‘If we take our foot off the gas it will just peter out’: David McGoldrick is the Sheffield United star who hatched the idea of taking a knee this summer… now he wants football to keep the protest going to fight racism
- David McGoldrick talks about the eye-catching demonstration he helped create
- McGoldrick told Billy Sharp and Chris Wilder about his idea to take the knee
- This idea was then relayed to Aston Villa before the first game after lockdown
- The striker said the main message behind the gesture is to say no to racism
It was one of the most striking moments of the sporting year. The ball was back on the centre spot after three months without Premier League football and the eyes of the world were on Villa Park.
Referee Michael Oliver blew his whistle to start the match and the players of Aston Villa and Sheffield United dropped to one knee for 10 seconds.
The global TV audience caught its breath and a powerful symbol of solidarity was born inside a deserted stadium in Birmingham.
Premier League players take a knee for the first time before Aston Villa face Sheffield United
David McGoldrick came up with the idea of taking the knee during Premier League matches
‘We wanted to make a point,’ recalls David McGoldrick, the 33-year-old Sheffield United and Republic of Ireland striker who came up with the idea. ‘No one was expecting it. We kept it quiet. The referee was told about it but not many people knew.
‘We were the first game back after lockdown. We knew all eyes would be on the game. We knew everyone would be at home watching it in lockdown.
‘I don’t think anything like that had been done before, just on the whistle to start the game.
‘We wanted to make a stance and show we were united; 22 players on the pitch, the subs, people on the side, all doing it, to show we were altogether in saying no to racism.’
The football season ground to a halt in mid-March — interrupted for the first time since the Second World War — as the country went into lockdown to fight the coronavirus pandemic.
HOW THE CAMPAIGN UNFOLDED
Aston Villa and Sheffield United become the first English teams to take a knee, before the first match of Project Restart.
England take a knee for the first time, in their Nations League match away to Iceland.
QPR director of football Les Ferdinand claims the impact of taking a knee has been ‘diluted’, and that it ‘will not bring about change in the game — actions will’. Neither side had taken a knee in QPR’s game against Coventry City three days earlier.
No Marseille player takes a knee as they host Manchester City in the Champions League, while only four Krasnodar players do it before their match against Chelsea in Russia a day later. The gesture splits opinion on the continent, with none of the other ‘top five’ European leagues formally adopting it.
Millwall fans boo their own and Derby’s players as they take a knee before the first game with spectators at the New Den since the coronavirus shutdown.
Before the next Millwall home game, against QPR, players from both teams hold a banner in support of anti-racism measures. Millwall do not take a knee, but QPR do for the first time since Ferdinand’s comments.
A PFA survey reveals players’ overwhelming support for the anti-racism gesture continuing, with 80 per cent in favour.
Millions were on furlough or working from home, including footballers, glued to news bulletins as footage emerged from Minneapolis in the USA, where George Floyd, a black man, was killed while in police custody by a white officer who knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes.
Protests spread around the world. One week before the Premier League resumed in mid-June, a statue of Edward Colston, a 17th century merchant involved in the Atlantic slave trade, was dragged from its plinth and thrown into the harbour in Bristol.
‘A lot was going off in lockdown with the murder of George Floyd and the protests,’ said McGoldrick. ‘And things had been brewing in football with racism before lockdown. I’ve been a target for racist comments on social media.
‘So before the Aston Villa game, we all sat down, me and the captain Billy Sharp, the manager Chris Wilder and the chief executive Steve Bettis, and spoke about what we might do.
‘The captains of the different clubs were in a WhatsApp group, speaking regularly about things to do with Project Restart and what they wanted to do with the ”Black Lives Matter” on the back of the shirts.
‘But the club came to me, as one of the senior players and one of the black players, and asked if there was anything I thought might be appropriate. I came up with the idea about taking a knee before the game when there was no one expecting it.’
Taking a knee became a dignified symbol of protest in the USA in 2016 when star quarterback Colin Kaepernick started to kneel during the national anthem preceding NFL games.
This wasn’t about politics,’ said McGoldrick. ‘It wasn’t about anything other than showing the players were together. All races, all backgrounds, all nationalities, all religions, all coming together to say no to racism. That was the main concept behind it.’
Sheffield United wanted to run the idea past Aston Villa. McGoldrick spoke to Villa’s Tyrone Mings, a former team-mate when they were at Ipswich. Mings spoke to Jack Grealish, his captain, and goalkeeper Tom Heaton, a senior pro at Villa.
‘They were on board straight away,’ said McGoldrick. ‘We came together and we did it.’
