A few months ago, very few football fans will have heard of Peter Herbert unless they happened to have an interest in the outcome of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, in which Herbert is the lead defence counsel for Dr Augustine Ngirabatware.
Herbert has been a committed and hard-working lawyer for many years, but by football fans he will forever live in the memory as the man who tried to silence Spurs fans, and furthermore enthralled himself and the Society of Black Lawyers into the heart of any incident or allegation where the term “racism” or “racist” could be applied.
I first heard Peter Herbert on talkSPORT in the days after the Kick It Out T-shirt boycott, in which the likes of Jason Roberts and the Ferdinand brothers refused to wear the anti-racism campaign’s warm-up t-shirts in protest against a lack of progress in the battle against racism throughout the world of football.
Although condemned by some managers, it would be difficult to not understand their point of view. In recent months, two senior, high profile players were handed minuscule bans for using racist language and England’s Under 21 squad were racially abused by sections of the stadium of Serbian supporters – reigniting the issue over UEFA being rather toothless in their approach to stopping racism. A five figure fine, of which no fan would ever end up accountable for, will never stop racist chanting.
Enter Peter Herbert, a man calling for change and with good reason too. Initially, the barrister was concerned with setting up a Black Players Union, arguing with Andy Gray that it would not be a divisive organisation.
“[The black players union] is not a breakaway anything; it sits alongside mainstream structures and works in partnership with them,” Herbert explained to Keys and Gray.
“It’s a support group, somewhere safe to talk about your problems. They give the FA the primary information and expertise needed to change the system. Freedom of choice and change, that’s what we’re about.”
I liked the sound of Herbert, he argued effectively – but then again he is a lawyer. Andy Gray then called out his interviewee on a comment he had made previously. When asked how he would feel about a white players union, Herbert replied “they’ve already got one, it’s called the BNP”. Suddenly, a man who quotes Martin Luther King was beginning to edge towards sounding more like Malcolm X.
Suddenly, a string of incidents had blemished the name of English football as pundits warned we were heading back to the dark ages of the 70s and 80s where National Front chants were sung on the terraces and banana throwing was acceptable. At Millwall, Marvin Sordell accused small sections of the crowd of racial abuse, of which a 14-year-old boy was subsequently banned from the New Den, and Oldham’s Lee Croft was wrongly believed to have used racist language towards a ball boy.
Peter Herbert however was handing the larger issues, all be it the wrong issues. Clarke Carlisle, PFA Chairman and Question Time panellist, has accused Herbert of careerism following the two issues he has decided to champion.
First came the Mark Clattenburg incident. Chelsea made a complaint to the F.A. over the referee apparently using racist language during a game. Now, I wasn’t there, but I’m fairly certain Mark Clattenburg, a man who has refereed for years, during a period in English football where racism is the number one topic, in the middle of an extremely tense title-race clash, would not just slip in a couple of racial slurs. Peter Herbert was also not at the game, but he decided to file his own complaint with the Metropolitan police, who have now dropped the case over a lack of evidence.
Then, Peter Herbert delivered the bombshell that he will always be remembered for. He warned Tottenham Hotspur that he would be making another official complaint to the police unless more is done to stop racist chanting at White Hart Lane. But, Herbert does not only mean the disgusting hissing noises made by away supporters doing impressions of Nazi gas chambers, he also wants an end to all chants involving the “Y-word”. The “Y-word” is a racial slur; originally it was a term of offence. But it has been adopted by Spurs fans of every ethnicity and religion as a defence mechanism against anti-Semitism, as well as being a banner of identity.
Herbert is fighting a battle with Tottenham he simply won’t win. And furthermore, I believe his hostile efforts will prove detrimental in the bid to stop racism. In Leicester, an Under 15s team called Nirvana FC, constituted of mainly Black and Asian players, received racial abuse from spectators. The club claim that their opposition’s supporters made monkey noises, offensive gestures and ended the match with a violent pitch invasion. The sudden outburst of racist behaviour, that wouldn’t have happened a few months ago, happened for the same reasons a Chelsea fan was caught on camera doing a monkey impression – because the sensationalist approach to racism in football, has heightened racial tensions.
I don’t accuse Herbert of being a provocateur, but his method of attracting the headlines, labelling the FA as systematically racist, and getting involved in every allegation will not make him any friends and will not add weight to his arguments.
Saying that Herbert should stop complaining is an easy position for someone who has no experience of being racially abused. However, it is a view shared by John Barnes, a man who knows more than anyone about racism in English football.
“The Society of Black Lawyers should stick to law. They are lawyers, they should not be getting involved in football, they should be getting involved in legal matters for which [the Clattenburg case] isn’t one,” said Barnes.
“Racism is a big problem in football and it’s a serious problem but what’s going to work against it is if you start looking for racism where it doesn’t exist.”