A special investigation into the racism crisis uncovers anger, despair and a warning that there will be an explosion unless the problem is tackled
He was too shocked to talk, Sotirios Siminas says as he remembers trying to find out why one of his players was in tears at the end of a game that exposed the extent of the racism infecting the heart and soul of English football. Siminas, who coaches one of the under-12 boys teams at AFC Urmston Meadowside, in Manchester, can feel the anger rising. Six months on from that unpleasant Sunday morning, it is not easy listening to him explain what had happened to one of the children in his care. The other boys told us that he was subjected to vile abuse by the opposition players, Siminas says. He was called a Paki on their way off the pitch. The racial abuse was too much for Siminas to bear. He went over to talk to the other teams coach and defend his player. Yet the response shocked him. The other coach refused to accept there had been any abuse. All he could do was walk away and go home. Because there were kids involved we didnt want it to escalate, Siminas says. We left.
That dismissive attitude will only surprise anyone who has never been on the end of it. A day after speaking to Siminas, I head to Ferndale Community Sports Centre in south London to meet Dr Colin King and Wallace Hermitt, veterans of the grassroots game and the leading figures at the Black and Asian Coaches Association (BACA), and talk about whether the bad old days are on the way back. We sit in a small office, no more than a two-minute walk from Brixton tube station, and King and Hermitt chuckle with weary cynicism when I struggle to make sense of a kid at under-12 level being attacked because of his Asian heritage.
Hermitt has heard it all before. Is that really a shock to the system? he says. I once took a team over to Bermondsey in the 90s. All we hear is: Coons black cunts. I go over to the parents and its: What do you want me to say, you black cunt. We get back in the van and I took the kids home. Thats their children. Thats their socialisation.
Powerless in a world where it is my word against yours, Siminas was left to concentrate on convincing a traumatised little boy not to walk away from the local pitches in Manchester. The world kept turning until, three weeks later, something happened a long way from Urmston in every sense. Manchester City travelled to Chelsea in the Premier League and footage posted on social media showed a home fan allegedly subjecting Raheem Sterling to racist abuse.
A week earlier a Tottenham supporter had thrown a banana skin at Arsenals Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang during the north London derby. Racism was on the agenda again and Sterling spoke up the morning after Citys 2-0 defeat at Chelsea, telling his millions of Instagram followers that the media had fuelled racism with portrayal of black footballers. The England international took control of the debate with one post on social media, bypassing the traditional routes to spread his message and forensically take apart the idea that racism is a problem only in faraway eastern European countries.
Yet Sterlings intervention has not slowed the flow of abuse. Quite the opposite, in fact, given how much racism has been in the news since the turn of the year.