Steven Smith runs a dry stone-wall business out of Cliviger in Lancashire.
He once chained himself to the railings at Burnley town hall in protest at a twinning project with a location in Pakistan, and took to walking the streets in a wooden sandwich board displaying his views on immigration, Islam and political correctness.
Sometimes he would attach it to his car and drive around town instead. He sounds a bit of a crank, and not in that lovable English eccentric way, either.
The banner flown over the Etihad stadium ahead of Burnley’s game against Manchester City
However, at the 2001 general election, standing as a candidate for the British National Party, Smith earned the support of more than one in 10 Burnley voters, 11.3 per cent of the ballots cast. It was the party’s second best result nationwide, bettered only by leader Nick Griffin.
The BNP still came fourth in Burnley but across three general elections contesting the seat, it never polled less than nine per cent of the vote. In 2002, the borough council elections returned three seats for the BNP and that number increased in 2006.
Yet when the media descended on Burnley this week to get under the skin of the town after the white lives matter flypast, a different picture emerged.
They found a lot of upset and embarrassed people.
‘Racism is not what Burnley is about,’ said one citizen. But that isn’t entirely true. Racism is what Burnley’s about — and race, certainly.
That’s not the same as saying the townspeople are racist, but it is undeniable that the subject is a local issue.
There were a lot of embarrassed people in Burnley in response to Monday night’s banner
Before the 2001 election there were race riots — white and Asian — and when a Government taskforce came to Burnley to pick over the details, 58 per cent of those participating in a survey blamed ‘racism by Asian people’ for starting them. A majority also said the lack of mixing between white and Asian communities was a factor, but only 18 per cent thought breaking down those barriers would help.
So we cannot pretend about Burnley. Those who flew an intentionally antagonistic banner over the Etihad Stadium — the objective was believed to be a walk-off from Raheem Sterling — have a constituency there. And while it might not be inside the football club, it certainly congregates around it.
In 2002, the year Smith hung a BNP banner from a 30-foot mill chimney overlooking the town’s biggest road, his party also left its calling cards around pubs near the football ground, directing those interested to a website Burnley Bravepages, the remnants of which can still be found.
It quotes Audrey, sister of Burnley’s sitting Labour MP from the time, Peter Pike. ‘It’s incredible,’ she says, ‘almost everyone I know, or speak to in Burnley, say they are voting BNP.’ These days, more race-related incidents are reported at Turf Moor than at any football ground in the Premier League.
But, don’t worry. Burnley’s not about that at all.
If, in the 21st century, you are what you tweet, Burnley fan Jake Hepple, who wants to take credit for the banner, would appear to be a straight-up racist, despite his denials, or claims of being high on drugs when using offensive language.
Jake Hepple (pictured with his girlfriend Megan Rambadt), who posted a video of the stunt online and has used the P*** word on Facebook and Twitter, admitted he sometimes gets ‘a bit drunk and coked up and uses offensive language’
He routinely posts about ‘P****’ and ‘tree swinging spear throwers’ and those words are either part of your discourse or not. Cocaine doesn’t give a person a new vocabulary, it merely lowers his inhibitions about the one he has.
Hepple’s girlfriend talks of people being ‘sent back on banana boats’. Both have been sacked from their jobs, which is causing outrage among those who are shocked that actions have consequences and a small business might not want its brand associated with racism and/or drug use. But ignore Hepple for a moment and have a look at the reaction to his work.
Read comments online, when people beneath a cloak of anonymity say what they think, not what they believe a reporter from The Guardian interviewing Burnley shoppers wants to hear. View the hashtag #IstandwithJakeHepple.
For while, no one who has thought rationally about the subject for more than a minute believes that if Black Lives Matter, white lives do not, that is not how the message is being perceived.
In Burnley, and elsewhere, there are significant swathes of people who also feel left behind and sold out by governments.
Misguidedly, they see any talk of black advancement as pushing them further down.
