As a journalist you usually know you’re doing your job when people aren’t pleased to see you.
My family are pleased to see me, and my friends welcome me into their homes, so I don’t take it personally when people don’t want to see me and my press card.
Its only business it isn’t personal.
Billy Singh of “Show Racism The Red Card” (SRTRC) wasn’t pleased to see me at Tynecastle last Friday.
It is ok Billy this is business, nothing personal.
I had, since, mid September been trying to get an interview, a comment even, from Billy Singh of SRTRC.
I had spoken on the phone with two of his colleagues.
I wanted SRTRC’s view on the Famine Song.
Many people considered the song to be racist and it was sung at soccer grounds by Rangers fans.
The nice people at SRTRC told me that Billy Singh was dealing with the issue and that I would have to deal with him.
I left my number, but didn’t get any reply.
I had to go to print in the Irish Post on Friday October 1st with SRTRC having made no public statement about the Famine Song.
Later that day SRTRC made a statement via their website that singing the famine song could lead anyone singing it to be liable to arrest for a “racial breach of the peace”. This statement on the SRTRC website was, err, very similar to the statement released by the Ibrox club in late September.
At this stage I felt like one of the journalists who were piecing together the sequencing of the Northern Ireland Peace process. Who was writing statements for whom?
Still no call from Billy.
Finally on Monday 6th October STRC made a public statement via their website that, in their opinion, the Famine Song was racist.
I know that several Irish community organisations had approached SRTRC in May to complain about the Famine Song.
Still my phone didn’t ring.
A journalistic colleague who works at the Scottish parliament told me that there was due to be a charity football match played between a SRTRC select and MSPs at Hearts’ ground Tynecastle.
A few clicks on the Aer Lingus website and I was good to go!
It is fair to say that Billy was surprised to see me turn up in Tynecastle, as the game was about to start in Hearts home ground on Friday 17th October.
I introduced myself and showed him my press card. I told him I was researching a piece on the Famine song.
I asked him why SRTRC had taken so long to state publicly that the famine song was racist?
Billy stated, “We have always considered the Famine Song to be racist! It brings nationality into it, it is racist and it is wrong.”
I asked Billy why, having been petitioned by Irish community groups about the song in May, that his organisation had only made a public statement two weeks before our conversation October 6th? Billy could not answer my question, but conceded that the October 6th statement on the SRTRC website was the first public pronouncement by the organisation on the Famine Song.
Billy stated that SRTRC was “working behind the scenes with Rangers football club and the Rangers supporters organisations.”
Billy went onto the field of play and slotted in at right back, he did very well.
As I watched the “Red Card Select” confirm to the MSPs that they would never have made it as footballers (I stopped counting the score after five to the Red Card).
I chatted with Red Card manager for the day Lex Gold.
A very amiable man he is.
He explained to me that the SPL did not have a songbook of banned songs and he, publicly, could not have an opinion on the Famine song, as he might be the guy to punish an SPL club if they were deemed to be negligent in tackling racism among their own supporters. There was, of course, a corollary to this. If the SPL deemed the club in question to be doing all that were possible to eradicate the illegal behaviour of their fans then the SPL would not punish the club. He agreed with me that, in a situation where the club could not be found to be negligent in tackling racism by their fans, but that if that racist behaviour persisted then it was a matter for the police not the SPL.
I also interviewed SFA boss Gordon Smith.
The ex-Rangers man stated that the SFA could not have a public view on the Famine Song as the SFA was, in effect, the court of appeal of SPL clubs.
If the SPL punished a club, for whatever reason, and the club thought this unjust or unfair then the club could appeal to the SFA.
Subsequently, Smith explained, the SFA could not have a public view on the Famine Song for that reason.
I also asked the SFA chief about the treatment of young James McCarthy who had decided to play for the Republic of Ireland. Smith was particularly adamant that young James McCarthy of Hamilton Academicals should be left alone “It is his decision; it was his decision to make. He should be left alone!”
In fairness he couldn’t have been clearer or more unequivocal. People should leave young James McCarthy alone and respect his decision to play for Ireland.
That was from the guy at the top of Scottish soccer as we chatted in the away dugout at Tynecastle. He had just came off the field of play where he had scored the goal of the match, a twenty yard curler with the outside of his right foot.
Smith’s goal was an absolute cracker. Even topping Chic Charnley’s swerving shot which was also from outside the box.
As the Red Card team celebrated Gordon’s goal Gary McKay started to sing to the MSP team “Are you the House of Commons in disguise?”
There is nothing wrong with rubbing it into your defeated opponents, nothing at all.
Everyone who assembled in Tynecastle that day was saying that racism could not be included in any song or chant in soccer.
I had been concerned that following on from Ally Ross’s piece in the Sun attacking James McCarthy’s decision to elect to play for Ireland instead of the country of his birth that he would be the victim of racist abuse.
