Former England international & Manchester United skipper Gary Neville says words are not enough to combat racism in football and that he is “ashamed” he did not fight harder against it when he was a player.
Neville made the comments in the wake of the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died in police custody in Minneapolis after a white police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes. 46-year-old Floyd’s death sparked global protests, and sports teams throughout the U.S. have spoken out publicly against racism, with several teams taking part in protests. “Forget campaigns. Forget words. It has to be actions,” Neville said ahead of the Premier League’s restart on Wednesday following a three-month stoppage due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “We need to take a giant leap rather than minute steps each year. I’m not going to hide away from it. We need education; we need protocols and processes in place which basically reverse what’s been happening in our country.” Neville said he should have fought harder against racism during his playing days. “The reality is we put racial abuse in the same category as the abuse we would receive for playing for Manchester United or England. We didn’t think. We just got on with it. It’s appalling and I’m ashamed of the fact for someone who … fought for players’ rights at nearly every level, I didn’t fight hard enough on this.”
Neville is still haunted over his failure to back England’s black players following their disgusting racist abuse in Spain. He admits he is ashamed over his failure to act when England’s stars, including Ashley Cole, were targeted by racists throughout a friendly away match in Madrid in 2004. Neville said, “I’ve been quite vocal on Sky Sports over the last 12 to 18 months around racism and just felt very uncomfortable with, to be fair, my lack of action when I think that I sat next to Ashley Cole in that dressing room in Spain all those years ago. I came off the pitch at the end of the game, got in the shower, didn’t say a word to him, went and did my interviews after the game, probably ignored or semi answered the question on racism, walked onto the bus, went back home and didn’t think. I just accepted it almost. It is appalling. The reality is we put racial abuse in the same category as the abuse we would receive for playing for Manchester United for England. We just put it down as abuse. We didn’t think, we just got on with it.”
Asked if players should now walk off the pitch if they are racially abused, the former right-back said, “Yes. I genuinely think now there wouldn’t be one single person in this country who would disagree with the action of walking off the pitch if a player was being racially abused. Not one single person would think it wasn’t the right thing to do. I know there are areas of complexity and challenge, which is that you could get fans from other clubs wrecking games. Forget that. Let’s trust people to start with and not imagine the abnormalities or abuse of the system that may exist. Gareth Southgate was on the Football Show the other day and was explaining the FIFA or UEFA protocols he had to go through. It felt like an instruction manual. There shouldn’t be an instruction manual on how to deal with racism. Ultimately, it’s quite simple – it is unacceptable. We are not going to accept it and we are not going to stand for it when we play football. I never thought of this when I was in that Bernabeu stadium, I didn’t.”
Neville believes the latest anti-racism protests are making a difference – with Sky Sports also pledging £30million to fight discrimination. He was speaking ahead of the Premier League’s return to Sky Sports with a double-header on 17 June, followed by a further 20 matches in the opening two weeks, said the channel had also asked Troy Townsend, Kick It Out’s head of development, to speak to its pundits and presenters about racism.