The Ulsterwoman kicking racism out of football
Ballynahinch woman Roisin Wood tells Ivan Little how working with ex-prisoners and victims of the Troubles here prepared her for a tough job in the English football leagues
Roisin Wood doesn't do easy street. The Ballynahinch woman who has one of the toughest jobs in English football as she strives to give racism the red card, is no stranger to challenges, having worked in what would once have been seen as a man's world helping ex-prisoners in Northern Ireland and the police in London. But now Roisin is in a different league as director of the high-profile Kick It Out charity which tackles all kinds of discrimination in the English game whether it's on the basis of race, religion, disability or gender.
"It's without doubt my hardest role so far," says the 45-year-old ex-Northern Ireland netball international, who commutes between Belfast and London.
The aims of Kick It Out are relatively simple to define, but delivering its ideals has been much more complex.
It was set up under the title of Let's Kick Racism Out Of Football in 1993 and became a fully-fledged body four years later to campaign within football, schools and the community to encourage inclusivity in the game and to press for positive change.
In recent years, of course, racism has been front page news due to the controversies surrounding Chelsea's John Terry and Liverpool's Luis Suarez over on-field comments made respectively to Anton Ferdinand of Queen's Park Rangers and Patrice Evra of Manchester United.
A number of well-known footballers snubbed initiatives by Kick It Out, including the wearing of their T-shirts before matches, because they claimed the organisation hadn't done enough to ostracise players accused of racially abusing their opponents.
Roisin took over the campaign's top job on a full-time basis last year and she admits it was something of a baptism of fire. "We did get a bit of a kicking over the John Terry/Luis Suarez cases and the T-shirts. But we are not the regulatory body and it is up to the FA to investigate issues, not us.
"We supported the family of Anton Ferdinand quite a lot but we still got hammered for it. So in some ways in this job we are damned if we do and damned if we don't. But you know you are not going to please everyone."
Roisin admits that the Terry/Suarez incidents cast a cloud over English football.
"But the game has to learn from what happened and not repeat the mistakes," she says. For us, we have to try to get more and more involved in football. We have to take on board what people think because we want to help football to get better and become as inclusive as it can."
Roisin is fiercely defensive of her organisation's independence. "I often speak at functions and some folk will say because we are partly-funded by the FA and a number of other organisations we won't challenge them. But we do, privately and publicly," she says.
"There's only so much you can do by hitting people over the head. We need to have a collaborative approach and that is what we are trying to achieve in partnership with other bodies in football.
"We've established a players' board and we are looking forward to the future with 20 young players who are our ambassadors. Which is crucial for us because it's the players who attract the media attention.
"We were lucky too that managers like Arsene Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson both came out to support us last year."
Still, the most important coach in England – international boss Roy Hodgson – didn't do the Kick It Out campaign any favours, causing a furore over 'monkey' remarks he made in the dressing room about his own winger, Andros Townsend.
However, Roisin says she and her colleagues are fully committed to ensuring that football does get its house in order – and not only from a racial perspective.
"We are constituted to cover all forms of discrimination including semitism, sexism and homophobia. But racism obviously takes up most of our time because it's the bulk of what we find in the game," she says. "We try to advise football people and the authorities how they could make their practice better and try to deal with some of the issues which occur. So we work with players, managers and all 92 clubs."
Kick It Out's remit doesn't run to Scotland or Northern Ireland, where sectarianism has been a long-running sore and which was revisited after Linfield and Cliftonville fans recently sang loyalist and republican songs at a match.
But Roisin believes that the lessons learnt in England can be transferred to the Irish League.
"You can't do anything in isolation. The regulatory bodies, the leagues, the clubs and supporters all must be part of the process."
Growing up in Ballynahinch, Roisin was always interested in sport and given her family background and her county it's no surprise that gaelic sports were major passions.
Her late father, Brian Owens, played for Down seniors and her great uncle, Jackie Fitzsimmons, won three Ulster championships with the county in the mid-Sixties.
"I watched a lot of gaelic," says Roisin, whose nephews are Down hurlers. "I also played basketball and did a lot of climbing and walking in the Mournes."
