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'An England match with our name attached is an honour'

PROGRESS ON THE PITCH: England's Dele Alli (centre), Jesse Lingard (third left) and Marcus Rashford (third right) warming up before the 2018 FIFA World Cup third place play-off match at Saint Petersburg Stadium

IN SEPTEMBER 1993 when we at Kick It Out were just a month old, England were beating Poland 3-0 in a World Cup qualifier at Wembley.

As those of you who are old enough to remember will know, Graham Taylor’s men didn’t make it to USA ‘94, but in that autumn 25 years ago, hopes were still high.

The team that night featured Ian Wright, Les Ferdinand (who only started believing in a career in football when he saw Cyrille Regis and George Berry playing), Paul Ince (who only a few months earlier had become England’s first ever black captain) and Des Walker on the bench.

Those four were the only black players on duty that particular night and all could make a claim to be classed now as “England greats”- but they were very much in a minority then.

Fast forward a quarter of a century and England will take the field on Tuesday night against Switzerland in the first international dedicated to Kick It Out for our 25th anniversary and I hope you don’t mind me saying, I feel very chuffed about that.

There was a lot of scepticism when our campaigning charity started out, so to see us at the heart of an England international is a mark of how far we’ve come - especially as half of Gareth Southgate’s current squad weren’t even born when “Sir” Les Ferdinand opened the scoring that night against Poland.

More importantly, half of the 22 men picked for the games against Spain on Saturday and the Switzerland match are from BAME backgrounds.

Players like Marcus Rashford, Kyle Walker and Dele Alli represent their country with pride and passion and, of course, played a huge part in England’s remarkable run to the World Cup semi-finals in the summer.

Also, on a personal note, it is good to see Jack Butland and Harry Maguire in that squad. They are official ambassadors for Kick It Out and have made significant contributions to the work we do in trying to eliminate all forms of discrimination from the game we love.

It’s not just on the pitch that you can see the positive changes in football. Fans of all religions, faiths and ethnic background got behind England’s World Cup effort both here and in Russia. They were integrated in a love of the team.

Twenty-five years ago, what the press called “the English disease” - that is, hooliganism, was still rife. In October of that year, hundreds of England fans were arrested after serious incidents in Rotterdam.

I’m not for a second saying that racism has miraculously disappeared or that violence no longer happens, but overall, watching and playing football is a lot more pleasant and inclusive than in 1993.

I’m pleased that the match against Switzerland is taking place in Leicester, which is not only the home of one of football’s great stories a couple of years ago when the city’s football club upset the odds to win the Premier League, but is also one of the most multicultural cities in Britain.

The last census showed that residents in that part of the East Midlands hail from some 50 different countries and speak 70 different languages or dialects.

It’s a city which, like football itself, has seen a lot of change and recognises diversity as a strength.
In 2008, Manjula Sood, a primary school teacher and city councillor, became the first Asian woman in the country to be elected Lord Mayor. As an article in The Independent pointed out: “The 55 mosques, 18 Hindu temples, nine Sikh gurudwaras, two synagogues, two Buddhist centres and one Jain centre – are seen not as a recipe for conflict or a millstone around the city's neck, but a badge of honour.”

For Kick It Out, having an England international with our name attached is a badge of honour.

When we first started, I remember John Fashanu telling me how he once saw a kid roughly aged six shouting racial abuse at him, encouraged by adults around him. At that moment, he thought: “This has got to stop because this kid is the next generation.” I believe – as John does - that our priority for the next generation is that they must be better than us.

And as heartwarming as this England team is, it would be good to think that the next generation from this one will see more diverse coaches, directors and administrators to match the changes we are seeing on the pitch and in the stands; more BAME faces in our boardrooms and dugouts.

As a white ex-England player, you are twice as likely to end up in a managerial job as your black counterpart. Since 1990, five black ex-England players have gone into management.

If Kick It Out, together with all our partners and supporters, can help change stats like that, it will mean that football is the winner and the sport will reflect our wonderfully diverse country in all its forms.

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