June 7, 2021 - 10:58am

“That some fans are booing players taking the knee shows just how far football still has to go in tackling racism.” That is the type of high-minded narrative beginning to take hold following the hostile reaction displayed by many supporters when England’s players took the knee before recent matches against Austria and Romania.

In truth, things are not quite so clear-cut. While it is certainly the case that a schism has emerged on the issue, it would be wrong to portray it as one between a few hardcore bigots and everyone else.

On the one hand we see the game’s authorities and big-name stars who, in supporting knee-taking, appear driven by a desire to flaunt their progressive credentials (as well, no doubt, as an acute fear of causing offence by being seen to display anything less than full-throated support) and, on the other, thousands of ordinary fans — and not just those emitting boos — who are, let us be frank, growing increasingly frustrated at what, for them, has become a protracted moral lecture.

These fans have a point. Any campaign seeking to garner mass appeal must, by definition, try to take people with it. On this, the Black Lives Matter movement — which, let us not forget, is synonymous with the whole knee-taking phenomenon — has singularly failed. And not, as is sometimes implied, on account of dissenters themselves being inherently racist; but because the general tactics have, from the outset, been ill-judged and divisive.

When people see local statues being defaced or torn down without any sort of debate, they get angry. When they hear their country inaccurately depicted as a cesspit of racism, it rankles. And when they are bombarded with the same political message wherever they look, whether it’s in their local supermarket, when using public services, in their workplace, on their favourite TV shows, splashed on the products they buy, or rammed home relentlessly at sporting and other public events, their patience begins to wear thin.

These objectors aren’t, for the most part, opposing the message. In fact, the number of people in today’s Britain who believe that black lives don’t matter is, thankfully, ever diminishing. What they object to is the method of delivery. So pervasive is the propaganda in their everyday lives that, in the end, they must be forgiven for concluding that they are personally its target, that it is they who are considered the problem — bigots, all of them, in need of “re-education”.

The knee-takers and their cheerleaders would do well to take a lead from the Kick It Out movement, which, thanks to its subtle and intelligent campaigning over many years, has contributed enormously in helping to press home the message that racism has no place in football or wider society. Kick It Out took people with it, such that, in nearly 40 years of attending football matches, I have never heard a bad word uttered about the organisation. It united rather than alienated. By contrast, Black Lives Matter has set things back.

The spectacle of cosseted millionaire footballers repeatedly signalling their virtue in front of hard-pressed fans who simply want to enjoy the match was always going to grate. Most football fans — indeed, most Britons — stand against racism, and they know in their hearts that their country is one of the most tolerant on the planet. Battering them incessantly with a message which implies otherwise has served to create a deep tension which shows no sign of abating. Why is anyone surprised?

Paul Embery is a firefighter, trade union activist, pro-Brexit campaigner and ‘Blue Labour’ thinker