THE photograph of Jordan Tapping on his Twitter page – all tuxedo-ed up for a night out – makes me think of Hugh McIlvanney’s remark about Stephen Hendry.
Sizing up the snooker ace in his work clothes, the doyen of Scottish sporting scribes quipped: “Never has someone in a dinner suit looked so urgently in need of dinners.”
In other words Tapping looks like a boy, not yet a man, and this is as it should be because that is what he is. Sure, there’s a cockiness to his smile and he’s making a gesture with his hand, the meaning of which I couldn’t begin to hazard a guess, but he’s 17, still at school and surely the envy of his classmates for having a fledgling football career running alongside his studies.
Except no-one was envying Tapping at Peterhead on Saturday. Fifteen minutes from the end of East Stirlingshire’s game at Balmoor Stadium, the player had to be substituted for his own protection after being subjected to racist abuse. The lad was in tears as he left the pitch and in the dressing room afterwards. And the rest of Scottish sport in this year of years? It shuddered more than a little.
Don’t get me wrong. Monkey chants aren’t especially bad in 2014 because we’ve got one or two world-class sports events to organise and could seriously do without the embarrassment. They’d be especially bad in any year since 1988 when a banana struck Mark Walters on the head at Tynecastle. Indeed, the cumulative effect means that if the chants are properly disgusting now, they’d sound even worse next year and more vile still the year after that, because, well, aren’t we supposed to be evolving as a species?
Probably Tapping was under no illusions about life in League 2. He will have known that glamour would be in short supply. This is the truth when Peterhead, the division leaders, are attracting crowds numbering 554, as they did at the weekend. The truth about crowds of 554 – “three men and a dog” as they used to be called, with fondness – is that the players can hear all of the encouragement and all of the criticism. The pond-life who abused Tapping knew what they were doing, knew they’d be heard – by their target and also by others in the ground. Still Tapping was shocked, as he had every right to be.
Twenty-six years ago, Tynecastle was a bit busier. Not being a supporter of Hearts or Rangers, I was there because the latter under Graeme Souness were unveiling a fancy-dan new signing just about every week, of which Walters was the latest. I saw the fruit being hurled at the winger – you couldn’t miss what a newspaper report called a “deluge”. But if you did, Archie MacPherson held up a banana on that night’s Sportscene. MacPherson’s solemn pronouncements on the state of our game were required viewing, not least this one. He said the scenes “made him ashamed to be Scottish”.
But back then you could still hear excuses. Yes, the abuse was vile but those responsible didn’t know any better. This was not a multicultural land. Apart from Chinese restaurateurs and Asian shopkeepers, the culprits only knew a white Scotland. If they were more familiar with all the colours of the rainbow then they’d become more tolerant.
What happened? Black players continued to be targeted, among them Paul Elliott, Bobo Balde, Ian Wright, Kevin Harper and Momo Sylla. Celtic fans would shower love on their black players and horribleness on the black players of Rangers – and Rangers fans would do likewise. What a weird, warped place. But, slowly but surely, it was becoming a less white one than previously, so where was evidence of the education, the enlightenment?
Two years ago, with England being rocked by the cases involving Luis Suarez and John Terry, anti-racism campaigners north of the border recalled the Walters incident, labelled it one of the worst seen in Scottish football given what the player had to endure – and enthused about the “progress” that had been made. Now, Scotland doesn’t have the problems of Italy or eastern Europe and never has had, but can we really talk of progress when players such as Jordan Tapping continue to suffer?
You cannot measure these things and say one incident is worse than another. When it comes to racism, bad is bad. And the abuse suffered by Tapping is no less bad than what happened to Walters just because the crowd was 554, TV wasn’t present and Archie wasn’t available for a sermon. And, as I say, the fact it’s happened now – when we are more multi-cultural and when we’re happy to be served coffee by Australians, employ Polish jacks-of-all-trades for our home improvements and have people of any nationality clean trains of our empty beer cans because we don’t fancy doing the job ourselves – arguably makes it worse.
Last year I interviewed Kevin Harper, Scotland’s most prominent black player of the 1990s who desperately wanted to become the first in the modern era to represent his country but that didn’t quite happen. A victim of abuse playing football in the street in Glasgow’s Possilpark and all the way up to an Edinburgh derby, he said he was pleased racism in the Scottish game is now treated more seriously.
But he was surprised and not a little dismayed that the country’s greater ethnic mix hasn’t been matched by more homegrown black and Asian players featuring with our top clubs Tapping doesn’t play at the top level, at least not yet. Just 554 fans, remember. The upside of such a modest crowd, however, is that among the Peterhead support most will know each other so it shouldn’t take too long for the culprits of Saturday’s taunts to be identified and punished. As long as the decent fans regard the abuse as a serious problem worth stamping out, that is.
As far as young Jordan is concerned, you’ve got to hope he gets over it.
On Twitter last night, messages of support were piling up. “Heard what happened mate – disgusting,” was typical, and another one went: “As a lifelong Peterhead fan I can only apologise for what u had to endure.”