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‘It is still there’ – Former football coach Dave Fleary shares experiences of racist abuse

Dave Fleary recalls getting a job when he was a teenager. “I had a mentor as an apprentice. That bloke turned around to the owner of the company and said ‘thanks a lot for giving me my own n*****.’

“The closest to an even playing field I have ever had in my life has always been on the football pitch because 95 per cent of things I could actually affect myself.

“Off the pitch there wasn’t and I had to absorb them and let them go on around me. And I am nobody special so, if it has been happening to me, it has been happening to so many other people around me.”

We’ve met to talk about football, racism and, as Dave explains, the times when one has bled into another. The 51 year old is a former Port Vale community coach who was with the club when they put on an anti-racism play at the New Vic Theater in Newcastle.

We’ve met back at the theatre’s café to discuss his experiences in the game which, as he explains, began as an eight or nine year old in Congleton and he was nicknamed ‘Pele’ as the only black player in the team.

As he progressed, insidious comments took their toll. “When I would have been between the ages of ten to possibly 12, the racism I experienced wasn’t from players on the pitch, it would be comments from parents.

“You might go in for a tackle, win it strongly, get up and do something with it and you would hear a dad say, ‘what are you doing letting one of them do that to you?’ “It takes a while to distinguish the ‘one of them’.

“At first it is passed off as ‘the opposition’ but over a period of time you will hear it more and more. You talk with your team mates, ‘well I think he was saying this actually’ – and you have to accept that the ‘one of them’ is the color of your skin.

“It gets difficult but then as your opponents get older, you begin to see what parents and peers are reinforcing in these players.

“So, then you are getting the overtly racist comments in your face. To a point, it is the equivalent of when an opponent picks you up and pinches you under the armpit for a reaction.

“You get to a point in some games where you can’t contain it, the referee is not supporting you and, no disrespect to some of my team mates, all of a sudden no one is hearing anything or bothered. It is your business, you have to sort it out. So you do go and sort it out. I wouldn’t say fights but the next 50-50 I quickly turned into a 70-30 in my favour.”

Dave, who played football in South Cheshire and Yorkshire for junior and then senior amateur teams, worked in the Port Vale community team in the early 2000s, at a time he looks back on largely with fondness.

He said: “Port Vale ticked so many boxes for me it was unbelievable. I was able to do and give in a sport I loved and has given me so much. With the coaches there at the time, from Martin Foyle to Mark Grew or Andy Porter, it was never a case of ‘us and them’.

“Sometimes when Brian Horton was there, we were snowed under with players (for community work). One thing Horton made sure of was there were no big time players there. You looked at the players’ car park and would see Steve Brooker turning up in his little Clio of him. Everybody was down to earth.”

Dave was also at the club in 2003 when their Austrian midfielder Andreas Lipa racially abused Plymouth’s Jason Bent during a game. He recalls: “Andreas Lipa went and did what he did on Kick Racism Out Day when we played Plymouth.

“The lads in that dressing room were having none of that in any way shape or form. I won’t name names but I was getting footballs signed and a player grabbed Lipa by the collar and said ‘you are signing **** all’. That was after he had nearly ripped his head off in the dressing room.

“It was nice to see and interesting to see because all of a sudden there was a level of genuineness I had never seen before.

“When I was coaching at the Vale, I never received any racism but I knew it was there for the simple fact I ran the ladies team and heard the amount of sexism. For men, racism is the next on the list.”

Dave’s gone on to work in and out of football, including a spell coaching at Gresley.

His own experiences in and out of the game tell him racism still exists. For example, outside of football, he made a complaint of racist abuse against someone who also happened to work at a football club. But when he tried to take it up with the club, he felt he was being fobbed off because the incident didn’t happen there.

Dave adds: “That individual is still involved in the game. It is quite simple for me in that regard. There is no way that was acceptable. Whether it was out of work was irrelevant. I didn’t even get a letter saying he was going to attend some fictitious course. It was the classic, ‘we take your allegation very seriously’…..and then there was no word of it after that.”

So, he says the game, and society, has a long way to go…pointing to the regular booing of players taking the knee by a minority or the abuse England players Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka suffered after they missed penalties in the European Championship final against Italy last summer.

He said: “It is still there. I will sit down and argue with anybody who says it is not. The Euros proved that. People who sent racist abuse to those lads in the Euros will have played the game at some level, so have taken the education that is negative from that level and brought it all the way to the terraces and then blurted it out on social media.”

These days, Dave works delivering laboratory supplies. He loves football but ca n’t stand much of what surrounds the sport – and his own experience of it tells him racism in the game still has to be beaten.

He says: “I am old enough and ugly enough to stand my own corner. But I don’t expect anybody to have to do what I have had to do just to enjoy and keep loving a game of football. It’s not right.”

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