London (AFP) – Britain’s Sun tabloid said on Friday it had suspended its columnist Kelvin MacKenzie over an article about footballer Ross Barkley that critics branded “racist”.

The article in Britain’s best-selling newspaper was about the 23-year-old England midfielder getting into a fight in a nightclub in Liverpool this week.

MacKenzie compared Barkley, whose grandfather is Nigerian, to a “gorilla at the zoo” and said the only people in Liverpool with his salary were drug dealers.

The article was headlined “Here’s why they go ape at Ross” alongside a photograph of Barkley’s eyes and the eyes of a gorilla.

Liverpool’s mayor Joe Anderson said he had reported the comments to the police and the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO), calling them “racist and offensive”.

The Sun’s publisher News UK said in a statement that MacKenzie “had been suspended with immediate effect”.

“The paper was unaware of Ross Barkley’s heritage and there was never any slur intended,” the statement said.

It added the views expressed by MacKenzie about the people of Liverpool were “wrong, unfunny and are not the views of the paper”.

Everton midfielder Barkley was out celebrating his side’s 4-2 win over Leicester City in the Premier League on Sunday when his lawyers said he was caught in an “unprovoked attack” in a club.

The Sun and MacKenzie are already very unpopular in the city because he was the paper’s editor when it published a story blaming Liverpool fans for the 1989 Hillsborough football stadium disaster.

Saturday will be the 28th anniversary of the tragedy in which 96 people died.