Handily enough, she has also been a football fan for as long as she can remember. In her home the men were united behind the Busby Babes, as was her sister, but Roisin was in an Anfield of her own.
"I was contrary. I just had to be different," she says. "I decided I would follow Liverpool instead of United. It was the Kenny Dalglish era when they were winning lots of trophies. I couldn't afford to go to see them, but I watched them on television."
It was probably inevitable that Roisin would end up with a career associated with sport.
After leaving school in Ballynahinch, she went to the University of Ulster in Jordanstown where she graduated with degrees in sports science and business. She also lived for spells in Los Angeles and France and did voluntary work with Habitat for Humanity in Nicaragua and travelled down the Amazon before walking in the Himalayas.
Her first job was as a youth worker in Downpatrick with the South Eastern Education and Library Board and she stayed there for nearly five years.
"I was doing a lot of outdoor residential work and I loved it," she says.
As if that role wasn't demanding enough, Roisin then moved to the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland and one of her tasks there, was, with the aid of EU Peace funding, helping ex-prisoners rebuild their lives and relationships after their release from jails here.
"There were times I used to wonder how a girl from my background got to the position where I was sitting in north Belfast with the UDA," she says.
She also worked with the victims of the Troubles and stayed in the job for seven years before moving to work in London where she became the community engagement manager for the Metropolitan Police, which wasn't exactly a walk in the park either.
"I was trying to get the police more involved with the local communities and that was quite a challenge because of the diversities of the people," she says.
After a couple of years there, and a period with Redbridge Council in England, Roisin took her first steps into the world of football as head of equalities with the Football Foundation, a charity funded by the game's officialdom to develop the sport and to improve the quality and experience of players at a grassroots level.
"My role was to help run equality programmes and football projects using the game for social inclusion. But the work of the foundation changed to concentrating on building pitches and facilities, which is one of the reasons why I moved because I was more interested in the inclusion side of things," she says.
One of the organisations which the foundation used to fund was Kick It Out and Roisin took up a temporary job with them covering maternity leave for its staff.
But when the chief executive's post became vacant last year, Roisin applied for it. And got it.
"It's a very small organisation but we operate on a national basis. And that's a big ask for us," she says. "There are only eight of us. When people come into our base they often ask if it is the London office and where the other ones are."
Roisin says she has spent her first year in office trying to make the organisation stronger and she has managed to recruit new staff and make Kick It Out more financially secure.
The charity is also working closely with football supporters and recently launched a new free mobile phone app to make it easier for fans to report racism or any other discrimination-related issues they witness in grounds.
It's long been accepted some fans believe reporting any incidents to stewards inside stadia is difficult, if not downright dangerous.
Roisin is also championing the cause of women's football, which is one of the fastest growing sports in the UK.
"It's fantastic to see so many women playing the game but we need more women working in the game, in the boardroom, for example," she says.
On racism and discrimination Roisin is optimistic that the changes in attitudes in the game down the years will continue.
"I look around and see the positives. There's more diversity in the crowd and there is less overt discrimination, though it still exists.
"If I wasn't optimistic, I wouldn't be doing this job. And I only have to think back to the past in Northern Ireland. Growing up during the Troubles people thought it was never going to change, but now you see the DUP and Sinn Fein in government together. Working with ex-prisoners gave me hope. All throughout the peace process they were banding together and saying that they wanted to get things moving.
"Sometimes progress doesn't come as quickly you would like and sometimes the investigations into incidents take too long."
One issue which still clearly needs to be addressed in English football is the major under-representation of managers, executives and staff from ethnic minorities.
Roisin says: "We need to bring more diversity into football, not just because it's right but also because the more diverse your workforce is, the better your business is."
Roisin watches a lot of games in England wearing her official hat but she still gets a kick out of going to see her beloved Liverpool as a supporter sitting among fellow fans. Roisin works in London but she still calls Belfast home and splits her time between the two cities.
She adds: "I'm back and forward every week. My house and my husband Martin are in Belfast and there are times when I feel that I live out of a suitcase, but I like Northern Ireland a lot."