By Grant Fogel
There is one stand-out game from the 1970s which is widely viewed as iconic, arguably to a level high above any other in its category.
The match was meant to be plain ordinary; there was no prior indication of its greatness. It was not an F.A. Cup Final (in an era where the entire day of the final seemed akin to a national holiday). Neither was it a glory game during a World Cup tournament, nor a league title decider.
There were no medals involved at all, for this was a seemingly ordinary league game worth two points only, on an atmospherically snow-kissed pitch at Old Trafford on 30 December 1978.
West Bromwich Albion, the visitors at Manchester United that day, not only had the audacity to win 5-3 but did so in a truly exhilarating style, dazzling the crowd with their flamboyant attacking flair and scoring some memorable goals in the process.
As the players walked off of the pitch and towards the tunnel at full time, the commentator applauded, ‘’the magic that black footballers are bringing to the league’’.
Of course, he was referring to the outstanding performances of the West Bromwich Albion players; Brendon Batson, Laurie Cunningham and Cyril Regis.
There is no reason to doubt that those words were well intended and said with respect. Nevertheless, the comment sounds distasteful and out of place today. Out of place too in 1978 to those of us who perceived no distinction between races and did not understand why anyone should make such a fuss.
There was a fuss though. It lasted for the entirety of the game. You can clearly hear it on the highlights. It is shameful.
The racist boos and taunting and jeers from the terraces. Those targ
eted players had such stoicism and forbearance to appear oblivious to the racism, regardless of how they felt. That is why those players are among a class who receive respect and admiration for far more than just their outstanding football ability.
A statute will be unveiled in 2014 in order to honour them and show gratitude for their inspiration.
And, by association, West Bromwich Albion have traditionally been afforded respect by a great number of football fans of every club allegiance – and even by people who have no regard for the beautiful game – for they were the first club in the top flight to regularly field three black players. They played a pivotal role in destroying barriers.
How many other clubs were prepared to employ even a single player solely on their ability and irrespective of their race in 1978?
The club is held in high esteem. They were on the right side. History shows us that.
So if any of the top flight clubs could be expected to deal fairly with allegations of racism today, it is West Bromwich Albion.
Sadly that appears not to be the case.
Almost exactly 35 years to the day of the iconic Old Trafford match, their striker Nicolas Anelka scored his first goal of the season at Upton Park against West Ham United. In celebration, he sullenly performed a gesture created and advocated by Dieudonne M’Bala M’Bala, the ‘quenelle’ salute.
The quenelle, almost unknown in the UK until this incident, is widely recognised in France and on the continent. It is a gesture which has neo-Nazi connotations. You can readily find appalling photos of individuals posing at sensitive places, such as upon the train tracks leading into the death camps at Auschwitz.
Diedonne is alleged to be a comedian. Not everyone will agree with that job title.
It is significant to note that whilst Diedonne is described as a comedian, he has made failed attempts to enter politics; he is no slapstick comedian. He is political.
He is also alleged to be a racist by a number of groups and individuals in France. Not everyone, again, will agree with that description. There are, however, a number of egregious statements concerning Israel, Judaism and the Holocaust, attributed to him and, of greater significance, a number of racially aggravated court convictions dating from 2006 which substantiate the description.
So as the significance of Anelka’s gesture quickly gathered pace, the West Bromwich Albion Caretaker Head Coach, Keith Downing, was asked for his post match views on the celebration. He replied;
“It is dedicated to a French comedian he knows very, very well. He uses it in his act and I think speculation can be stopped now, it is absolute rubbish really”.
Anelka chose to rely on social media later that day to deny any wrongdoing, confirming Downing’s statement that the gesture was simply a tribute to his friend, the comedian. As the media and social media storm ensued, Anelka returned to Twitter the following day to state that he is neither racist or anti-semitic.
The Football Association almost immediately announced that it would investigate the matter. Kick It Out, football’s equality and inclusion campaign immediately offered their support to the investigation.
There is sadly one glaring omission though.
As of today, 30 December 2013, exactly 35 years to the very day of the iconic match, West Bromwich Albion have made no comment on the incident.
Their website holds no mention whatsoever of the controversy. Such acquiescence is aggravated by a headline which proudly reads; ‘Downing delight with Anelka Display’.
There is no criticism of the club for previously being ignorant of the quenelle, they could not have sensibly been expected to have known its significance before this weekend.
There was, however, a duty upon the club to have acted as soon as they were alerted to the connotations of the gesture.
A cursory post-match search on the internet would have immediately alerted the officials at the club. Downing should then have been advised not to be completely dismissive of the matter in the post match interview.
There is an argument that the most sensible course of action would have been to refuse to comment whilst the club look into the matter. Or, alternatively, he could have clarified that Anelka acted innocently whilst accepting that the gesture may have caused offence and will be investigated. Maybe even taken to the opportunity to apologise for any offence?
To simply dismiss the incident as ‘absolute rubbish’ is compounding the insult, more so as there has been a silence from the club which is tantamount to condoning Anelka’s action.
There is an obligation upon the club. Aside from any consideration of their legal duty as an employer, their vicarious liability, there is a moral duty to speak out; to apologise for any offence, to confirm that the matter is being investigated and to take the opportunity to condemn racism in any form, confirming their commitment to equality.
Such action would be expected from any club, more so from one with as fine a tradition as West Bromwich Albion.