Brendan Batson and the anti-racism campaign with which he has been so closely associated for the past 15 years has arguably been more responsible than anyone - or anything – for improving football’s once murky image.
He is also the first to admit that there is still plenty of work to do for the Kick It Out campaign, which is winning its battle to eradicate racist abuse from all levels of the game and increase the sport’s accessibility to minority groups – in playing and spectator capacities.
It has been a slow process, which started at the top and has filtered down the leagues with increasing momentum since its conception in 1993, when the Professional Footballers’ Association joined forces with the Campaign for Racial Equality.
Batson is in the best place to judge its effects. He says the attitude of supporters and players at the highest levels have changed markedly from when the campaign started and that the modern game is unrecognisable from the time when the former defender lined up alongside fellow pioneering black footballers, Laurie Cunningham and Cyrille Regis, at West Bromwich Albion in the late 1970s.
The social climate is also very different. The late 70s was a time dogged by political unrest marked by the burgeoning political involvement of the National Front, which later became usurped by what is now the BNP.
Batson remembers their supporters spreading racist literature outside football grounds. Such actions are incomprehensible today and would not be tolerated, but it makes the achievements of the ‘Three Degrees’, as the Regis-Batson-Cunningham trio were known, all the more noteworthy; while their abundant talents were cherished in the Smethwick End, the warmth they experienced at The Hawthorns was not reciprocated across the country.
Those are the experiences which inspired Batson to improve as a player and, subsequently, to embark on such a valuable crusade in his role with the PFA.
He said: “It is a tribute to the black players of my era who withstood abuse from fans and suffered because of a lack of response and action from the authorities.
“We thought it would be enough for us to play every week and then things would get better – but they didn’t. It really needed something to be done by the authorities so we got the campaign going and it has been fantastic.
“I was not bitter that I endured racist abuse throughout my career, I was only disappointed that I didn’t think of doing something like this earlier.
Our work has had a huge impact on what was a real scar in the game.
“The overt racist abuse being thrown at black players from the terraces was appalling and the battle at the top level has been won – but our work is still very relevant now.”
While the battle on the terraces has been won, the war is still very much on-going in the lower echelons of the game and that is where events like the Grass Roots Football show at the NEC this weekend can help spread Kick It Out’s various positive messages.
Batson will be holding two seminars in a bid to highlight opportunities to coaches from black and ethnic minorities.
He added: “The initial thing [when the campaign started] was to silence tribal spectators and drive them away from stadiums because they were not nice places for minority groups to visit.
“That was the first objective. But now there are other issues that have to be addressed, like the lack of managers and coaches from minority groups and the number of supporters at games.”
Batson is in no doubt that both those points are as a direct result of the insidious environment that existed in football when he was a player. He added: “It is down to the legacy created when the black players came to the fore and endured overt racism.
“If you talk to black supporters around those times they were being attacked by sections of their own fans. Stadiums were not welcoming places and that is still going to take a long time to eradicate.
“The Grass Roots show deals with issues much broader than racism. It is about increasing awareness and addressing the problems at lower levels of the game.
“We want to see more kids from the grass roots getting into the elite end of the sport."