Dean Walling, leftDean Walling was determined not to let the mindless yobs distract him during a game but often back at home, away from the braying mob, he would be left devastated. Then, the Carlisle United defender would feel rage at the vicious hate campaign he had been forced to endure for 90 minutes.
“Every single time it happened I was tearful. It always hurt,” said Walling. “Who likes being called a n****r? Who likes having monkey chants and nasty obscenities directed at them? I blocked it out when I was on the pitch but it always got to me afterwards. I would think about it when I got home and think why I should have to take that.
“I remember going to Blackpool, Burnley, Preston and Bolton and getting a really hard time from their fans. They were making ooh, ooh, ooh noises when I got the ball. The north west clubs were notorious. They did it to try to put me off my game. They were mindless yobs. I’m quite a sensitive person and deep down it used to hurt inside and it was even worse if my family were watching, but I had a strong enough personality to dismiss what they were doing and focus on my game.
“Even though I was being paid to play, I shouldn’t have had to put up with s*** like that for £10,000-a-year. There were rules for one person and rules for another. It’s OK for footballers to be racially abused and called every obscenity under the sun, but you can’t retaliate and shout back at the fans.
“The manager at the time Aidan McCaffery was a father-figure to me as he brought me to Carlisle and he believed in me. He would always put an arm around me after a game and said the abuse was a consequence of the society we were then living in.”
Like the iconic deckchair strip he wore with pride, Walling, probably the most popular Carlisle player in the last 20 years, perfectly encapsulated the spirit, mood and optimism of the club in the mid-nineties.
What fans who idolised him didn’t know was the anguish he felt when he faced racist abuse from rival supporters. His revelations will horrify Carlisle fans who took the defender to their hearts and it comes at a particularly sensitive time as racism has raised its ugly head once again at the highest level, leaving Walling feeling despair and disgust that it has still not been banished completely.
The FA is awaiting the outcome of a police inquiry before deciding whether to charge England captain John Terry who is alleged to have racially abused QPR defender Anton Ferdinand, Patrice Evra claims he suffered racist abuse from Luis Suárez during Manchester United’s recent 1-1 draw with Liverpool.
Chelsea have been forced to condemn more allegations of racism by their own fans following claims one of them called Daniel Sturridge a monkey during the 1-1 Champions League draw at Genk earlier this month. And there are strong calls for Fifa president Sepp Blatter to resign after he claimed football does not have problems with racism.
As a teenage ball boy at Leeds United, Walling was given a brutal introduction to the abuse black players face.
He said: “I’m a Leeds boy and a massive Leeds fan and I can remember being at the side of the pitch as a ball boy when the fans were booing and chanting obscenities at black players. Yet people were clapping me when I threw the ball back. As a kid it really affects you and you don’t want to go to a match. No matter what colour, creed or religion, hearing that kind of thing hurts. I continued as a ball boy because Leeds were my team and always will be.
“My late father told me to rise above it because I was in a privileged position of being able to play football for a living. He urged me not to let mindless people try to put me off my game.
“What I witnessed stood me in good stead in the future because it made me strong and determined. You are so focused on your performance when you’re on the pitch. It’s when your mind goes in other places that there is the risk it will affect your game.
“When I signed for Rochdale when I was 18, it was during the eighties when racism in football was at its worst. There weren’t that many black players compared to today’s game and no foreign black players. Viv Anderson, John Barnes and Luther Blissett were the most high-profile.”
Despite high-profile campaigns and a truly multicultural workplace, with a quarter of footballers from black or ethnic minority backgrounds, racism is still rife in football.
Walling, a 1997 Wembley hero whose spot-kick in the penalty shoot-out helped Carlisle lift the Auto Windscreens Shield for the first time in their history, believes football has come a long way but people are fooling themselves if racism has gone away.
The 42-year-old said: “There is racism in football and anyone who says there isn’t is kidding themselves. It is high on the agenda at the moment because of the John Terry situation and rightly so. The PFA Kick It Out campaign and the Show Racism The Red Card campaign have tried to highlight the issue and they have worked in changing perceptions. I fear we will never stamp racism out of football completely because there will always be some bigot who can’t keep their mouth shut. People need to realise the hurt it brings players.
“I don’t know why footballers should have to put up with that kind of behaviour when it wouldn’t be accepted in any other industry. I was doing my job just like a postman, a gas board official or a builder.”
The one place Walling always felt comfortable playing was Brunton Park. Even in tough times on the pitch, he never feared Blues fans would start hurling racist abuse at him.
He said: “To this day, I can’t understand why I’m so popular in Carlisle because all I did was try my best and yet the fans treat me like I’m a hero. I never, ever faced any racist abuse from Carlisle fans. The fans were fantastic to me and still have a very special place in my heart. Playing for Carlisle has always been the best part of my career as it is where I enjoyed my best football, but I was very nervous about moving up there.
“When I signed for Carlisle in 1991, the city wasn’t as cultural or as diverse as it is now as a result of having a university, but I needn’t have worried because the fans were brilliant to me. To me, it looked like there were probably only two or three black people around Carlisle – and two of them were me and my best mate Rod Thomas – but we never got any abuse.”
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