Arsenal legend O’Leary insists a change in racism stems from youth
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Arsenal legend David O’Leary insists instilling the message into youngsters is how things are changed when it comes to racism.
The former centre-back, who made 772 appearances in total for the Gunners, was part of a joint workshop by Show Racism the Red Card and Arsenal In The Community at Rhyl Primary School in Kentish Town.
He was joined by Rachel Yankey OBE, Brendon Batson OBE, and former Gunners teammate Perry Groves to talk with pupils from the Camden-based School.
Irishman O’Leary grew up in Stoke Newington and had his own experiences in the sport of being told to ‘go home’.
“I think that’s where the change happens. It’s like anything, if you start people hitting a golf ball or kicking a football at the youngest age possible you can only improve them, so I think educating young kids in the proper way can only be the right way going forward,” O’Leary said.
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“Kids are brilliant as they ask the questions that you might be thinking ‘I’ve got to watch what I say or ask’ whereas they just ask what they want to ask.
“All the questions they did ask were the right ones to ask and I think better people than me on the panel answered them brilliantly.
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“It’s as important as ever. It’s improving but you’ve got to keep going. I’m not sure how many years I’ve been involved in this, but I think it’s quite a few years, and I don’t know where all of those years have gone.
“It’s been a great thing. The people involved that have pushed it along have been amazing.”
The former Aston Villa and Leeds manager insisted so much has changed since he played football and his parents moved over to England.
“To me, particularly when playing football, I’ve just played with people, I never thought I was playing with black people. David Rocastle, Viv Anderson, Chris Whyte, Michael Thomas – so many good friends of mine.
“They are friends and good football players. No matter what skin colour you are, it didn’t matter to me in anyway.”
He added: “I remember in the 1970s when I came over myself as a young kid, 99 per cent of the English population has been fantastic to me and it’s a great country to live in, but I remember being called a ‘Paddy’ and in some places I was not welcome.
“I remember my parents in the 50s looking for accommodation over here and there was signs ‘No Irish welcome’ and that’s life but we have moved on immensely since then and we’ve got to still keep moving on.
“Have we improved immensely? Yes we have.”
O’Leary said he is glad to see players now standing up for themselves, as that has been the biggest change over the years.
“‘Paddy go home’ or ‘Paddy, go dig the road’ but I always felt safe in the team environment, and we all looked after each other and didn’t feel threatened in anyway,” he added.
“It was probably more so if you were going down the tunnel at half-time or at the end of the match. Some silly person would say some stupid thing to yourself or a colleague and it resonated with you.
“I think now people are more brave and stand up when they hear that to help stamp it out, and that’s important.”
Black team-mates of O’Leary – David Rocastle, Michael Thomas, and Paul Davis – received plenty of racist abuse in the 1980s.
“It probably in ways went over my head and more in a way of something they said to me, but they were three wonderful lads and three wonderful footballers,” he added.
“I just thought they were footballers, we won trophies together, celebrated together and that’s what we were. We were team-mates and still good friends.
“Sadly David passed away, an absolutely wonderful fella, and that was probably one of the saddest days of my life being at that funeral.
“They were great footballers and that’s why they were in the Arsenal football team.
“I think players now react and stand up to it, which then makes you aware of it. They’re not letting it go over their heads and they’re answering back now.
“In the past perhaps it was we can’t do anything about that. Let it go over your head, I thought that when I was told ‘Paddy, go dig the roads’ when I was playing.”
But the former Arsenal defender also highlighted how he didn’t have to deal with social media in his playing days.
“That’s one thing I’m absolutely hopeless at. I have probably shy away from it, and I don’t understand it.”