When retirement approaches, many footballers begin their plans slightly prematurely. A significant number believe their natural progression is to begin a coaching career with one eye on management. Others view life in punditry and the media as their way to remain attached to the game.
Since 2003 though, former Newcastle United defender Olivier Bernard has been working for anti-racism group ‘Show Racism The Red Card’ (SRTRC). After having his career cut short with a hip injury in 2007, the Frenchman has continued his anti-racism work in the community, with the focus on stamping out racism in both football and society.
Over recent months English football has had a barrage of negativity thrown at it following the recent racially-led incidents to engulf our game. In October England captain John Terry was accused of racially abusing QPR defender Anton Ferdinand in a Premier League match at Loftus Road. It was later announced in December that our country’s skipper would face a criminal charge for his actions.
Liverpool striker Luis Suarez is another player to find himself at the centre of a racism row, following an incident with Manchester United defender Patrice Evra on 15 October – the Uruguayan is now serving an eight-match ban and was fined £40,000 by the Football Association as a consequence.
A recent incident occurred at Anfield in the third round of the FA Cup when a Liverpool supporter allegedly used racist language towards Oldham Athletic’s Tom Adeyemi. A 20-year-old man has since been arrested on suspicion of a racially aggravated public order offence.
Former left-back Bernard admits there is clearly a problem with racism in England. However he believes the reaction of the police and the FA show how serious we as a nation view such offences.
“I’m not the FA but any sort of racism has got to be punished,” said the 32-year-old. “It doesn’t matter if your intentions are right or wrong, it’s illegal and I think people tend to forget that it’s against the law.”
For all the Frenchman is complimentary of the FA for the way they’ve reacted to these recent cases, he, like many, is critical of the manner in way Liverpool supported Suarez following his charge.
Reds manager Kenny Dalglish and his squad wore t-shirts with a picture of Suarez on the front and his name and number seven on the back for the warm-up to their 0-0 draw at Wigan on 21 December 2011 as their way of backing their player.
It was a move which brought great criticism towards the Anfield club and Bernard admits he disagrees with their method and says they should have acted more responsibly.
“The t-shirt was wrong. Wearing that t-shirt was a show of support that nobody really understands. They (Liverpool FC) should have come out and said they are strongly against racism, which I know they are, and they don’t accept what Suarez did, but they didn’t release a statement.”
Despite criticising Liverpool’s backing of Suarez, Bernard says the club have acted in the appropriate manner with their decision not to appeal the Uruguayan’s sentence.
“As a club you have to support your players but what we are condemning are his (Suarez’s) actions. We are not at any point saying Suarez is a racist person but he has used racist language which has to be punished because it’s against the law. He had to be sentenced and I’m pleased the club didn’t appeal it.”
Suarez pleaded his lack of intent to cause offence through a statement he released on 3 January 2012, claiming ‘In my country, ‘negro’ is a word we use commonly, a word which doesn’t show any lack of respect and is even less so a form of racist abuse.’
Bernard though says a player must be aware of his surroundings before using such language, but also believes the matter should now be drawn to a close.
“It all comes down to lack of education and lack of knowledge. Let’s not call the man a racist. He’s made a mistake. He’s been punished and that should be the end of it.”
Bernard is highly passionate about helping eradicate racism from our society, and says organisations like SRTRC are vital in providing youngsters with the necessary education.
“I took part in a club event (with SRTRC) whilst playing for Newcastle in 2003 and it was a wake-up call for me. There was a lack of understanding so I wanted to give something back and make sure it doesn’t happen to others because I have suffered from racism.”
Bernard speaks openly of the abuse he received as a player, but admits he was never taunted while playing on English soil.
“In England it rarely happens in the stadiums anymore. There’s a policy and everybody follows it, which shows racism is being taken seriously. I got the monkey chants a couple of times while playing in eastern Europe. It was difficult but as a group and a club I had a lot of support. There were a few black players at the club so as a group we helped each other,” said Bernard.
Eleven years on after signing for the Magpies the former Southampton and Rangers left-back looks back on his time in the north-east with great fondness. Not just because it provided him with the platform to play the best football of his career but also the relationship he has developed with the Geordie public. Bernard and his family are happy and settled in the area, with his two daughters both born in Newcastle he now calls the north-east his ‘home’.
“I love the area and people think I’m mad because it’s the north and there’s not much sunshine, but the people give you that warmth,” claims Bernard.m“When I came to Newcastle I was a forward but they told me if I wanted to play I had to adopt the left-back position. I think I did well enough to be recognised as a decent left-back and I had a great relationship with the fans so it was a really exciting time.”
Bernard is also extremely grateful to the man who brought him to Tyneside — Sir Bobby Rosbon.
“It was really good working under him, he was bubbly and always trying to make you laugh and he understood players. Bobby Robson was one of the best English managers. The success he had at Newcastle was unbelievable with players like Alan Shearer and Gary Speed, clever, experienced players surrounded by young, fresh, dynamic players and it gelled really well.”
Bernard expects the current Newcastle side to continue their steady rise up the Premier League and believes their success is down to the club’s ethos of recruiting young talent — a strategy that saw the Magpies reach the Champions League under Robson.
“I’m glad to see the policy is back to where it started with the growth of the club and you can feel they are eventually finding their feet and looking forward to a good era. Newcastle United as a starting eleven can beat anyone, but in terms of strength in depth we are lacking. This could be the start of something immense. If the recruitment is good and the money is there you could see Newcastle back to its best.”