While racism remains a problem on and off the football pitch, it seems, says Steve Day, that another form of discrimination by fans needs to be given the red card.
When football authorities in the UK pat themselves on the back and claim that they’re making strides in combatting racism and homophobia, and all forms of discrimination in football, they should remember the name Daniel Ailey.
Daniel is a semi-professional player for Potters Bar Town in The Ryman League. For the non-anoraks, that is the eighth tier of the sport, seven divisions down from The Premier League. It sounds a bit crap, but it isn’t: consider the millions who play football, only a tiny, tiny fraction are good enough to be paid for it and Daniel is one of them.
What makes him different among footballers is that he’s deaf. To borrow a joke, Daniel is perhaps the only deaf footballer in the paid ranks – if there are any others, I haven’t heard. There haven’t been many, ever. Cliff Bastin was Arsenal’s leading scorer for 60 years and is still third in their all-time scorer list behind legends Ian Wright and Thierry Henry, he was deaf too. Didn’t stop him knocking it into the net. Arsenal could do with him now, before selling him to a Manchester Club.
Daniel’s team take on Grays Athletic later this month. The last time they played, the match had to be stopped when the Grays’ supporters loudly mocked the noises Daniel makes to indicate his position to his team-mates. Of course, he was the last to know. People often say to me it must be a bonus of being deaf that you don’t know what people are saying about you, but I can tell you it’s the most humiliating thing.
I used to play on Saturday afternoons, with hearing aids, until they had to go back to the manufacturer to have the mud cleaned out, and my audiologist had a hissy fit about delicate instruments and the inadvisability of diving headers. I then played once without them, ran with the ball from the halfway line and scored what I thought was a career-defining solo goal worthy of Lionel Messi, only to discover the whistle had gone ages ago and everyone else, hands on hips, had stopped playing. My team-mates rolled their eyes and had a chuckle. Quietly humiliated, I never played again.
So I feel for Daniel. It should be the case that if you’re good enough, then you’re good enough. But when he steps out against Grays, he faces much more of a challenge than merely playing. Every time he touches the ball, he’d be only human to wonder what’s being said, or rather bellowed, at him by supporters who would rightly recoil at racial discrimination but who feel free to taunt someone on the grounds of disability. He might feel he shouldn’t make his characteristic noises, to give them less to take the micky out of him for, but then his game is compromised. His main communication medium is BSL and it’s difficult to move into dangerous positions without having to sign ‘give me the ball’ to his team-mates, and then how many hearing footballers can sign anyway?
The FA took no action against the Grays fans after the original incident, claiming they have no power over supporters. Funny that when it’s a higher profile league, they seem to have power to fine and punish the clubs those supporters follow. But then its just a deaf guy, he should be more thick-skinned, and anyway what’s his problem, he can’t hear it anyway!