By Nick Friend
Training has just finished at New Ferens Park and I find Olivier Bernard lying thoughtfully in the dugout. The former Newcastle left back’s thoughtful demeanour rarely changes as I quiz him about a variety of topics, from his role as chairman of Durham City Football Club to his work with to his time on loan at Darlington.
Over the next forty minutes, Bernard sparks into life when discussing his three main passions: football, the northeast and his anti-racism work.
Olivier’s association with the northeast goes all the way back to 2000 when he joined a Newcastle side managed by Sir Bobby Robson – a man he describes as “probably the best English manager ever.” He soon headed down the road to Darlington on loan – an experience that he calls “the best thing I’ve ever done.” It is clear even from this early stage of our chat that this man is sincerely grateful for the way in which the local community has accepted him over the past fourteen years.
Durham City FC – the Northern League club that he owns – is Bernard’s way of thanking the region.
“I love the northeast,” he starts out. “Part of me is trying to give back to the community and wanting to thank the community for what they’ve given me. I owe it to my life so far in the northeast to do this. I want to do this until I find some players who go on to play for big clubs.”
I know from listening to him that Olivier means every word. His exceptional English even has a Geordie twang to it. He deeply cares about northeast football and cannot fathom why there is such a lack of talent coming through the academies at Newcastle and Sunderland.
“The north-east is vast – it’s big. The Durham area is bigger than Newcastle and the fact that we don’t have more northeast talent is quite strange because the passion is there and with the right coaching, you would be able to get a lot more kids through to higher levels.” He is right. Only Yorkshire is bigger than Durham, Cumbria and Northumberland.
He is trying his best to change this. The plan is for Durham “to become a club for everyone from 6 years-old to senior level.” He says that he wants to “educate and train youngsters because it’s a fantastic game if you play it right.” Ultimately, though, Bernard’s primary aim at Durham City is the same as any owner.
“We’re all passionate about helping the club to progress. We need to establish ourselves as a force in the Northern league and then push forward. I think this year we have a good squad and if we can get promoted this year, then fantastic. But, I think that, without being too much of a dreamer, next year should be the one to really aim for promotion.”
At this moment, the disparity between Durham City and Newcastle means that despite his relationship with “the club that gave me so much”, the Premier League side are unwilling to loan young players to Bernard’s part-timers. His affection for his old club is boundless. He still writes a column, covering the club, for The Newcastle Chronicle.
“I’ll always be there for them. I spent some fantastic years at Newcastle – it was a really good era.” He is true to his word, telling me that he has helped the club’s many Frenchmen to settle into the area.
Whenever we talk about the club, there is a joviality about the office in which we are sat. During his five-year spell, Bernard reached a UEFA Cup semi-final, the Champions League second round and finished third in the Premier League. In one season of European football, he played against Xavi, Christian Vieri, Fabio Cannavaro, Javier Zanetti and “the best I’ve ever played against” in Alessandro del Piero. Hearing the Champions League song is, for him, both the highlight of his career but also a dream come true.
He is convinced that – injuries aside – Robson’s team would have claimed silverware. A semi-final UEFA Cup defeat at the Stade Vélodrome – with nine first-team players missing – was the closest they came. Their luck was so bad that, Bernard believes, “there must be a bit of a curse.”
Despite the misfortune, Olivier is hugely fond of his time at the club. He worked with his two footballing idols at St James’ Park in Sir Bobby Robson and the late Gary Speed, of whom he can’t speak highly enough.
When asked of the best he played with at the club, his response is instantaneous. Not Alan Shearer, not Laurent Robert, but Speed – a man who he describes as “a proper example for youngsters” and “top drawer in terms of professionalism.”
Robert, though, does get a mention as we recount an amusing incident at Leicester City a decade ago. Robert, whose left-foot was in Bernard’s words “really fantastic”, leathered a clearance into Bernard’s head – knocking him unconscious.
“I’ve watched it enough but I can’t remember exactly how it happened. It’s just a complete blackout. I did finish the game though! All I can remember is going back to the dressing room at half time and saying to the physio, ‘I’ve got a massive headache, you need to sort me out.’ He just said, ‘well you’ve been knocked out so I understand.’ I just said, ‘what do you mean?’ I couldn’t remember it happening at all. Even when I watch it, I can’t even picture it. That’s how bad it was.”
