Mark Walters: Bananas, golf balls and darts were fired at me

Almost 30 years on, the images of Mark Walters' introduction to Scottish football remain vividly shocking.

Mark Walters returned to Ibrox  for a Show Racism the Red Card educational workshop with children from two local primary schools
Mark Walters returned to Ibrox for a Show Racism the Red Card educational workshop with children from two local primary schools

On 2 January, 1988, bananas were thrown at the winger when he made his Rangers debut at Celtic Park. Similar scenes occurred when he played at Tynecastle a fortnight later. Walters was 23 years old at the time. He was young, gifted and – unforgivably in the eyes of the morons who taunted him – black.

At the time, Walters was able to rise impressively above the racist abuse which came his way. Even at that stage of his life, he was hardened to something he had experienced ever since breaking into the Aston Villa youth side.

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He remained at Rangers for three and half years, paving the way for other high- profile black players to come to Scotland. Now a prominent anti-racism campaigner, Walters was back at Ibrox yesterday for a Show Racism the Red Card educational workshop with children from two local primary schools.

Walters has no doubt attitudes are generally far more enlightened than they were when he first came to Scotland. But the recent racist abuse directed towards Celtic winger Scott Sinclair, pictured below, in the Old Firm game at Ibrox, following which Rangers imposed indefinite bans on the supporters concerned, provided a depressing reminder that the issue is still some way short of being 
eradicated.

“We are still talking about it now, almost 30 years ago,” said Walters. “Rangers have always been at the forefront of those campaigns, making children aware of racism. It is disappointing I am still having to come here and do it but it has improved a lot since I was playing.

“The way forward is education. Football reflects society and society, rather than football, is the problem. Some people still think it is okay to shout racist or homophobic abuse and we have to make them realise it is unacceptable.

“My problems when I first came to Rangers were well documented but the club were fantastic and helped me get through it. I never had any problems in the street in Scotland. It was just at stadiums when I first came here. When the club got on to the authorities, I didn’t have any more problems with it.

“I had bananas, darts and golf balls thrown at me. I even remember a pig’s foot. I don’t know where that one came from. I had all manner of things thrown at me, but that was 30 years ago and it’s against the law to do it now. It wasn’t nice, but my drive was so high nothing would have stopped me from playing anyway, whatever they would have done I would have kept playing.

“It crossed my mind at times, whether I should stay at Rangers. When you’re seeing darts a metre from your feet and golf balls, you think: Is my health worth this, just for a game of football? Of course it crosses your mind. I didn’t want to be blinded but the club assured me they would do something about it and they did and I’m forever grateful to them for that. It was a fantastic experience coming up here.

“It wasn’t unusual for players to be abused verbally and have things thrown at them in England back then. My first experience of that was as a 15-year-old playing in the Villa youth team against Millwall, so these things in England were relatively common. It was something all black players had to accept at the time and, thankfully, it’s pretty much a thing of the past now.”

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That said, Walters was greatly dismayed by the re-emergence of racist behaviour directed towards Sinclair.

“It was very disappointing, I’m not going to lie,” he added. “Rangers fans treated me fantastically when I was here and still do. I believe the guy who was singled out on television making those gestures wasn’t even supposed to be at the game – he borrowed a season ticket from someone else, so who knows what his background is?

“Rangers were fantastic with me, not only in terms of helping me have a good career here but my family also enjoyed the experience of coming here. At Aston Villa, I didn’t let my family go to some of the games because I knew in certain matches I was going to be abused, so I’m forever grateful to Rangers for making my life here a lot easier than it could have been.

“At the time I was so single-minded and it was the way I’d been brought up – not only did I have to play as well as anyone else, but I had to play twice as well as anyone else because that’s the way things were, if you succumbed to it. Sulley Muntari walked off the field recently in Italy. Had I done that 30 years ago I would have been told I had a chip on my shoulder or didn’t have enough bottle to handle it. Things have come on tremendously well since my time. It’s not a nice thing to be abused – I don’t care who you are or how hardened you are – but, hopefully, now all the stuff that goes on, people know it’s illegal and they can’t do it any more. Football is a reflection of society and if racism isn’t happening in society in ten years’ time, then it won’t be happening in football.”