Those Evertonians lucky enough to be attending the home game against Stoke City today may well notice that Goodision Park feels a little more complete than it has done for the past two years. That is because Dave Sibson will be attending his first match there in that time.
Dave is the type of supporter who is the lifeblood of a football club, but one of those people that the modern game sadly thinks it can do without. The club must count itself lucky that he wants to return at all after the way it turned its back on him. Truly it goes to show just how deeply Everton Football Club runs in his veins.
They Think It’s All Over… temporarily breaks hiatus to speak out against the appalling treatment of a fellow Evertonian by Everton Football Club and our justice system.
I was six years old when my Dad bought my brother and I our first season tickets at Goodison. I remember walking into the Park End and being overwhelmed by the sheer voracity of the place. I’d only been in the family enclosure before, but immediately, even at that tender age, I knew both that this was a place for the truest of fans, and that I belonged here implicitly.
I took my seat for that first game and I took in everything around me. The crisp blue plastic of my seat; the vivid yellow lace of high-vis paint dressing the cold concrete steps; the vast, soaring corrugated wings of the stadium roof; and the strange concoction of people sitting around me. I didn’t understand then, but this was a second family for me to belong to.
Anyone who has held a season ticket at a football ground will understand though. When you spend a few hours of every weekend surrounded by the same people; when you experience with them the incredible highs and lows; the joy and the despair; the sheer, unadulterated passion of football fandom; you develop a rare kind of bond with those people.
Dave Sibson is one of those people. He is a member of my little Everton family. He watched me grow from that first game, when I was six years old, through to the day when, at sixteen years old, I handed in my season ticket with tears in my eyes, saying goodbye to my Goodison family to move to New Zealand with my nuclear one.
Dave Sibson was at Goodison long before I got there, and he was there every week even after I had left. Not only was he at Goodison, but he was at almost every away game that Everton played, both in England and abroad, when we qualified for Europe. He was as integral a part of the Everton family as there can possibly be.
Until the club turned its back on him two years ago.
Dave was banned from all football for three years after being accused of using racist language toward Louis Saha at Goodison. He called Saha a “lazy, French bastard”.
This is not a racist statement. Racism is to discriminate against someone on the basis of their ethnicity. If Dave discriminated against Saha in any way in that statement (which he did not, as I will argue shortly) then he did so on the basis of his nationality, which would constitute xenophobia, not racism.
I’m not arguing that xenophobia is any more acceptable than racism – it’s not. I condone neither and if anyone is found guilty of either offence at a football match then they should certainly be expelled from football. I’m merely trying to point out the base ignorance of the accusation that was made.
In Dave’s case, there were absolutely no grounds for him to be found guilty of racism or xenophobia. He did not discriminate against Louis Saha because he is French, or because he is black. He was simply voicing his opinion that he was not giving the 100% effort that Evertonians expect from their players.
The fact that he called a Frenchman French in doing so does not make that statement inherently wrong. It does not mean that he is implying that Saha’s laziness is a direct product of his nationality, or that all Frenchmen are inherently lazy. Dave was simply using “French” as an identifier.
As far as I am concerned, there’s nothing wrong with that. Indeed, for many years at Goodison, one would hear the 35,000 people all bellowing the words “He’s the best little Spaniard we know” about Mikel Arteta. Some fans like to chant “USA!” when Tim Howard makes a good save. Years ago we used to sing that Neville Southall was “Wales’ Number One”.
It’s not just Everton either – for years Arsenal fans sang, in their ode to Patrick Vieira, “He comes from Senegal…” Football fans all around the country will use a player’s nationality as a part of the way that they identify them. Where a person is from will always be a part of their identity.
In short, simply using a player’s nationality to identify them is something which football fans do all the time. In no way is a reference to a player’s nationality, in either a positive or a negative context, inherently a means of passing judgment on that person on the basis of where they come from.
Frankly, I can’t see how Saha, had he heard what Dave had said, would have been at all offended by being called “French”. He is, after all, from France. I’m sure he is a proud Frenchman, in the same way that I am a proud Englishman, and don’t mind it when New Zealanders call me a “Pom”.
