It would be very easy to pick holes in last night’s Diversity debate at Bristol Rovers, so I’ll get the hole-picking out of the way right at the start. It was not a good look that all seven people on the top table were men and it was bizarre that there was no one from the LGBT community to debate LGBT issues at the football club. Having detracted from the main issue myself, I don’t think either of these situations should detract from the fact that the meeting was held at all. Holding the meeting itself was A Good Thing.
As someone whose interest in Bristol Rovers is not exactly what it once was, I should be careful to avoid signs of fake nostalgia and bitterness. Clearly, on the face of it, the Jordanian ownership of the club has produced more stability than the chaos of Nick Higgs’ bungling regime. I am going to be honest and say that I do not approve of the foreign ownership model but I really can’t be bothered to argue about or even debate it. The time for fan ownership and fan involvement came and went pretty well before it arrived and the continuing presence of Comedy Ken Masters, who need I remind you cost Gasheads over £1 million to achieve absolutely nothing one would expect for a fans director, has not changed that one iota. And if the current owners deliver on their promises, who am I to complain? That a diversity debate took place is a massive step forward.
Before the Al-Qadis bought the club, the annual Kick It Out day had begun to look tired and that was when those in charge actually remembered it was supposed to take place. On one infamous occasion, they did forget about it altogether and had to cobble something together at the last minute. And let’s be honest: even when they did remember, the club rarely did more than having someone on stilts walking around the ground followed by lots of children and then brought on the great Carl Saunders to wave at the crowd. Yes, I am saying that Kick It Out was not among the club’s priorities back then. There were far more important things to do like banning former directors and sacking managers.
It also doesn’t matter much that only around 0.5% of the usual 9000+ who turn up at the Mem on a Saturday came along. As much as anything else, perhaps more than anything else, it was the symbolism that counted, with Bristol Rovers stating clearly and unequivocally that diversity was very important to them. The reports from last night were all very positive, too. Anwar Uddin is a fine ambassador for the Football Fans Federation (FFF) and an excellent communicator too. His presence alone was in itself a statement that Asian supporters and indeed players are hugely under-represented in our football clubs. Despite the enormous success of black players who have worn the Rovers shirt, the terraces do not reflect our diverse city. And as for LGBT issues, football lags way behind much of society, which is just as well seeing there is not a single gay footballer in the English Football League. (Actually, I am joking there: it is as certain as certain can be that there are plenty of gay players in England, but football has not quite grasped that just yet.)
The timing of the event was important too. We have come a long way from the racism of the 1970s, certainly on the pitch, but off it I would suggest the problem is more insidious. Given the number of black players, why are so few of them managers and coaches? It’s not as if black players are all stupid and white players have the intelligence of rocket scientists. It’s bad, old fashioned racism that has been steadily institutionalised through the years. And that’s hopefully what last night was all about (I wasn’t there: I am surmising).
So, a few negatives, many positives. Well done Bristol Rovers for holding the diversity debate. After the words must come action. That’s really what the club will ultimately be judged on.