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: The Bottom Corner – A season with the dreamers of Non-League Football by Nige Tassell

“Everyone loves an FA Cup upset: a smug Premier League team being knocked out by plucky underdogs.”

The quote above is taken from the back of the book and highlights an interesting point, in that for some football fans and indeed the wider public, Non-League teams only come to their attention when the FA Cup takes place each season. And it that respect it can lead to a clichéd view of clubs where Non-League means games played in front of one man and his dog on pitches barely better than those found in your local park.

In The Bottom Corner Nige Tassell spends the 2015/16 season revealing stories from the Non-League pyramid to show the realities of life below the Premier League and the Football League. Format wise it covers the season from August to May, with each chapter looking at a different theme, various clubs, players, managers, volunteers and fans alike.

However, there are two teams which are constant threads which run through the book which tell the story of their respective seasons. The first of these is Tranmere Rovers who in the 2015/16 campaign found themselves in the National Conference (the top league of the Non-League pyramid), after 94 years in the Football League. The other is Bishop Sutton, a side from the Western League based near Bristol, from what Tassell labels as the ‘bottom corner’ of the pyramid.

Both can be classified as Non-League, but at very different ends of the spectrum. Rovers with a set-up and ground that wouldn’t disgrace League One, anxious to regain its status amongst the elite 92, whilst Sutton struggle to get a squad together and avoid the heavy defeats that have defined its recent history since being denied promotion due to being unable to meet ground standards. It perfectly illustrates that the Non-League structure mirrors that of the professional ranks and that of the ‘haves and the have nots’.

Besides the story of the ups and downs of Tranmere and Bishop Sutton, Tassell brings the reader interesting tales from other teams, such as Salford City, where some of the ‘Class of 92’ from Manchester United bring the club into the national conscious through a BBC documentary and an epic FA Cup run. Also, there is Hereford FC, born out of the ashes of Hereford United, and their incredible campaign which ends with a Wembley appearance in the FA Vase Final, as well as clubs doing things differently – such as eco-friendly Forest Green Rovers and the supporter owned FC United of Manchester.

It is a book rich with characters, such as those who referee, others who act as scouts or the many administrators of the game; all for the most part volunteers, playing their part in keeping football going beneath the professional ranks.

The Bottom Corner perfectly demonstrates that there is so much more to Non-League Football than its ‘fifteen minutes’ of fame that occurs during the FA Cup each season. It is a game that is a million miles from the bloated money sodden and hyped world of the Premier League, but it doesn’t mean that it is without quality or passion, or that the wins and losses are any less painful or that the fans are any less passionate and the managers and club staff any less committed. The dreams and emotions in the Non-League pyramid are as real as you can get.


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