Burnley has tried to improve the diversity of its fan base

Burnley’s BAME battle: An EDL supporter flew a ‘white lives matter’ banner over the Etihad and the town where BNP had success has history with race riots… the club has tried hard to improve diversity of fan base but is finding it far from easy

  • Plane carrying ‘White Lives Matter Burnley’ banner was flown over the Etihad 
  • No one in Burnley could deny that Monday’s stunt was a heavy blow for the town
  • Last December a steward observed a 13-year-old fan abusing Son Heung-min
  • Sean Dyche made it a mission to take the players to the local Ghausia mosque 

For all the work Burnley have done to promote diversity, the enduring nature of the challenge they face was visible when stewards at Tottenham observed a 13-year-old fan of the Lancashire club abusing Son Heung-min last December.

The adults accompanying the boy, who did not seem to include his parents, were contrite when Spurs sent in child protection officers to deal with the situation. The boy was given educational orientation sessions with the Kick it Out organisation. But to find bigotry in someone so young was grim.

At least there is hope of altering the warped perspectives of a teenager. The far right hooligans who sent a ‘White Lives Matter Burnley’ message over the Etihad were basking in their own notoriety on Tuesday, as football reacted with disgust.

A plane carrying a banner reading ‘White Lives Matter Burnley’ was flown over the Etihad

Club have also been stung by suggestions that their squad is less racially diverse than others

‘I’d like to take this time to apologise … to absolutely f***ing nodbody,’ wrote one of them, Jake Hepple, in a private Facebook post which said as much about his levels of literacy as about him.

The mother of Mark Hamer, a multiple convicted football hooligan also involved in raising £600 to fund the plane, was furious with the trouble he had caused the family. She did not come to the door when Sportsmail knocked but made her feelings clear in the hallway as Hamer’s father batted away most of our questions.

The company who were happy to fly the message at the designated time on Monday — just as the players took a knee — were less accommodating when it came to explaining themselves.

The Stockport-based Air Ads representative, ‘Bob’, did not respond to our requests for comment, beyond saying he had not been the pilot. WhatsApp messages between the perpetrators revealed they had hoped to provoke Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling into walking off.

Burnley said they and Lancashire Police had been aware something might happen, though there was no suggestion of illegal activity so they were powerless to intervene.

Not for the first time in the past two weeks, anti-Black Lives Matter bigotry had been carried out by hooligans who claimed an attachment to football. Hamer was a ringleader of 12 members of Burnley’s so-called Suicide Squad jailed for attacking Blackburn Rovers fans nine years ago. Hepple, an English Defence League member, proudly parades an image of himself with founder Tommy Robinson on his Facebook page.

No one in Burnley could deny that Monday’s stunt, coming at a time when sport attempts to create a lasting change, was a heavy blow. The town laboured with a race problem for years, with the 2001 race riots here followed by 2004 borough council elections which saw the British National Party win three seats and briefly threatened to earn an entitlement to sit on school governing bodies.

‘The town isn’t racist any more. We’re away from that,’ insisted council leader Charlie Briggs and substantial work has been done to build racial harmony and tolerance.

An anti-racist banner on the pitch at Turf Moor before the match against Wolves last year

Burnley manager Sean Dyche made it one of his first missions to take the players to the local Ghausia mosque, though was reluctant to promote the visit as he did not want it to appear tokenistic or designed for appearance.

The organiser of that visit, Afrasiab Anwar, chairs the Burnley FC Inclusion Advisory Group and said that the club had been integral to attempts to bring the town’s communities together.

‘It’s not just a tick-box exercise,’ he told Sportsmail. ‘The first conversations we had with Sean were about how we can be more inclusive and things have gone from there. We’ve come a long way.’ 

An interfaith football tournament and the club’s partnership with two mosques, the Ghausia and Sultania, have formed part of the effort, with children from those mosques invited into the club.

Converting that work into a more diverse fanbase has proved tough, in an age with the support of a club passing down through the generations now less prevalent.

‘That’s not happening yet and it will take time,’ says Anwar. ‘But we recognise that and what we need to do. It will just take time.’

Home Office data published in December showed that more race-related incidents were reported at Burnley than at any other Premier League club in the previous two seasons. There had been 15 incidents, while none had been reported at many clubs.

Sean Dyche made it one of his first missions to take the players to the local Ghausia mosque

The plane incident occurred as players took the knee ahead of kick-off on Monday evening

But Burnley insisted they had actively encouraged supporters to report incidents and the data does not identify whether home or visiting fans had made the reports.

The club have also been stung by suggestions that their squad is less racially diverse than many in the Premier League. Aaron Lennon, Mace Goodridge, Dwight McNeil and Ali Koiki are currently the non-white squad members. That 13 per cent figure equates to the BAME make-up of the British population.

In this town, as in any other, intolerance is not hard to find. Racial segregation persists in some areas. You do not find black or Asian faces in the streets around Hamer’s home.

But eight of the 10 people we approach expressed dismay at the banner, before Burnley chairman Mike Garlick said that the club would ‘root out these racists’.

In a strongly-worded response, Garlick told ESPN: ‘Let’s be clear: the plane didn’t fly in our name. But we have to talk about it. We cannot and will not sweep it under the carpet.’

It was the post-match TV interview with captain Ben Mee, intent on castigating the perpetrators, which had captivated the town, though. ‘That filled me with such pride,’ said Anwar. ‘That’s real leadership.’

‘People won’t tolerate it,’ said Ted Davies, another local walking near Turf Moor. ‘There are consequences for actions like this now. We won’t let these people grind our good name into the dust.’

Captain Ben Mee said he was ‘ashamed’ as he slammed the behaviour of those responsible

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