Brendon Batson: FA must order England players off pitch over racist chants
It should have been a night to savour, not least for Tyrone Mings, the Aston Villa defender making his England debut.
But England's 6-0 demolition of Bulgaria on Monday was immediately overshadowed by the racist chants from the Bulgarian fans.
And when Mings was interviewed at the end of the game, the questions focused less on his commanding performance and more about how he had been affected by the hooligan behaviour.
The match was halted twice, under Uefa protocols, due to the abuse Mings and his team-mates Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford were subjected to.
- Express & Star comment: Only changing attitudes can drive out racism
Bulgaria supporters made monkey noises, gave Nazi salutes, and mocked the 'Respect' anti-racism slogan by brandishing a jumper bearing the words 'no respect'.
But while the vile chants were much less prevalent after the interval, many have questioned why the football authorities did not enact the third part of the protocol – and insist on the match being abandoned.
West Bromwich Albion legend Brendon Batson, who along with team-mates Cyrille Regis and Laurie Cunningham blazed a trail for black footballers in the late 1970s, believes the FA should take a tougher line – and order England players off the pitch.
"I don't think for one minute that it should be up to the players to walk off the pitch," he says.
"But I do think it is time the FA took it out of their hands and said 'we are not going to have our players subjected to this, we are going to take them off', and that should be even if the players want to carry on."
The problem of racism on the football terraces is hardly a new one. Back in the 1970s, Batson, Cunningham and Regis – affectionately known as the Three Degrees by Albion fans – regularly endured horrible racist abuse.
Batson recalls: "Albion played against West Ham United at Upton Park and somebody threw a bunch of bananas at Cyrille Regis.
"It was impossible not to feel hurt and fearful because Cyrille was a very kind person, somebody who would do anything to help people.
"Racist slogans were slapped across signs, posters and stickers on the streets and daubed on walls outside the stadiums."
Batson was instrumental in the launch of the Let's Kick Racism Out of Football campaign in 1993, which became the Kick It Out anti-discrimination organisation.
But while there is no doubt that great strides have been made in the English game since then, there does appear to be a hard core of racist fans who show little signs of changing. In November Kick It Out reported 520 complaints through its anonymous reporting system, with complaints about racism up 22 per cent. This may in part be down to victims having more confidence to come forward with their complaints, but it also shows that the problem has not gone away.
And when it comes to countries in the former Soviet bloc, it seems attitudes have changed little since the bad old days of the 1970s and 1980s.
The Montenegro national side was ordered to play its Euro 2020 qualifier against Kosovo in June behind closed doors following racist chants towards England's black players during a game in March. Indeed, Monday's game was played in front of a partially closed stadium because of previous problems involving the Bulgarian crowds.
It is not the first time black England players have been subject to abuse while playing in Bulgaria, either. Ashley Young was on the receiving end of monkey chants in Sofia during an England game in 2011, but Uefa decided to deal the matter by fining the Bulgarian Football Union £34,000 for "discriminatory" chanting and for the lighting and throwing of fireworks.
"I don't think these countries have had a great deal of education in dealing with racial abuse," says Batson.
"I don't think Uefa have done enough to challenge attitudes in these nations which seem to have a problem with black players.
"Things haven't changed over the last few years."
Former England winger John Barnes says he is not a big supporter of players abandoning games. But he says that having indicated a willingness to do so in the first half, the England players should have carried through their threat. He says it appears that England chose to carry on playing because they were winning.
"We are used to the timidity of Uefa officials, and so it falls on the England players and staff to make the stand," he says.
"But we were winning 4-0, so we let our football do the talking. We scored a couple more. That was our answer to to the monkey chants and Nazi salutes: take the three points, and leave the stunning moment that could redefine football’s relationship with racism for another team, another time.
"We cannot claim to support the fight against racism, but for expediency’s sake pick and choose when to enforce it."
Batson says the important thing now is for Uefa to show leadership by issuing a harsh penalty to Bulgaria.
"I think they should be kicked out of the competition," he says.