Book Review: The Uncomfortable Truth About Racism by John Barnes

Growing up in the nineties and coming to football in the new millennium, I had the impression – naively – that racism in the beautiful game was a thing of the past, that it was consigned to an era of hooligans and hostility and would nary tarnish the sport again. How wrong, how ignorant, I was. Two decades into that new millennium and football – and society – is still marred by disgusting instances of racism. Who can forget the way three of England’s heroes of summer 2021 were racially vilified after defeat to Italy on penalties in the Euros? When the vitriol spewed out, for many it was shocking; but, sadly, for many others, there was also a degree of inevitability. The real questions over age, experience and game time which should have been central to the analysis of that penalty defeat, as well as a celebration of England’s best tournament since 1966 which should have rounded off the Euros, were lost to racist abuse and discrimination that proved just how endemic racism is in society and, consequently, football. It has never gone away, as John Barnes points out in his book The Uncomfortable Truth About Racism as he spotlights these uncomfortable truths and debunks myths about progress and equality.

Books by footballers tend to be in a certain vein: autobiographies discussing their life in and around the game. Whilst some books in recent times have begun to tackle more difficult subjects and footballers have also begun to speak out more on social and welfare issues, Barnes’ book represents a significant departure. He may be a former footballer – and one of the best of all time for England and Liverpool – and this book may touch on football, but this is a book of social and political commentary by a man who has experienced and understands racism first-hand. It is hard-hitting, frank and, as the title suggests, uncomfortable, as Barnes really gets to grips with and tackles one of the biggest social problems in history. Anyone expecting a football-focused commentary or reflection specifically on racism in football will find something rather different as Barnes offers a much more nuanced perspective, looking at football not as the problem but rather probing instead the environment and society that shapes those that go on to racially abuse others, be it in football stadiums, in the supermarket or any other place or space. Indeed, Barnes scrutinises the social and political roots that have fixed discrimination firmly into society, making racism both endemic and ingrained and superficial efforts to challenge it largely fruitless.

Barnes offers a thoroughly thought-provoking and engaging perspective and readers will certainly be made to question, challenge and confront their own beliefs and opinions. Even when there may be stances the reader takes issue with, Barnes, to borrow his own phrase, does not shy away from ‘putting his head above the parapet’. Nor does he avoid taking the counterargument in some existing debates. He confronts the issue of racism head on and in doing so seeks to ‘open up the discussion’. And there are without doubt some really interesting, thoughtful and challenging points throughout that force the reader to engage. Indeed, I found myself thinking a lot about the idea of social conditioning and unconscious bias and querying the role of the individual, in as much as whilst society may shape and condition a person, there comes a point when each person knows right from and wrong and has the power to shape themselves. There are no quick and simple answers to the questions posed in this book or, indeed, the challenge of racism, but what the book does is continue the discussion and engage others.

Interestingly, at one point in the book, Barnes writes, ‘there are three types of people: people who are racists and know it, people who are racist but don’t know or think they are… and people who aren’t racist at all… The people who belong to the first group don’t care and won’t suddenly have an epiphany to stop being racist… the people in the second group don’t actually think they’re racist so they feel it doesn’t apply to them… Finally the people in the third group don’t need to change as they have no racial bias to start with… so overall nothing changes.’ It’s a somewhat depressing thought that those people who would most benefit from this book are those who are the least likely to be changed by it; but there is no question that people who do read it will benefit from doing so. Will this book end racism? No. That goes beyond the capability of any single book, any single person or any single reform. But can it play a part in changing the perceptions of society? Absolutely. Racism has no place in society and no place in our beautiful game and hopefully one day the colour of a player’s shirt will be the only colour that matters.

(Publisher: Headline. October 2021. Hardcover: 320 pages)


Jade Craddock


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Book Review: More Than a Game – A Story About Football and other stuff by Ralph Robb

Wednesday, 29th November 1978. A date that won’t mean a great deal to many people, but in football terms in England, it was hugely significant. It saw Viv Anderson, then at Nottingham Forest, become the first black player to represent England in a full International.

Nowadays stars such as Raheem Sterling, Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Trent Alexander-Arnold pulling on the white shirt for the Three Lions just isn’t a story here. However, in their last outing in Bulgaria, all the talk was not of the professional job the English team did in demolishing their hosts 6-0, but the disgraceful and unacceptable abuse that the black players had to ensure from the Bulgarian crowd.

Unquestionably, things have improved significantly in England in the forty years since Viv Anderson made his debut, but as the recent incident in the FA Cup showed, when the Haringey Borough v Yeovil Town tie was abandoned due to racist comments from the crowd, the issue has not gone away. Therefore,  Ralph Robb’s novel, More Than a Game: A Story About Football and other stuff, is a timely reminder of what life was like during the turbulent early part of the 1980s in England and the racism that was prevalent both in society and in football.

Set in the early ‘80s in Wolverhampton after Aston Villa had won the English First Division title, the story centres on Sabina Park Rangers an amateur team of black players who are the first to reach the final of the Watney’s Challenge Cup. Their coach Horace McIntosh has more selection problems than most, with Villa, the First Division champions wanting to sign one of his best players, and right up until the day of the match, uncertainty about whether he will have a team for the biggest game in the club’s history, set against a background of arrests, a scam and an atmosphere of impending violence on the streets.

Whilst football is at the centre of the story, the build up to the final provides various plotlines that give a vivid and portrayal of life in Britain under Margaret Thatcher and the Tories. Therefore, the tension between the police and black youths feature in the book, reflecting the actual riots that took place in the early ‘80s in places such as Birmingham (Handsworth), Bristol (St Pauls), Leeds (Chapeltown), Liverpool (Toxteth) and London (Brixton) is featured.

In doing so, Robb captures the frustration of the black community who had to deal with a police force not wholly upholding the law in the way it was intended. Interestingly though, the reader is able to see that the older generation of the black community (those arriving into Britain in the 1950s), struggling to maintain a position where they are trusted by the younger age-group, who want action, rather than the placatory words and deeds of characters such as the Sabina Park Rangers coach, Horace McIntosh.

Whilst racism is often simplistically seen as a ‘whites against blacks’, the author illustrates through the novel, that it goes beyond these boundaries, with some characters distrustful of those of Asian descent and furthermore touches on the whole issue of sexuality as Robb through his characters, explores views of the time about homosexuality and the roles of women. Indeed, the characters are drawn to reflect communities as a whole and show everything from the devoted church-goer to the dodgy mechanic.

However, for all the serious nature of the book, there is also some wonderful humour, with the barber’s room of Horace McIntosh providing scenes reminiscent of the classic Channel 4 comedy Desmond’s. Linguistically, there is an air of authenticity as the Jamaican dialogue rockets back and forwards between characters, and again provides some memorable exchanges.

The result of the Final? Well, I’ll let you find out for yourselves.



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