Cabinet minister defends freedom of expression after football fans boo BLM taking of knee

Video report by ITV News Correspondent Paul Davies

Players should be free to express their views as they wish and be respected after Millwall and Colchester fans booed their own teams taking a knee on Saturday, a Cabinet minister has said.

The long-awaited return of supporters was overshadowed by incidents that took place pre-match at The Den and the JobServe Community Stadium.

Supporters were back at Millwall for the first time since February 29, with London placed in tier two of the current system of coronavirus restrictions, but it was the actions of some spectators which took centre stage ahead of the 3pm kick-off against Derby.

Some of the 2,000 home fans at The Den booed when players from both sides took a knee before the Sky Bet Championship match, which the visitors won 1-0.

It was a similar story later in the day when Colchester hosted Grimsby in League Two in front of close to 1,000 spectators.

When both sets of players decided to take a knee in support of the Black Lives Matter movement before the encounter got under way, a small number of the crowd were heard booing.

When shown the clip during an interview on Sky News's Sophy Ridge on Sunday programme, Environment Secretary George Eustice said: “There has been problems obviously with racism in football in the past. It is right that that is called out and challenged when we see it.

“It doesn’t have any place in society today and if people choose to express their view in a particular way that should always be respected.”

He added: “I know obviously the issue of race and racial discrimination is something that we all take very, very seriously.

“My personal view is that Black Lives Matter – capital B, L and M – is actually a political movement that is different to what most of us believe in, which is standing up for racial equality.

“Each individual can take their own choices about how they reflect this and I know a number of people feel quite strongly and have taken that approach.”

Environment Secretary George Eustice said racism in football 'should be challenged when we see it'. Credit: ITV News

It was later clarified that Mr Eustice meant players should be able to express their views in the fight against racism and was not suggesting fans who booed the teams taking a knee should be respected.

Millwall posted a statement on Sunday morning and revealed they wanted to use this moment as a catalyst for more rapid solutions.

It read: “Millwall Football Club was dismayed and saddened by events which marred Saturday’s game against Derby County at The Den.

“The club has worked tirelessly in recent months to prepare for the return of supporters and what should have been a positive and exciting occasion was completely overshadowed, much to the immense disappointment and upset of those who have contributed to those efforts.

“The impact of such incidents is felt not just by the players and management, but by those who work throughout the club and in its Academy and Community Trust, where so many staff and volunteers continue passionate endeavours to enhance Millwall’s reputation day after day, year after year.

“The club will not allow their fine work to be in vain. The players are continuing to use the biggest platform they have to support the drive for change, not just in football but in society generally.

“There is much work to be done and at Millwall everyone is committed to doing all that is possible, both individually and collectively, to be a force for good and to ensure that the club remains at the forefront of football’s anti-discrimination efforts.

“Over the coming days, club, Academy and Community Trust staff will meet with Kick It Out and representatives from other appropriate bodies in an attempt to use Saturday’s events as a catalyst for more rapid solutions which have an impact both in the short and long-term.”

Millwall were at home to Derby on Saturday. Credit: PA

Millwall manager Gary Rowett, who saw Jason Knight grab Derby’s winner, expressed his disappointment on Saturday but said his players were concerned that taking the knee was in danger of becoming an “empty” gesture.

He said: “The players have released a statement together and said they don’t support it (taking the knee) as a political message but support anti-discrimination.

“Moving forward, like a lot of clubs, they would prefer not to take the knee and actually enact change.

“They want to be proactive rather than it being a gesture which a lot of clubs are now saying is perhaps empty.”

Saturday saw the return of fans to stadia in tiers 1 and 2 in England. Credit: PA

Kick It Out chair Sanjay Bhandari admitted he was “saddened” by the behaviour of fans at Millwall.

In a statement he said: “We urge the players to continue using their platforms and their voices to support this fight.

“We applaud the players of Millwall and Derby for taking a stand and defying the hate shown by some fans today.”

The Football Association also condemned the behaviour of the fans at The Den in a statement published before Colchester’s game with Grimsby started.

It read: “The FA supports all players and staff that wish to take a stand against discrimination in a respectful manner, which includes taking of the knee, and strongly condemns the behaviours of any spectators that actively voice their opposition to such activities.”

A statement from the English Football League said: “Discrimination in any form is not welcome and we remain committed to working with our clubs, including Millwall who undertake a significant amount of work on equality and inclusion initiatives, as we continue with our collective objective to eradicate all types of prejudiced behaviour, ensuring the EFL is an inclusive and diverse environment for all.”

Callum Harriott’s 56th-minute winner earned Colchester a 2-1 victory over Grimsby, but the attacker was left frustrated by the action of some U’s fans.

He said on Twitter: “Absolutely disappointed today! Before kick-off taking the kneel in support of Black Lives Matter and hearing our crowd is BOOING. Ridiculous @ColU_Official.”

A statement from the League Two club read: “Colchester United are fully behind any and all of our players and staff who take a stand against any form of discrimination in football, sport and life.

“We also condemn the behaviours of any supporters that actively voice opposition to those activities.”