Review: Dreaming the Impossible – The battle to create a non-racial sports world by Mihir Bose

How the Black Lives Matter campaign has been a catalyst for change

Mihir Bose is optimistic. Cautiously optimistic, but hopeful none the less that the institutions which govern sport in Britain are finally waking up to what needs to be done to tackle racism.

His book Dreaming the ImpossibleThe battle to create a non-racial sports world is full of accounts from sports men and women and administrators of their experiences from the 1970s onwards, beginning with his own of being pursued the length of a train packed with hostile football supporters by a large, fat Arsenal fan wielding a baseball bat and shouting ‘Coon, Coon, hit the coon over the head with a baseball bat.’

He survived to tell the tale and has written for the Evening Standard, the Financial Times, the Sunday Times and been Sports News editor of the BBC as well as writing 50 books – one for each of his years in journalism.

It was the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis policeman in May 2020 and the Black Lives Matter movement which has concentrated minds, he tells The Chiswick Calendar.

“In 50 years in journalism I haven’t seen such extensive coverage of race as over the last two years.”

Without wishing to diss his colleagues, he says journalists, overwhelmingly white, did not see racism as an issue and sportsmen on the receiving end of racism did not want to talk about it.

Images above: Ebony Rainford-Brent; Michael Holding; pictures Sky Sports

A watershed moment

When the hugely respected Jamaican cricketer Michael Holding broke down in tears talking about the Black Lives Matter movement on Sky Sports in July 2020, talking with Ebony Rainford-Brent, the first Black woman to play cricket for the England women’s team and presenter Ian Ward ‘I could not believe what I was seeing’ Mihir writes. It was a watershed moment.

Sky had made a film about race in sport because Ebony had herself dissolved into tears in a production meeting discussing race and told her colleagues how she felt. She told Mihir:

“I talked about the fact that you walk into many rooms and you’re the only one of colour. [I said] in this industry you may be in front of a screen but often you go behind the scenes – I’ve been 25 years in the game – and it’s all white.”

She had watched the full eight minutes of video footage of Floyd’s murder, saying “I can’t breathe” with Derek Chauvin’s knee on his neck and her breakdown in the production meeting had been the culmination of several weeks of thinking about it.

“The pandemic in that sense helped” she told Mihir, “because we all watched it. Normally that would have been a quick jaunt, a quick story, and then it all got back to everything else. Whereas now it a was a time to reflect on something really, really important.”

It is telling that she thought the reaction to their film would be negative.

Mihir recognises this reticence. “Black and non-white people have not felt they could come out and say these things without being pigeonholed as having a chip on their shoulder” he told me.

It gave Ebony the opportunity to address the issue that “racism is a huge elephant in the room. I know it exists. Unconscious bias exists. All these inequalities exist, but it wasn’t recognised.”

Image above: Paul Elliott; Mark Bullingham; pictures Football Association

Changes to the selection of leaders in the FA

The kind of racism she describes there is institutional, often unconscious and unintentional but the kind of situation which arises when jobs change hands as people recommend their friends. If White professionals don’t have Black friends then Black people do not get those opportunities.

Mark Bullingham, chief executive of the FA, also saw the video of Floyd’s death.

“From our point of view, it put things on the agenda and allowed a momentum for change that we can see something positive coming out of” he told Mihir.

The weekend after Floyd’s murder he had a conversation with Paul Elliott, Chelsea’s first Black captain and FA Council member. The result was a new leadership diversity code which they put together in a matter of months.

“Normally you spend a few weeks putting together the terms of reference.”

The code lays down specific numbers of people from Black, Asian, mixed heritage and females who have to be appointed to senior leadership.

Image above: Graham Southgate; image from YouTube

Changes in the leadership style of the England team

Graham Southgate has also tackled racism head on.

“What he’s done and how he’s reacted has been amazing” Mihir tells me.

“He has been outstanding in the way he has dealt with this in a way others haven’t.”

‘Southgate came into football when many whites who ran the English game were convinced Blacks could never play football. But, as manager of England, he has shown an awareness of race which is exemplary’ he writes.

