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Northern Ireland woman Roisin Wood leading fight to kick racism out of football


Tough watch: Harry Kane talks to the referee in Sofia
Tough watch: Harry Kane talks to the referee in Sofia
Roisin Wood
Adrian Rutherford

By Adrian Rutherford

A Northern Ireland woman who heads up English football's anti-racism charity has said social media companies must do more to stop players being abused.

Roisin Wood is chief executive of Kick It Out, which campaigns to stamp out discrimination at all levels of the game. From Co Down, she has become a high-profile voice against the rising tide of hate and bigotry in football.

The most recent figures show a 43% hike in reports of racist incidents in English football last season.

Earlier this week she was leading condemnation of the vile chanting directed at England footballers during their Euro 2020 qualifier in Bulgaria.

Roisin believes the level of hate around football is increasing - she says Brexit is a key driver - with social media giving a platform for much toxicity.

In August, Manchester United footballers Marcus Rashford and Paul Pogba were racially abused on Twitter. Chelsea's Tammy Abraham and Kurt Zouma have also been targeted this season.

She has warned that companies cannot allow the situation to continue.

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"I definitely think social media companies could do more, and we have been asking Twitter exactly what they are going to do and how they can help us in reporting abuse," she says.

Roisin is originally from Ballynahinch and has always had an interest in sport.

Her late father, Brian Owens, played for Down seniors and her nephews are Down hurlers, as is her godson Oisin McManus.

Her first job was as a youth worker in Downpatrick before she moved to the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland, where she helped reintegrate ex-prisoners back into society.

After meeting her husband Martin, who is English, she moved to London and had a spell working for the Met and then the Football Foundation, which funds the development of new and refurbished grassroots sports facilities.

She then joined Kick It Out, initially as maternity cover, before taking up the CEO role eight years ago.

Kick It Out started as a small independent charity in 1993 in response to calls from clubs, players and fans to tackle racist attitudes within football.

By 1997 it widened its objectives to cover all aspects of discrimination, inequality and exclusion.

When she took over there was a staff of five. Now it has grown to 18. The charity recently appointed a fans' education officer, who works with people found guilty of discrimination.

"It is football's equality and inclusion campaign - we are 26-years-old this season," explains Roisin. "It was originally set up as Let's Kick Racism Out of Football, and then it changed to cover all forms of discrimination under Kick It Out.

"We work with clubs - all 92, now 91, of the league clubs as well as non-league clubs - and players and managers. We also work with the grassroots and a number of fan groups.

"We deliver education and training and give out some small grants through the Fans For Diversity programme, which we run in partnership with the Football Supporters' Association.

"We also deal with reporting, so if people see or hear any form of discrimination during a game they can report it to us."

It is a hectic schedule. Most weekends she finds herself at a match.

"I go from non-league all the way up to Premier League - because the clubs dedicate games to us, or do activities, we go and support them," she explains.

"There are few weekends when I'm not watching football in some shape or form. That includes the women's game - I like to go and support them as well."

This week has brought a series of interviews following the racist incidents in England's Euro 2020 qualifier on Monday night.

The game in Sofia was stopped twice in the first half following sustained racist behaviour by home supporters, who made monkey noises and performed Nazi salutes.

"It is the hardest job I've ever done," she adds. "It's my passion - you have to have that to do this job. You couldn't not have it because it's too tough.

"I also don't think you could do it if you didn't love football, and I love football.

"And you need to be pretty resilient because it's a tough job to do - changing things, especially in this weird world that we are in, where within society there is a massive rise in hate crime and it's a very divided community."

That is reflected in football, with statistics showing a steady rise in discrimination in recent years.

Last season, reports of racism in English football rose by 43% - from 192 to 274. Incidents included a banana skin thrown onto the pitch during the north London derby at the Emirates Stadium after Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang scored for Arsenal.

In a separate incident, Raheem Sterling said he was racially abused during Manchester City's defeat at Chelsea.

Factoring in all forms of discrimination, reports of abuse in professional and grassroots football increased from 319 to 422 (up 32%). A further 159 reports were received via social media.

It was the seventh consecutive year that reported incidents of discrimination have increased. The 581 total reports is more than double the figure from five years ago.

Is the rise in incidents a concern, or is it positive that more people are speaking out?

"That's a really hard question," adds Roisin. "In the past I would have said that people are a lot more confident about reporting.

"However, in the last year particularly, I think there's just more hate around, and football is not separate from society - it's a reflection of it.

"If you look at all the hate crime statistics published in society, you can see that every single year they are going up.

"Football is taking a really strong stance against this. We work very collaboratively with clubs and the FA, but it is definitely an issue for us.

"I think people are more confident about reporting - and that's a good thing - but I still think there is under-reporting, particularly at grassroots level."

She has little doubt that some of the toxicity around the Brexit debate is driving the problem.

"I think you would be naive not to think that. I watched the House of Commons recently with my mouth open most of the time," she adds.

"There is a rise in anti-Semitism, there is a rise in Islamophobia. If you see it in society you'll see it in football. It's not separate and distinct."

She describes some of the abuse at stadiums as "really, really vicious". Some players, though, are fighting back.

Sterling has been outspoken on the issue, while in August, Rashford and his Manchester United team-mate Harry Maguire hit out at abuse levelled at Pogba.

"Enough now, this needs to stop," Rashford wrote. "Manchester United is a family. Paul Pogba is a huge part of that family. You attack him you attack us all."

Roisin believes it is essential that more high-profile players find a voice.

"I could say something and nobody would listen to me, but you get a player with a high profile and it's different," she says.

"Also, the education we do with young players helps. Young players are more confident now, whereas it was maybe different in the past - I talk to ex-players from that time and they say they just got on with it.

"Young players now don't want to accept that, and they won't accept it, and I think a lot of fans are like that too. The most powerful thing is when fans turn around to their fellow fans and tell them to stop. Fans are much more aware."

Social media has, she says, become a "massive issue". Something as trivial as a missed penalty or red card can be enough to unleash a tidal wave of abuse.

Education, Roisin believes, is one way to tackle the problem, and she recalls an incident a couple of years ago.

Chris Hughton, then manager of Brighton, had been racially abused online. With the help of police, the culprit was tracked down. He was a 15-year-old boy who wanted to be a football coach.

"We did an education session and now he works with Kick It Out," she adds. "You don't want to criminalise a young person - I'd prefer to educate them."

However, Roisin feels social media companies also need to be more accountable.

"We see the abuse on social media - people who would never say it on the street or even in the stadium, they will say it online because they think anonymity will protect them," she adds.

"We are meeting again with Twitter to ask what we can do to address this.

"For a lot of fans, players being on social media is great because they have access they never had before, but with that comes problems and you have players coming off Twitter because of the abuse that they get.

"We are working hard with social media providers - we have a good relationship with Twitter about reporting - but it has got to get better and they have got to take this more seriously.

"We need to find out more about who these people are -there are lots of false accounts, and I understand it is a complex issue and therefore requires a complex solution, but it requires us all to work together."

Wood wants more BAME managers

More black and minority ethnic (BAME) football managers are needed, according to Roisin Wood.

Just five of the 91 managers in the English Premier League and Football League (EFL) are of BAME origin.

Wood said: "We are a big promoter of trying to get more black and Asian managers, not just in the higher levels but throughout the game, including the academy system."

She added: "There has to be more done because around 32 or 33% of players are from a BAME background, but that is nowhere near reflected in the diversity of the managers and coaches.

"There has to be questions asked as to why that is, and there has to be more support given to young managers coming through the system."

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