Sunderland legend Gary Bennett gives his views on football's recent race rows
PUBLISHED: 00:16 28 November 2011 | UPDATED: 20:22 20 February 2013
Recent controversies over racism in football have put new perspective on the life story of one of the North East's most respected players. Roger Tames reports
When Sunderland legend Gary Bennett released his autobiography,
he could have had no idea it would coincide with a worrying resurgence
of the prejudice he has fought so hard to combat.
In the multi-national world of the Premier League, Bennett represents a bygone era when the elegant central defender was a genuine pioneer. Signing for the Wearsiders for 65,000 from Cardiff City in July 1984, Bennett became only the second black footballer to wear the famous red and white stripes.
The first black player made his debut for Sunderland seven years earlier but Roly Gregoires ten appearances have made little other impression on the clubs history.
Bennett by contrast played 440 times for what used to be known as the Rokermen. The fact that only four men have made more appearances underlines what an astonishing impact the Manchester born lad has made on his adopted city.
The book isnt primarily the story of a black footballer its the story of a Sunderland footballer. Yet Benno, as hes universally known, deals directly with his personal racial impact.
The general attitude towards black players in those days was appalling,
explains Bennett. Looking back, some of the abuse we had to endure was nothing short of disgusting.
However, having grown up in a strong black community in Manchester, I was protected from any real problems. At Roker Park, it was different. I was on my own, feeling very exposed in a town that as far as I could see, had very few black people.
Yet Benno remained on Wearside for more than a decade, a genuine club stalwart through one of the most turbulent periods in the clubs history. However for a young black family in the 80s, integrating into community life was tough too tough for his isolated partner, who sadly felt obliged to return home to Manchester.
So you can imagine the utter dismay felt, as this season saw the subject of racism on the pitch back in the headlines following allegations involving Liverpools Luis Suarez and Chelseas John Terry.
I thought wed moved way beyond all this, admits a disbelieving Bennett who has been one of the driving forces behind the campaign Show Racism the Red Card.
The recent events could knock us back years and affect the game in so many ways. I thought wed educated ourselves. The whole North East has made giant strides since I first came here and its great to see Sunderland and Newcastle so multi-cultural. But now Im worried everything has been stirred up again.
Bennett speaks as an official ambassador for his adopted city after a playing and managerial career that also took in Carlisle, Scarborough and Darlington. Hes also a familiar voice on BBC Newcastle as a perceptive summariser on the Black Cats alongside Nick Barnes.
Still looking as though his playing kit would fit perfectly, always a sharp dresser with a twinkling sense of humour, Benno from day one has stood out in a Sunderland crowd. But now hes only seen as a local hero.
His massively illustrated book contains one of the best collections of Sunderland photos you will find. The most revealing though was taken at an FA Coaches and Mangers course in 1997. Among more than 100 of the most influential figures in the game, the only black players are Cyrille Regis and Gary Bennett. Bennos work is not finished yet.
The Black Cat Gary Bennetts football scrapbook is published by twocan at 17.99.
The print version of this article appeared in the December 2011 issue of North East Life
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