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Vince Hilaire: "I was 15...children screamed abuse at me"

1 April 2019

The East End twang in Vince Hilaire's voice rings out through tinny phone speakers in an echoey basement in a central London office.

It's unrestrained and energetic - dipping into politics here, diving into a story there and, throughout it all, projecting experiences of troubling, complex matters in a lively and passionate way.

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In fact, given the wearing nature of the constant racial abuse he and others endured throughout their career, it's a wonder that he can still discuss them in lively, passionate ways at all.

And though tinny speakers in an echoey office may not be the way to do justice to such an icon addressing such a topic, Hilaire spoke with fluency and insight on both events ranging from his playing days in the late 1970s to the current day - when he and other pioneers of the English game still have to suffer the experience of hearing yet another case of racial abuse stabbing at the sport they forged a name for themselves in.

Whether it's Raheem Sterling, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang or, closer to home, Palace's own Wilfried Zaha being targeted, it's clear that racial abuse still lingers as an uncured disease in the nation's favourite sport.

However, as Hilaire explains through recalling his own experiences, times have certainly changed, with racial abuse today being less common but - in the rarer occasion when it is heard - far more harmful than ever before.

"You could probably say most away games for black players like myself [in the 1970s], it would probably be three-quarters of the ground: monkey chants, Nazi salutes and general derogatory name calling whenever you received the ball.

"In my early days, it was the norm. To be honest with you, because of the time it basically didn’t bother you because you expected it. Thankfully, the majority of people over the years have been made aware that it’s not acceptable to use that sort of language by the people that have said: ‘no, I’m not having that because that hurts.’ 

"It was wrong then and it’s wrong now but 100 people laughing back then is not as bad as one person laughing now because those 100 people didn’t have the tools to say: ‘that is wrong’. They didn’t have the education if you like to actually sit back and go, ‘you know what? I’m not laughing at that.’ People now haven’t got the same excuse.

"What I’m trying to say is that one person throwing out racial abuse at a football ground now is worse than a thousand throwing it out back in the ‘70s."

It may be hard, however, for a modern fan to fully understand where the now-59-year-old develops such a stand-point from when Palace's former talisman delves into a little more detail as to what 'racist abuse' actually manifested itself as whilst he grew up playing the game he'd always shone at.

And his earliest recollection, it transpires, comes from when he was just 15-years-old - being targeted even by children as he played innocuously for Crystal Palace's reserves when "three or four children all under the age of 11 screamed abuse," Hilaire being only four years their senior.

"I must say," he elaborated, "it did affect me and I was shocked and surprised by it, it was only stuff I’d ever heard before on the TV or the very, very odd moment at school. You saw that sort of stuff scribbled on walls with a few right-wing parties that weren’t scared to express their views in one way or another but I was very surprised."

Another time, while playing for San Jose Earthquakes in California, Hilaire was enjoying a late-night drive in a new car trying to get his bearings for the city having only moved in that day. Stopping at a set of traffic lights "a little bit lost", he wound down his window to ask two women in the car next to him for directions.

Upon saying 'excuse me', however, the women looked "in the most horrified manner you've ever seen and put their foot down, going straight through a red light."

Today, though, Hilaire is able to look back on such experiences from a new perspective. One thing he would continue to return to throughout his interview is the need for wider education, saying: "An ignorant person can be changed, a racist person cannot. Luckily for people in this country, there are more ignorant people than racist people and that’s a fact. That is an absolute fact.

"You can’t have kids growing up in the world now thinking that anything other than a player playing in a different coloured shirt does not deserve their support. But if they’ve got a different colour skin, that has got absolutely nothing to do with it.

"If someone’s a dirty player, he’s a dirty player. A dirty black player is not relevant. A skilful player is a skilful player, they’re not ‘a skilful black player’. You don’t define people by the colour of their skin or what religion they are, you define them as a person."

It's a message Hilaire and the entire league will be keen for the national game to remember over the next week, as the Premier League launched their No Room for Racism campaign, demonstrating their continued commitment to equality and diversity and using the power and popularity of the league to oppose racism in football.

This is an initiative that Crystal Palace wholeheartedly supports - as a club situated in the heart of south London, a wonderfully diverse community surrounds Selhurst Park, and that is one of the many reasons that make this club so special.

Everyone attending or taking part in a football match has the right to feel safe, valued and included and we encourage supporters to continue to play their part in this. If you witness racist behaviour at a match or around a stadium, please report it to the police or a steward. You can also report racism by using the Kick It Out reporting app or website - alternatively, report anti-social behaviour by texting Palace's designated number on: 07507 477 669.

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