From there, it spread quickly and organically. No one told anyone at Manchester City or Arsenal, contesting the second game of the day, but they, too, took a knee as the game was about to kick off.
‘They must have seen it on telly and thought it was a good idea and it’s kicked on from there. It’s great to see we’re still doing it and other teams are still doing it.’
The protests following George Floyd’s killing by a policeman reverberated around the world
Colin Kaepernick (centre) became the first sportsperson to take the knee back in August 2016
The words Black Lives Matter replaced the names of players on the backs of shirts in the Premier League for a couple of weeks, and a logo designed by Troy Deeney and his girlfriend Alisha Hosannah was worn on shirt sleeves until the 2019-20 season ended in August.
Six months on and the players continue to take a knee at kick-off, but some fans have booed the gesture at grounds including Millwall, Colchester and Cambridge.
High among the complaints of those opposing the gesture is the mistaken belief that players are doing this in support of the Black Lives Matter political movement.
‘There’s obviously a small number of people who don’t agree with it,’ said McGoldrick. ‘Some fans have been booing and that’s a sad thing. That’s where we’re at. That’s why we’re fighting for what we’re fighting for.
Tyrone Mings told Jack Grealish about taking the knee after being spoken to by McGoldrick
‘Some of them think it’s about politics, but it is not political. It is a stance to say we’re united about saying no to racism.
‘On the other side, we did it at Brighton and Southampton with fans in the stadiums and there was a round of applause. That proves to me it is making a positive impact and it is showing unity in our world.’
The adverse reaction since the return of fans to stadiums prompted the PFA, the players’ union, to consult its members about whether to continue.
‘The votes came back showing they did still want to do it,’ said McGoldrick. ‘I’ve been around footballers for so long that I had no doubt what they’d say. I knew they’d be on the same wavelength. Players are doing it willingly. We’re in this together because we want to say no to racism.’
For generations footballers have endured racist abuse hurled from within the safety of a crowd. More recently, the players have become targets via social media.
McGoldrick was on the receiving end in July after scoring in a win against Chelsea and believes now is not a time to step backwards in the fight for equality.
The toppling of Edward Colston’s statue was another public example of anti-racist activism
‘For years, players have been like robots when it came to these things,’ he said. ‘Now we see big figures like Marcus Rashford, Raheem Sterling, Troy Deeney and Tyrone Mings talking strong on these subjects. It is a good thing. If we take our foot off the gas it will just peter out and just go back to being acceptable.
‘If all the players and staff can show unity in saying no to racism — that’s the main topic here — it’s not about what lives matter, to me it’s all about saying no to racism. That’s the main thing.
‘We’ve got to keep going. We’re seeing changes. More changes, more steps. We want to see changes because that’s what people deserve.’
Sheffield United are fighting for Premier League survival this season, but the South Yorkshire club have made a valuable contribution since promotion in 2019.
They were one of the stories of last season. They performed fearlessly under Wilder, who enriched the competition with his no-nonsense personality, and Bramall Lane was an exhilarating place to be until the doors were closed.
The Blades tilted at the European places before finishing ninth with a creditable 54 points and it would have been two more had the goal-line technology not failed in that game at Villa Park in June.
Manchester City and Arsenal players followed the lead of Aston Villa and Sheffield United
Oliver Norwood’s free-kick crossed the line but Aston Villa escaped with a point, a 0-0 draw which ultimately kept them up on goal difference as Bournemouth were relegated.
It might not have been a spectacle, but it proved a fixture with long-standing connotations. Among them, the origin of the Premier League footballers taking a knee.
‘It has been a mad year,’ said McGoldrick. ‘With lockdowns and different tiers and everything going on in America, sometimes it has been hard to put the football first.
‘It was a time when health came first and not just in terms of injuries. It was about doing everything right to protect your family.
‘In the first days of lockdown no one knew what was going on and we were out there getting ready to put on a show for people’s entertainment, and for the Premier League. There were scary moments, because we were coming home and being around people.
‘It is the world we live in now, the new normal. We’re all dealing with it the best we can. We’re coming through as a nation and, hopefully, we’re through the worst times and we can start to look forward.
McGoldrick said support from figures like Marcus Rashford have helped the gesture grow
‘Children will be doing history lessons about 2020 long into the future.’
They might even mention the footballers who led the way and found their voices.
‘I don’t look back at it as though we started this thing at Aston Villa,’ said McGoldrick.
‘But we were the originals and it is nice when my kids remind me that I was one of the ones who started it.
‘That feels good, to let my kids know why it’s important that we’re doing it, to talk to them about it and the unity behind it. That’s a really proud moment right there.’
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