!

Paul actually was subjected to monkey chanting during his time in Scotland. It came in his third game for Celtic, in the first half of a 1-1 draw with Aberdeen, at Pittodrie in front of 20,918.

But the worst thing about this fantasy tale at the conference is that Paul is not just some after-dinner speaker, working the circuit trying to make a crust for his family after his football career was tragically cut short. No, Paul is a key figure for an anti-racism group who has been caught red handed telling lies, lies which were now being passed as fact on his way to a CBE.

Now don’t get me wrong: the Rangers support are no angels nor would we ever claim to be. We don’t seek phoney praise or token gesture awards for being well behaved, but we do deserve a damn sight better than this, especially from a man who not only should know better, but it is his job to be in such cases, no pun intended, ‘whiter than white’.

These lies are detrimental to the good work that has been done to combat racism in football, and to minorities and the constant battle against racism they face. Yet following the Runnymeade Trust conference Rangers fans who tried to highlight these vicious lies in the face of the facts were called liars and even racists themselves!

Man Utd fans sing about Liverpool slums; City fans have sung about the Munich disaster; Spurs fans call themselves ‘the Yid Army’; Aberdeen fans mock the Ibrox disaster; Hibs fans sing about a Hearts player being a refugee; Greame Le Saux took homophobic chants for ten years.

But the moment some fans sing that Adebayor's father washing elephants the moral outcry from the anti-racism groups is hysterical. They don’t seem too concerned that the second line of that song is ‘his mother is a whore’.

Has racism in football now become such a one way street that a black player only has to accuse a white player or fan of being racist and it’s immediately taken as fact or at best guilty until proven otherwise?

It would certainly appear so as far as Kick It Out and its media cheerleaders are concerned, they who even went as far as suggesting this summer that the England Manager's reasons for leaving out a certain player were somehow politically motivated. 

Would they have made the same statement if John Terry had been the player to miss out?

Or indeed would Lord Ousley’s surprise at Rio Ferdinand being charged been the same had a white player merely retweeted the term ‘choc ice’ about a fellow black professional?

It seems not if Elliott’s furious reaction to Sepp Blatter’s November 2011 comments regarding racism being dealt with by a handshake are any indication. In an interview with the Daily Record's Hugh Keevins on 18th November 2011, Elliott spoke of being 'terribly disappointed on a personal level with Blatter's reaction, and went as far as to suggest the FIFA president had been guilty of a criminal offence’:

“If you make racist remarks in the street you can be prosecuted under the public offences act.  If you do the same thing on a football pitch the football offences act of 1992 covers that eventuality.  Not even the president of FIFA is above the law.  It’s not right that such a powerful man harbours these views on racism.  There must be a consistent, zero tolerance approach taken to this subject.” 

So given the facts of the matter surrounding Paul's tall-tale spinning I’m sure he will accept he’s guilty of an offence too? Or at the very least his lies have been detrimental to the fight against racism in football.

For the last few months I, like many Rangers fans before me, have tried to have this story highlighted to no avail. 

However, last week I managed to get in touch with the Chairman of the Professional Footballers Association, Clark Carlisle, who himself has recently finished an excellent BBC documentary on racism in football, 'Is Football Racist?'

One simple question was: What would your thoughts be on someone lying about racial abuse? 'I really don’t know about this one,' he replied. 

'I’d hope no-one would do that; it would be very detrimental to all the work that has gone on.'  

Clarke also offered to read this piece, have a look at the facts, and in his words, ‘Give him a bell!!!’

The Rangers support are not asking for Paul Elliott to face charges and they’re not trying to stop the man doing his job, a job I believe he does well by-and-large.

But they do deserve an apology, they do deserve an admission that Paul got it very wrong, and they do deserve to have this slur and stain removed.  After all, in Paul's own words: “When it comes to racism no one is above the law. There can’t be room for any complacency. Because racism doesn’t stop. It keeps going, and all of us as adults, have responsibilities to work against it with whatever capacity we can.”

Prejudice harboured against any group is simply wrong, on that fact we can certainly agree. And Paul's words have painted the Rangers support with a very broad brush with their inaccuracies, with a mark that is completely undeserved.

So let’s see if Paul Elliott CBE is a man of his word, honest and true, or just another person frantically trying to cover up his own prejudices against certain groups of people.

Your move, Paul.