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Martin O’Neill: Christie abuse shows racism still rife in football

But Ireland manager says situation has improved a lot since the dark days of the 70s

Colin Bell, Republic of Ireland women’s manager, Martin O’Neill and Minister for Children and Youth Affairs Katherine Zappone with Kevin Nguyen from St Aidan’s school in Dublin at the annual Show Racism the Red Card awards ceremony at Tallaght Stadium. Photograph: Barry Cronin

Republic of Ireland manager Martin O’Neill believes that while the treatment of black players and those from other ethnic backgrounds has improved hugely since his Nottingham Forest team-mate Viv Anderson was pelted with fruit at away games, the recent experience of Cyrus Christie on social media shows that more needs to be done to tackle the problem of racism both in football and wider society.

“The situation has improved immensely over the last 25 to 30 years but there are still problems,” said O’Neill at the annual Show Racism the Red Card creative art competition prize-giving in Tallaght where more than 300 schoolchildren and youth group members gathered for the event.

“Some years ago I played for a very decent football team that produced the first black man to play for England in Viv Anderson. He was a wonderful footballer and adored by all the football fans in Nottingham but he took terrible abuse away from home and all because of the colour of his skin.

“There is much greater integration now so there is no place for racism, absolutely no place for it, but it exists. I’m not on Twitter but I have heard of it [the abuse that Christie took] and been made aware of it. It is remarkable that people in this day and age can attack somebody in this way and also get away with it. 

“Cyrus has, on the surface, adopted an attitude like Viv Anderson by saying: ‘well, it’s happened, I don’t like what they are saying but such is life’. But he has the feeling that nothing has been done and that’s disappointing. It’s sad but it’s something that we have to highlight.”

Experienced discrimination
O’Neill, who appeared on stage alongside women’s international team manager Colin Bell, was speaking at the event after Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Katherine Zappone, said that she had experienced discrimination on occasions after moving to Ireland from the United States almost 30 years ago.

The former Nottingham Forest midfielder O’Neill said being Irish in Britain could be an uncomfortable experience when he first went there, even as a professional footballer.

“It was obviously when the Troubles in Northern Ireland had erupted in the mainland; it became an issue and I think even my fellow team-mates had a problem with it because suddenly you’re Irish and you are seen as part of that even though that’s not the case.

Pretty difficult
“It was particularly acute when some of the bombs were around Nottingham, or not too far away, Birmingham, and a lot of people lost their lives. I’m going way back to 1974. We were Irish and, even though we were footballers, we probably didn’t have a status at that time. We really did feel the effects of it. It was pretty difficult; it was difficult for a number of years. The ordinary Irish person living in England had a difficult time.”

Anderson, he said however, had “changed a lot of people’s minds by his own great willpower but, O’Neill acknowledged, “he had a pretty tough time of it. It’s a serious issue and he dealt with it very well. I think it has come on fantastically since then but I still say we have a long way to go before it’s eradicated.

“Whether that will ever happen, I don’t know. Funnily enough, with these particularly new gadgets coming in like Twitter, it seems to be getting back to the surface again.” 

Bell urged members of the audience to address the issue on a personal level by respecting people regardless of the colour of their skin, their nationality or their gender.

Former Celtic boss O’Neill, meanwhile, made light of the news that Steven Gerrard appears to be at an advanced stage of talks with Rangers about becoming the club’s next manager. “He hasn’t got a clue what he’s letting himself in for,” he joked. “Although he has been born and bred in Liverpool so he must have an idea. I hope he does [become manager], it would be nice to see him.

“I think he would be terrific for Rangers just at this stage because Rangers . . . unquestionably it’s the worst side that has ever, ever played for Rangers at this minute. They are so, so bad. They are worse than bad, they are dreadful! I think the only way is up for him, if that’s the case.”