I had been in phone contact with the club secretary Scott Struthers the week before I travelled to Scotland and I was impressed with vehemence with which he objected to the attacks on James in the media.
Moreover he told me that everyone in the club knew that James would declare for Ireland.
He explained to me that following on from the Ally Ross piece James was not speaking to the media.
This I fully understood.
I attended the Hamilton v St.Mirren match the following day at New Douglas Park.
I had called him the day before on my way back to Glasgow from Tynecastle. Scott was surprised that James had not been in touch, but it was absolutely no problem on my part.
I told him of my intention, as a journalist, to attend the next Hamilton match and sit in the away end.
I attended the Hamilton v St.Mirren match the following day at New Douglas Park.
James McCarthy was subjected to sustained racist abuse in the second half from St. Mirren fans.
Every touch of the ball was booed. In the second half Hamilton were attacking the away end. Each time McCarthy was on the ball for any length of time some chant or other would be struck up. “Plastic Paddy” was the main chant.
In the scale of racist chanting this wasn’t up there with the shameful treatment of Mark Walters by Celtic fans in the 1980s. However, it was, throughout the 2nd half sustained. There was a vociferous minority of St.Mirren fans at the back of the away end where I was sitting.
Every touch of the ball was booed from the time I took my seat with a few minutes played right through to the final whistle.
In the first half he was the only Hamilton player who was booed by the St.Mirren fans. In the second half as Hamilton chased the equaliser.
James McCarthy was regularly on the ball charging from midfield towards the St.Mirren goal.
On each occasion he was running with the ball the chant of “There’s only one plastic paddy!” would strike up from the hard core of St.Mirren fans.
After the match I went down behind the goals and introduced myself to a senior police officer. I showed him my press card and told him that I was in touch with Scott Struthers the Hamilton club secretary and that he was expecting me.
As we walked around to the tunnel area I asked the police officer had he heard the abuse directed at young James McCarthy?
“Yeah he gets a bit of stick doesn’t he?” stated the officer with a slight giggle.
I thought, little chance of this law enforcer approaching the match delegate though the appropriate channels.
After several phone calls and emails I got to meet Scott Struthers. Lex Gold had spoken of him in high terms and I had already made, as one does, an assessment of the disembodied person you are communicating with.
He is a fine man, with only the best interests of young James McCarthy at heart.
He was willing to go on the record about the booing. He declared that he was “disappointed” at the conduct of the St.Mirren fans towards James.
I was lead into the press box where the rest of the media were preparing words and images of the soccer watch we had all just witnessed. When I was asked what blatt I was working for a couple of the pack were interested in the piece I was researching.
One sports journalist who I won’t name to save his blushes stated to me that:
“This PC thing has gone mad hasn’t it?”
I thought of the event I had attended the previous day.
I countered with “ when is anti-racism political correctness? Surely it is beyond debate that racism is a social evil and that it should be confronted at every opportunity?”
“Yeah, but James McCarthy is white and Scottish so it can’t be racist!”
This, I suspected, was what he thought to be a winning polemical point.
“Well racism isn’t necessarily a matter of skin colour, although of course it can be. FIFA and UEFA are very clear that racism can be about nationality, citizenship or ethnic heritage. The abuse aimed at James McCarthy was specifically about his Irishness and his decision to declare for the Republic if Ireland. Hence the abuse was racist.”
His answer was a mumbled “ Yeah, suppose….”
I considered that if this was typical of the level of awareness of such issues in the pressroom what chance the supporters in the cheap seats?
Scott Struthers then brought young James out to be interviewed by me.
The first thing that strikes you about the young Irish midfielder is that he IS young.
I was standing in front of him outside the pressroom at New Douglas Park and thinking that this was a boy doing a man’s job.
It wasn’t the time or the place to have a relaxed examination with a hassled 17 year old about issues of national identity. So my questions on his wearing of the green were to the point.
“Why did you pick Ireland James?”
“When I was young, when I was a kid I would always watch the Ireland matches on the telly.”
For a fifty year old to hear a lad of 17 hark back to the days of his innocence made me smile, but it was a clear and precise answer from the lad. He felt drawn towards Ireland. He qualifies for Ireland through his mother’s side. Donegal people. His uncle Hugh Coyle had stated quite clearly in a piece in that day’s Sun that James was Irish on both sides of his family. In qualifying to play for Ireland he also was entitled to legal citizenship.
I told him
“You will need to get yourself one of these for your travels!” as I brandished my Irish passport. His smile said it all. James McCarthy is for the wearing of the green.
James told me “the Irish set up has been great.” James told me that in a recent 2-2 draw with Portugal his midfield partner is Owen Garvan of Ipswich town and that he hoped that they could strike up a partnership together.
I told him that he would need to learn the words of An t-Amhran na BhFiann. He promised that he would!