Those Kiwis (look, another nationalistic identifier!) who use that term usually do give it slightly negative connotations, but I’m proud of where I come from so I don’t mind being identified as such.
No, the only offence that Saha could reasonably take from Dave’s statement was that he had been labeled “lazy”, or a “bastard”. However, go to a football ground and ban every fan who makes such criticisms of a player and soon stadia the world over will ring with silence.
Football grounds are a forum for such opinions. Every football fan believes him or herself to be an expert of the game. They believe they can do better than the managers on the pitch and the manager in the dugout. And the passion and emotion of the atmosphere means they’re not shy of sharing those opinions – positive or negative.
To suggest then, that Dave discriminated against Louis Saha by calling him a “lazy, French bastard” is nonsense. It is neither racist nor xenophobic, and was in no way discriminatory – I’d be willing to bet that Saha was not the only player Dave labeled lazy or inept that day, never mind every other fan in the stadium.
And this is why I am so upset at the treatment Dave received at the hands of his beloved football club. Dave is not a racist man. Having had the benefit of knowing him for over ten years, I know this. Dave is a passionate, excitable football fan, as we all are, but he is not a racist.
Yet all it took for him to be condemned as such by his own club, who he has given his life to, who he follows wherever they go, on whom he spends practically every penny that he earns, was for a single fan to accuse him of being a racist, on the basis of calling Louis Saha a “lazy, French bastard”.
On the basis of this singular accusation, Dave was asked to hand in his season ticket and was barred from Goodison Park. Everton Football Club treated him as guilty on the basis of a single accusation, despite the written protestations of many other fans who knew him not to be so, without having been given a trial.
Innocent until proven guilty? Not at Goodison Park, it seems.
Dave was still able to attend away games during the period between the accusation and his trial, but Everton Football Club turned their back on him immediately. What a way to treat a man who has given so much to the club and never asked anything in return.
Eventually Dave was found guilty of racism by a court hearing. Given what I have written above, this gives me great cause to question the effectiveness of our justice system when it comes to interpreting and enforcing our laws. There is no way a guilty verdict should have been reached.
Unfortunately, Dave has fallen victim to our society’s hang up on racism. Rightly, we are committed to stamping out such ignorance from football and society at large, but that has led to an over zealous proliferation of political correctness, which is actually indicative of the inherently racist mindset that exists in those who make these sorts of accusations.
Ultimately, the man who made the accusation that Dave was racist was the man who was treating Louis Saha differently on account of his ethnicity. Dave called Louis Saha a “lazy, French bastard” and the man who accused him assumed that it was a racial slur because Louis Saha is black.
Had Dave called Mikel Arteta a lazy Spanish bastard, or Leon Osman a lazy English bastard, this would never have occurred. Dave would not have been banned. It is only because Dave’s vitriol was directed at a black man that it was interpreted as racist, despite the language used not being discriminatory or racist in any way.
Treating people differently on account of their race is the definition of racism. In this situation, the people who have acted in this manner are those who assume that Louis Saha would have taken greater offence to such passionate criticism than someone of a different race would have. The man who accused Dave of racism should have been the one banned for discrimination.
Sadly, this is symptomatic of our modern society. We have become so over-zealous in our persecution of racism that we find ourselves in danger of going the other way. Racism can just as easily occur toward a majority ethnic group as it can against the minorities, and we would do well to remember as much, else we will simply end up reversing the dichotomy.
Dave Sibson is not a racist man. He made no discriminatory remarks about Louis Saha. Yet he was labeled as such by one of his peers, immediately ostracized –without trial – by his football club, and ultimately found guilty of the offense in a court of law.
Dave’s three year ban has now been overturned, both on account of his good behavior during the first two years and the continued support and backing that Dave has received from those who know him, and know him not to be a racist man.
There is a small justice in that, but it has cost him dear. Over the past two years whenever we have received correspondence from Dave here in NZ, it has been plain to hear in his words the agony he has felt at being excluded from Goodison Park. Everton Football Club is the blood that runs through his veins, and they may as well have locked him up in prison as locked him out of Goodison.
Which is why Dave will be back there today, against Stoke City. Despite the way the club turned its back on him, Dave will not – could not – stay away. He belongs at Goodison Park, supporting his team.
Welcome home Dave.