Raheem Sterling interviewed him when he was asked to guest edit the Today Programme on BBC Radio 4. He explained how he had begun to change his views on racism in football as a result of the racial abuse Danny Rose and Sterling had suffered during the match against Montenegro in 2019.

“I wasn’t aware of it until very close to the end when Danny got booked and there was a reaction from the crowd. So, when we got to the changing room I am having a go at Danny for being booked, and I had to apologise on the plane because it emerged that this [abuse] had been going on during the game. I didn’t like the fact that the boys felt they couldn’t mention it in the changing room at half time or report it.”

Image above: Luther Blissett; Good News Jamaica Facebook

Luther Blissett – “players spat on me”

This takes us right back to the 1970s and the early chapters of Mihir’s book where he interviews player after player who was abused, spat on and subjected to monkey chants by opposing fans.

Mihir wrote an earlier book on racism in sport The Sporting Alien, 25 years ago, and returned to many of the interviewees.

In the early days when they might be the only Black player on the team, managers’ advice was to ignore the chants.

Luther Blissett, a ‘legend’ at Watford who played 14 times for England was told by Graham Taylor, his manager at Watford:

‘Concentrate on your game, play your game and stick the ball into the net.’

Unlike Graham Southgate’s approach, which encourages the team to act as one to support Black players, Blissett was left to deal with it alone.

“If people spat at me, I ignored it” he told Mihir. “Players did spit on me, in isolated instances in the league, or supporters when I was going for a corner. As long as it was not against me in the face. But if anybody spat at me and it hit me in the face, I would have turned on them. Then the gloves came off.”

Image above: Kick It Out logo

Brendon Batson – “the authorities did nothing”

Brendon Batson, who played for West Bromwich Albion, remembered:

“The National Front were recruiting at football grounds. We saw them as we came up in our coach to the ground. In their bovver boots and their Union Jack. And as we were getting off the coach they would hurl abuse at us. They would spit on our jackets. There was no protection. The authorities did nothing.”

He tried to become a football manager when he retired from playing in the early 1980s: “but I never really got a chance. … Our generation was too early for becoming managers.”

The Kick It Out campaign tried hard to stamp out racism at football grounds and many thought the days of overt racist abuse were over.

Paul Camillin, who wrote a book about the first 100 years of Brighton & Hove Albion Football Club, says:

“I felt we had made terrific progress and then Brexit happened, and all of a sudden you feel a little bit like you’re back to square one.”

Social media is the latest vehicle for abuse from those armchair warriors who feel they can publish vile comments in the safety of anonymity.

Mo Farah, who has recently revealed he was trafficked to this country as a child, told the BBC only last year:

“I’ve had some shocking [messages]. I’ve had ‘You don’t belong’. It seems like it’s getting worse.”

Image above: Ian Wright; Facebook photograph

Hoping for a better future

Mihir writes about a sea change which happened in English football when Andy Gray, Tony Finnigan, Ian Wright and Chris Powell were brought in to play for Crystal Palace and Black players had some safety in numbers.

He writes about ‘the three sporting musketeers of change’ – the impact Raheem Sterling, Marcus Rashford and Lewis Hamilton have made on the public debate, not only within their sport but in wider society.

He addresses the lack of Asian players in football and the fallout from Azeem Rafiq speaking out about long term abuse at Yorkshire County Cricket Club.

“Before speaking out I have been in pretty dark places” he told Mihir in August 2021. “The last 12 months have been very difficult. I wish I had come out earlier. But if I had spoken earlier, say I had spoken as a 19-year-old, would anyone have listened to me? Probably not.”

Isa Guha, the first woman of Asian heritage to play cricket for England, now a commentator for Test Match Special, feels the same way Mihir does. He writes:

‘When I ask whether we will achieve a non-racial sports world, she says “I have seen enough to be positive about the future. So I shall say yes”.’

Mihir Bose will be speaking at the Chiswick Book Festival this September (tickets go on sale 26 July).

You can pick up a copy of his book in Waterstones or in independent bookstore Bookcase London on Chiswick High Rd. Bookcase London is a member of The Chiswick Calendar’s Club Card scheme.

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