In 2019, the official Palace programme spoke with Troy Townsend, Head of Development at Kick It Out, about educating the football world - from top to bottom - on discrimination in the game. Here, he explains why his job is more important than ever before.
In recent times, the football world has hung its collective head on a number of occasions.
A banana was thrown at Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in the north London derby. Raheem Sterling was the victim of vile, allegedly racist abuse whilst on the pitch at Stamford Bridge. Mohamed Salah was abused – allegedly targeting his faith – at West Ham United. That video of Millwall fans. And closer to home, Wilfried Zaha felt compelled to call out online trolls.
Kick it Out was born 25 years ago, founded by Lord Herman Ouseley. In his own words, "25-years ago football was not a nice place if you belonged to a minority group. Bringing about change has been a long haul." The organisation remains committed to working with all stakeholders in the game to eradicate discrimination of under-represented groups in the sport.
Troy Townsend was inspired to join the fight against discrimination by offering his services as a volunteer for Kick It Out back in 2011. During those early months, he kept the fact that he was father to Tottenham Hotspurs’ Andros Townsend a secret, and within months an opportunity arose for him to lead the company’s mentorship programme.
"I always felt like I wanted to give back – especially to help those who were in the same boat as me. Young lads who were talented, but without guidance or support – needing someone to help drive them forward. A lot of players from my local area coming through were from single-parent families and have had tough upbringings."
Townsend himself was a promising young footballer before being released by Palace’s Academy aged 16, but he would go on to become a part of the coaching set-up at renowned grassroots club Ridgeway Rovers and later set up his own academy, before coaching at non-league level to help develop several players into professional footballers.
This passion for nurturing talent - combined with empathy for, and mutual respect from, young men - made his move to Kick It Out a perfect transition.
Townsend now spends his days travelling up and down the country, hosting workshops and stimulating discussions at several Premier League and Football League clubs with young players, parents and staff discussing discrimination and delivering messages of equality.
"It starts with the player understanding themselves – for them to be the best version of themselves. Then it’s about having understanding of others around them, and then being aware of the current issues in the game. We encourage them to express themselves and articulate their thoughts and feelings in a changing room environment, reminding them that they are role models."
Staff regularly say issues that have been previously considered off-limits are discussed by players long after his sessions have finished, which fills Townsend with pride. "Put me in a room with young players and I’ll stay all day long. I don’t want to over talk – I want them to talk. It gives me the energy to carry on."
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One such topic he discusses with stakeholders is homophobia. There remains no openly gay player in the top levels of professional football in England. Townsend says: "About five years ago, I said I don’t think we’ll see an openly professional gay player in my lifetime. I’d love to be proved wrong. I would hope that attitudes change, and whilst there’s been a great shift – there is a way to go. There’s still so much hatred out there.
"We’ve let racism and homophobia linger in our game. The awareness is there - it’s on the agenda again, with a Parliamentary summit. But the proof will be in the pudding. We’re never going to eradicate it, but now is the time to meet these issues head on."
Whilst Townsend’s childhood dream of being a professional footballer is being lived to the fullest through his son, his own contribution to the game may be far greater than he ever could have imagined.
The fight against discrimination in the game that is supposed to unite us continues.
This feature first appeared in the Palace v Manchester United programme on 27th February 2019.