Their ancestors were not slaves but nor do they feel connected to the wealth of men like Edward Colston. More likely, they would subscribe to the view Johnny Speight put in the mouth of his creation Alf Garnett, that of living under 20 Prime Ministers ‘and being bloody poor under every one of them’.
There has been no boom in Burnley of late. The textile mills may have benefited from imperial Britain, but the descendants of textile workers have been largely passed by since.
In Burnley, and elsewhere, there are swathes of people who feel left behind by governments
The money that fuels regenerations in urban centres such as Manchester and Liverpool does not visit Burnley.
It is the 11th most deprived area in Britain, out of 317. It has a high proportion of adults on benefits, higher crime and lower educational attainment than the rest of the county of Lancashire.
It has higher rates of infant mortality and alcohol abuse, and the population has been in steady decline this century. If Burnley makes the news it is often for negative reasons.
Not just racial tensions, either. In 2015, a mid-terrace, three-bedroomed house put on the market for £9,000 was tagged the cheapest in Britain. For very different reasons, Burnley suffers reputational damage that will be all too familiar to the Black Lives Matter movement.
Now, anyone with the money to buy cocaine and hire planes — even as part of a whip-round — isn’t poor. Not all racists are poor.
Their poster boy Tommy Robinson certainly isn’t and 15 years ago the BNP thrived as much in Burnley’s relatively upmarket areas as in the town’s poorest wards.
Yet if we simply bury the thought that Burnley’s politics is driven by race, fail to explore the causes of that, and dismiss Monday’s event as the act of an extremist splinter group, we miss the point.
There is a reason that in certain parts of the country the legitimacy and meaning of the Black Lives Matter movement are being exploited and wilfully misread.
Micah Richards, the most eloquent voice on the subject on the night, spoke of wanting to engage on these issues.
Burnley captain Ben Mee was condemnatory of an incident that has damaged the club
Mike Wedderburn, the Sky Sports presenter, has addressed this, too.
‘Many of you have been asking why the words on the banner flown over the Etihad are offensive,’ he explained, in a brief video. ‘Taken in isolation, of course they are not, but in context they absolutely are.
‘They are a deliberate challenge to the Black Lives Matter cause. Now, let’s be absolutely clear: nobody is saying white lives don’t matter. Of course they matter. But, please try to understand, black people’s lives are not like those of the white population…’
Wedderburn then details why: the absence of opportunity and influence, the daily suspicion, the negative depictions, the violence. ‘Our lives have not mattered,’ he concludes.
It should not be hard to comprehend this and Ben Mee, Burnley’s club captain, was understandably condemnatory of an incident that has damaged the club.
In the aftermath, Darren Bent even claimed that Burnley do not have any black players, which must have come as a surprise to Dwight McNeil, Ali Koiki and, until this week when his contract ended, Aaron Lennon. Burnley as a club also go to enormous lengths to be inclusive.
Yet there is a reason racism is never far from the surface in the area and few problems go away by pretending they don’t exist.
The banner spoke to a community who believe their lives don’t matter, either. Maybe if football takes a knee once the crowd has returned, the reaction may reveal a more accurate picture of what this country is about, and how far we still have to go.
Usual suspects for AJ-Fury
Daniel Kinahan, the alleged gangster in the middle of the Tyson Fury-Anthony Joshua fight, is no longer involved, despite being lauded as the matchmaker earlier this month.
Potential broadcasters and sponsors were coming under mounting pressure to boycott any fight with his involvement, meaning the money might suffer. So, in true Keyser Soze style — like that, he’s gone.
Of course he is.
This week has shown culture of complacent arrogance on and off pitch at Arsenal
That David Luiz’s representative has close links with Edu, Arsenal’s technical director, is advanced as the reason behind his contract extension, and that of another client, Cedric Soares. Certainly, little that has happened on the field suggests either was the obvious decision.
Luiz returned in calamitous form against Manchester City, while Soares is yet to play since arriving in January on loan. The deeper truth, however, may be even more worrying.
