I first encountered the kind of raw, angry and hateful racism that scarred Britain in the 1970s at Ewood Park, Blackburn in 1978. The target was a Crystal Palace player (Vince Hilaire?) who was given a volley of monkey chants and foul abuse coupled with a bit of National Front support to let everyone else know that there was something more sinister going on. In those days pretty much every black player got the same. Alex Williams from Manchester City got the full banana treatment. Chelsea fans trumped everyone with a sustained abuse of Paul Cannoville, their own player, before chasing us all the way back to the station. I have never been so terrified.
You couldn't escape this kind of menace at football in the late 1970s and early to mid-1980s, it went with the experience of following football. There has never been much in the way of an organised hooligan presence at Blackburn. Partly it's a numbers thing, does one mob have more than the other and does this therefore increase the chances to bully another comparable mob? There were many occasions when a larger pack of bullies to walk back to town with would have felt quite comforting. Strangely, at Blackburn, the glue that bound together the bullying thugs in the area wasn't football, but the NF. Or rather, they'd follow different teams (Leeds, Man United, West Ham) where the chances to bully were greater, but would beat up Asians when at home. I know who most of them are by name and face and they seemed to gravitate back towards Rovers in the mid 1980s and brought all the unpleasant baggage with them.
Rovers didn't have a black player until Howard Gayle who joined in the summer of 1987. Yes, think about that. 1987. The same time John Barnes broke the mould at Liverpool, a place a journeyman like Howard Gayle was offered no latitude or second chances. I liked Howard and his direct have-a-go attitude. I also liked his 20 goals that season. I once saw him get in the Nuttall Street paddock and offer out someone who said something to him as he was warming up.
I had a cup of tea with then manager Don Mackay in 1988 and he told me the player he most wanted to sign was "a Pakistani boy from this area". Twenty years ago he saw how Rovers needed to reach out. Even now, there are less than 50 Asian season ticket holders at Ewood Park.
After a few squad players dipping in and out - Peter Baah, Jason Beckford - Rovers was a white team throughout the 1990s - the Jack Walker years. I remember writing in Many Miles From Home, a Rovers fanzine, about the monkey chants directed at Carl Leaburn in 1991. You'd hear snippets from people that Jack Walker didn't want "a certain type of player" at the club. And apart from Richard Brown - who was alright - no black players appeared in the Premier League under Kenny Dalglish and Ray Harford. I raised this with the directors in 1998 at a London supporters forum and any notion that this harmed any attempt to increase ethnic support was denied by Bob Coar, the chairman. But Peter White, then the Lancashire Evening Telegraph reporter for Rovers, now deceased, said there was something in it. He clarified by saying Teddy Sheringham was a player Jack Walker blocked as a "wrong sort" and so too was, wait for it, Paul Ince, then at Inter Milan.
Roy Hodgson signed Martin Dahlin (who was rubbish) and there have, happily, been plenty of good quality black players since. Andy Cole, Chris Samba, Benni, Marcus Bent and many more. There's been some crap too, but I don't believe for a moment that any of them has been treated any differently by the fans because of their colour. It certainly isn't like Italy. Dwight Yorke got some stick when he came back with Birmingham, but I don't believe there was much racism in it.
So here we are, on the brink of making history. And do you know what, I don't think any of this will have figured in the minds of the board when offering the job of managing Blackburn Rovers to Paul Ince. Good.