When I asked James could he hear the abuse from the St.Mirren fans?
“Yeah I heard it, but I just keep my head down and try and block it out.”
James McCarthy is a lovely young lad, polite and well mannered. As I left New Douglas Park I hoped that the fans of all Scottish clubs would heed the words of Gordon Smith and leave the kid alone.
The following day not one of the Sunday papers that covered the match mentioned the booing of James McCarthy.
There was no doubt that anyone in New Douglas Park that day would have known that James McCarthy was booed every time he got a touch of the ball. They may not have heard the “plastic paddy” chants from the knot of St.Mirren up at the back of the away end, but almost the entire away end was booing when James was on the ball.
There was no play related reason to be booing James McCarthy, he had not kicked or injured a St.Mirren player for example. So they would have had to discount the fact that the was being booed so they did not need to comment on it
So there it was, it didn’t happen. Within 24 hours of the Show racism the Red Card football match and the fine words here was racist abuse of a young Irish kid and not a mention of it in the papers.
The next day (Monday) I was on my way to the airport when a journalist colleague in Dublin called me to say that there had been a match report on the Hamilton official club website which had mentioned the racist abuse of James McCarthy by a section of the St.Mirren fans.
Luckily he had printed the screen because a short time later the match report had been amended and the reference to “racist abuse” had been excised.. I called Scott Struthers to ascertain what had happened. He confirmed to me that that there had indeed been such a match report on the club site, but that it had been altered. I asked him why and he said because there had been no abuse of James.
“Sorry Scott, but I have you on record as saying that you were disappointed at the booing of him every time he touched the ball”
“Yes” the club secretary replied, but there wasn’t any racist abuse of James.
I heard the unmistakable sound of goalposts being moved. I reminded Scott that I had personally told him after the game about the chants.
“Yes, but it was only you who heard them.” He said, “ There was no report by the stewards or the police.” I thought of the policeman who had taken me around to the tunnel.
I thanked Scott for taking my call and for all the hospitality and help he had afforded me on the match day and before in facilitating my work.
I remain of the opinion that Scott Struthers is a fine man.
Scott had told me that James had given an extensive and exclusive interview to the Advertiser the week that he wasn’t speaking to the press (after the Ally Ross piece in the Sun). It was a hunch.
I got through to Andy McGilvray who covers the “Accies” home games at New Douglas Park. I told him who I was and the conversation I just had with Scott Struthers.
“That’s nonsense I heard it!” I asked Andy where in the ground he was?
“I was in the main stand right in the middle.”
“Like, above the tunnel area?”
“And you heard the ‘plastic paddy’ stuff?”
“Yes, everybody heard it!”
I asked him could I go on the record with this conversation and he agreed (or you wouldn’t be reading it now) I thanked him and hung up.
My cell phone immediately went off in my hand again, it was my colleague in Dublin. He had been intrigued by the censored match report between, lets face it, two not every unimportant Scottish soccer teams. He had gone onto a message board for St.Mirren fans and there had been reports of phone calls made to the Paisley club by St.Mirren fans about the original Hamilton match report.
A complaint from St.Mirren to Hamilton, I thought, seemed a likely explanation for the removal of the original match report.
I called St.Mirren and asked to speak to the press officer. I was told that he was on vacation. Ok could I speak to someone else? General Manager Brian Caldwell took my call. He denied that there had been any racist abuse of James McCarthy. I told him that I had heard the abuse and that I had been in the away end. He countered that he had also been in the away end and that he had heard nothing! Mr.Caldwell then asked me what I was doing in the away end with the St.Mirren fans. I told him, quite bluntly, that following on from the Ally Ross piece in the Sun and the Real radio football phone in that I feared that James McCarthy might have been the target of anti-Irish racism because of his decision to play for the Ireland.
“So you went there looking for it?” accused the St.Mirren general manager.
Well yes Mr.Caldwell I’m a journalist I was there checking out a story. It is what journalists are supposed to do! Journalists find stories and then report them to the public. I admitted that it was a small minority of the St.Mirren fans that were subjecting James to the abuse. Mr.Caldwell then stated that if it was only a small minority then it wasn’t a story. This I told him was a slightly different from “it didn’t happen at all”.
At that stage it seemed almost impolite to tell him that a journalist from the local paper sitting in the main stand could hear the racist abuse of James McCarthy that Mr.Caldwell sitting in the same stand as the St.Mirren fans claimed he could not.
I thanked Mr.Caldwell for taking my call.
I am back home in Ireland now and I can reflect that in the space of four days I attended an event dedicated to eradicating racism from the game in Scotland, a soccer game where an Irish kid received racist abuse and found out, by looking at the Sunday papers, that such abuse didn’t make it into a single match report. Moreover there is a hesitance in Scotland to call what happened to James McCarthy racism.
You know, as a journalist, that you’re doing your job when you ask questions that people don’t want to answer.