Without European football — perhaps of any kind — Arsenal must sell to buy. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang may yet solve that problem, but Arsenal want him to stay. Looking on the bright side, then, that leaves the sale of other big-ticket items such as Mesut Ozil or Alexandre Lacazette.
Yet what revenue will they reasonably create? Little that has gone on at Arsenal across several seasons has caused a positive buzz, and the last major player they sold, Alexis Sanchez, stunk out the place at his new club.
Matteo Guendouzi, taunting Brighton’s players over his earnings, speaks of a culture of arrogance and complacency.
Arsenal’s players are shop soiled and if Mikel Arteta cannot bring money in, his buying potential is limited. This, more than cordial business relations, could explain why Luiz and Soares were retained.
If Mikel Arteta cannot bring money in by selling players, his buying potential will be limited
Unforced error for Novak and his reckless tennis party
It is no surprise to hear Major League Baseball’s return on July 19 may be affected by 40 positive tests for Covid-19 among players and staff. This is a disease that has to be taken seriously.
Countries led by plastic strongmen such as Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil suffer. The United States is approaching 122,000 deaths, Brazil nearly 54,000. Trump makes money from golf and hurried the sport back into competition, with predictable results. Social distancing rules were ignored, and a spike in positive tests harmed the sport.
Novak Djokovic is not the leader of Serbia, but he might as well be.
So when he puts on an ill-considered tournament, invites his mates, turns it into a party, a meet-and-greet with fans, and generally behaves as if the disease does not exist, it is no surprise that infection spreads.
In the aftermath, players and commentators lined up to question his intelligence, but also to call into doubt upcoming Grand Slam events. ‘What now?’ asked Martina Navratilova.
‘US Open? Roland Garros? We have a lot of work to do.’
Mitchell Krueger, a player ranked 195 in the world, called Djokovic’s decision ‘bone-headed’ and claimed it put major tournaments at risk, affecting the livelihoods of more than 300 players.
He’s right, of course. As other sports have proved, it is perfectly possible for competitions to go ahead, but with sensible precautions.
Djokovic’s recklessness has damaged tennis. After dangerous flirtations with prayer power and 5G technology conspiracy theories, this was one crank call too far.
Novak Djokovic’s recent recklessness with the Adria Tour has served to damage tennis
Is patience really a virtue for Gibson?
When his assistant Steve McClaren was considering multiple job offers, Sir Alex Ferguson told him not to pick a club — pick an owner. McClaren rejected Terry Brown (West Ham) and Rupert Lowe (Southampton), and went with Steve Gibson at Middlesbrough.
Using Ferguson’s logic, he made an excellent choice. Since 2010, however, Middlesbrough have lurched from Tony Mowbray to Aitor Karanka, from Garry Monk to Tony Pulis.
This week, they sacked club favourite Jonathan Woodgate, in his first job, after 40 matches and replaced him with Neil Warnock, in his 18th managerial role. What happened to Gibson’s much-admired stewardship?
What has happened to Steve Gibson’s much-admired stewardship of Middlesbrough?
Agents worth every penny for Liverpool
For the second year in succession, Liverpool spent more on agents’ fees than any other club in the Premier League, £74.1million across two campaigns.
Given that this is the most successful recruitment policy since Arsene Wenger arrived at Arsenal, however, who is complaining?
These fees are more than covered by a Champions League and title double, meaning Liverpool’s expenses were worth every penny. Arsenal’s? West Ham’s? Manchester United’s?
Priority for prawn sandwich brigade!
The promise that fans will return to stadiums early next season may not be entirely as advertised.
Clubs are discussing a phased return and no prizes for guessing the priority.
An executive box may be more conducive to the spread of a virus than an open stand, but those prawn sandwiches won’t buy themselves.
Roy Keane says David De Gea is overrated. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer insists he is the best goalkeeper in the world. There could be a middle ground. Maybe he’s neither.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Roy Keane have differing opinons about goalkeeper David De Gea