Sunderland AFC legend Gary Bennett recalls monkey chants from Newcastle United fans as he Shows Racism the Red Card

St James’s Park, Newcastle United Football Club, January 1, 1985, and good will to all men is in short supply on the jubilant home terraces.

Sunday, 13th October 2019, 8:00 am
Updated Wednesday, 16th October 2019, 7:41 pm
Gary Bennett discusses his career and work with Show Racism the Red Card.

The Magpies are minutes away from their first derby win over arch rivals Sunderland in five years when opposition player Gary Bennett is red carded for a late challenge on Wes Saunders.

As he trudges disconsolately towards the tunnel, he is subjected to sickening monkey chants and impressions from baying supporters because of his skin.

Centre-half Bennett should not be surprised.

Gary Bennett, wearing number 5 with his back to the camera, in action for Sunderland at Newcastle on New Year's Day 1985.

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For fellow black team-mate Howard Gayle, cheered only two years previously while playing for Newcastle, had endured a similar fate when dismissed earlier in the same game.

Now racism has reared its ugly head once more in the sport, with alleged racist abuse directed at Dover players by Hartlepool United fans at Victoria Park last month and this week’s disturbing scenes in England’s European Championships qualifier in Bulgaria.

Reflecting on his ordeal nearly 35 years later, Sunderland legend Bennett says: “First of all you are disappointed about getting sent off and then you are disappointed about the result.

“Then you get home and think about all the abuse you have received.

Bennett in derby action for Sunderland against Newcastle in 1989.

“In those days though you had to dust yourself down and get ready for the next match.

“Who could you have complained to? The manager? He would just have said ‘what can I do?’. There was no procedure to complain to the Football Association either.”

More about those home fans, that 3-1 defeat and today’s football authorities a little later.

Bennett is speaking eloquently in his role as head coach for North-East-based Show Racism the Red Card, the United Kingdom’s largest anti-racism educational charity, ahead of its Wear Red Day fundraising day later this month.

Gary Bennett, second left in the back row, at a recent Show Racism the Red Card workshop at Sunderland's Stadium of Light. With him in the back row, from left, are Sunderland AFC Ladies' player Charlotte Potts and Sunderland AFC players George Dobson and Alim Ozturk. In the front row, from left, are Blackfell Primary School pupil Talitha Rushton and Grangetown Primary School pupil Ryan Tate.

The organisation delivers workshops challenging prejudice at all levels to 50,000 young people a year.

Given the recent spate of football-related racist incidents, be it insults from the stands just yards away or across the globe via social media, its work appears timely.

But are today’s problems as bad as when Bennett was surging forward from defence with the ball during 369 appearances for the Black Cats between 1984-1995?

Now 57, he replies: “No it is not as bad as it was then. But what is happening at the moment is still worrying and we are hearing more about it because we have more understanding of racism as a society and people are more likely to challenge it and complain about it.”

Not that Manchester-born Bennett always kept quiet when confronted by racism.

He recalls an early 1980s visit to a workingmen’s club in Cardiff, where he played before his £65,000 move to Wearside, in which both he and his black girlfriend of the time were quickly asked to leave.

The outcome? “We reported it to the club and the chairman of the workingmen’s club was asked to resign.”

While quickly revered on Wearside – a goal within minutes of your home debut always helps – his early days off the pitch were not without problems.

“Prior to moving here, I had only lived in Manchester and Cardiff, which both had far more of a multi-cultural population than Sunderland,” he recalls.

“In Sunderland, I was one of the few black people living here at the time and there I am driving around the town in a reasonable car and I kept on getting stopped by the police.

“They would ask who I was, what I was doing and if the car was mine.

“They were usually apologetic about it all in the end and looking back you can understand to an extent where they were coming from. It was a rarity that someone up here had seen someone of my colour.

“But it got to the point where I had to go to the football club and they went off to the police chief and got it stopped.”

Bennett enjoyed life on Wearside so much that he still lives in the city nearly a quarter of a century after leaving the club to play for Carlisle United, Scarborough and Darlington.

Now a grandfather, he says: “Sunderland as a city has changed tremendously and is far more diverse than it was when I first came.

“And it is not just more black people, it is people of many different cultures and backgrounds and with that comes understanding.”

But while organisations such as Show Racism the Red Card are successfully spreading the message at grass roots level, he insists the football authorities up on high need to do more.

“You look at the fines given out for various offences,” he says passionately.

“There's Liverpool getting £200,000 for fielding an ineligible player in the cup the other week. There’s Huddersfield getting £50,000 for wearing shirts with a sponsor’s logo that was too big.

“Lukaku gets abused in Italy and what happens? Nothing.

“Then you look at who is in charge of these organisations and in the boardrooms and it is usually white middle-class people who have never experienced racism. There’s still a lot of work to be done.”

As far as Show Racism the Red Card is concerned, that work is not just aimed at challenging traditional racist stereotypes.

Bennett, who also works as a radio summariser at Sunderland games for BBC Newcastle, adds: “It could be your skin colour, culture, nationality or religion. If you suffer abuse about any of them then that is racism.

“It could be your size, your height, your hair. You might even be white and still a target.

“John Anderson, the former Newcastle United player, who I work with, talks about how he was locked up by police for his own protection in the 1970s when the IRA bombings were happening in Birmingham because he was a young Irish lad at West Brom.”

Mention of Anderson brings us back to New Year’s Day 1985.

Many of Newcastle’s fans were so sickened by the behaviour of their so-called fellow supporters that an organisation called Geordies Are Black And White, the forerunner to Show Racism the Red Card, was soon formed to promote racial harmony in an era where the National Front regularly paraded their hateful literature outside the ground.

Ged Grebby, chief executive of Show Racism the Red Card, is quick to praise Bennett’s work and adds: “When we established Show Racism the Red Card in 1996 the idea was to use the popularity of football players to campaign against racism in society.

“Gary was one of the original footballers involved in our first campaign film in 1996. Since then he has been one of our most active supporters, talking openly about his own experiences both on and off the pitch to highlight the issues surrounding racism.

“As our head coach, Gary goes into schools to work directly with young people, and again by being open about his own experiences he’s able to help young people understand the impact racism can have.”

Newcastle’s three goals back on New Year’s Day 1985, meanwhile, were all scored by future England star Peter Beardsley, currently banned by the Football Association for eight months from football after he was found guilty of using racist and abusive behaviour towards black players while a Magpies’ under-23 coach.

Bennett says: “I know Peter. He was a great player and a good person but I do not know the facts of the case and I don’t work with him 24/7.

“Football has moved on though from the 1970s and 1980s though when things were said which went unchallenged.

“He’s always been fine when I’ve been in his company. But I cannot speak on behalf of others who have worked with him. They will know better than me what went on.”

Returning to today’s trends and trigger-happy army of spiteful keyboard warriors, Bennett’s advice is: “Everyone needs to think twice about what they are about to say or write.

“It’s like a rash challenge in football. Once it is done, there is no going back.

“It’s no good saying later that you didn’t mean it. If you didn’t mean it then why say it?”

Show Racism the Red Card’s fifth Wear Red Day, in which people are encouraged to wear red to support the charity, takes place on Friday, October 18, across England and Wales.

To donate £1 to Show Racism the Red Card, text RED to 70470. The text will cost £1 plus your standard rate message.

Further information is available at www.theredcard.org/wear-red-day