I now steer the conversation towards a more difficult topic. Bernard was forced to retire aged only 28. He calls it “a big shock and an awkward moment.” He had no degree or career to fall back on.
However, he then starts talking about one of his major passions. Quickly after his retirement, Olivier began to work with Show Racism the Red Card.
“It consists of going into schools and talking about this awkward topic of racism. It’s something that I’m passionate about because I’ve suffered from it as a player and more since I retired. People tend to forget who I am and you get treated at times like you’re a refugee or a homeless person. Then I tell people who I am and what I’ve done they click and change attitude. It shouldn’t matter though and that’s what we’re trying to explain through the campaign – that a black man that played for Newcastle and another black man should be treated the same, treated nicely – it doesn’t matter who they are.”
The more I listen to Olivier, the more I admire and respect everything about him. As he talks, it is clear that he has experienced the hurt and grief caused by racism.
He is generous in his praise of England’s “proactive” approach to the issue. Abroad, though, he is acutely aware of the problems that still exist – calling it a “taboo subject.”
“Before, everyone wanted to blank it out and not think about it but nowadays you can’t and there’s too much stuff happening and people know what racism is now. Before, people didn’t really know what it was. They thought that as long as you didn’t comment about my skin colour then it’s fine. But it’s not just about skin colour and a lot of people are now starting to realise that anybody can suffer from racism. You don’t just have to be black. Muslims get treated unfairly, gypsies get mistreated. It’s not just black people. You know, anybody can suffer from it. It is a difficult topic to talk about but we’re trying our best to make people understand that it’s not fair and that it shouldn’t happen.”
He is equally passionate in his criticism of FIFA’s lack of reaction, suggesting that they simply didn’t care.
“I definitely think FIFA didn’t take it seriously at first. People used to tell me that it was banter and to get on with it. If someone threw a banana at me, I was meant to just smile. It’s not like that. It’s deeper than that. When you hear the monkey noises, it’s deeper than just a song. It’s history. You’re attacking history and it’s slavery you’re talking about. People don’t realise that it’s a lot deeper than just a song. It’s the slavery that comes across. It is deeply painful.”
On Chris Samba and Kevin Prince-Boateng’s decisions to leave the pitch after being targeted, Bernard was philosophical, citing that it was “what they had to do at that moment.” The sense and honesty with which he speaks is unbelievably refreshing and belies his years.
For, despite the wisdom with which he talks and what he has achieved, Olivier Bernard is only 35 years-old. He has some of his coaching badges and plans to complete them in the next five years. His dream is to be coaching at a Premier League club – preferably his beloved Newcastle – within the next ten years. He believes that he owes them for “all that they gave me.”
Bernard’s loyalty is wonderful to hear, so rare is it nowadays to find a foreign player with such an emotional attachment to not just a club, but a whole region. His first spell at the club ended abruptly when Graeme Souness replaced him with Chelsea’s Celestine Babayaro. He moved on to join Rangers. Yet, he is eager to make clear that he never wanted to leave.
“Why would I leave?” he asks me. “I was playing week-in-week-out.” He would later re-join the club when Glenn Roeder replaced Souness as manager, claiming that he “signed back straight away as I never wanted to leave.”
The episode is typical of Bernard’s attitude and loyalty towards Newcastle and the northeast. He is totally committed to creating a link between the club and the University – perhaps even borrowing some players from Team Durham.
When this interview was set up, I didn’t know what to expect. Spending forty minutes with Olivier was an absolute pleasure. His stories of his times at Newcastle and what he achieved are, of course, fascinating. Yet, for me, what was so brilliant to hear was his feverish passion for the northeast in general and his absolute desire to stamp racism in our society.
Please get behind Durham City Football Club. The ground is a five-minute drive from Elvet Riverside. For Durham students to go and watch Durham City at New Ferens Park DH1 1GG, match tickets are only £6. DCAFC play their next home match on Tuesday 28th October against Annfield Plain at 19:30. Go to http://www.durhamcityafc.com/ for more details.
Photographs: Nick Friend, Nick Friend, Harry Savill, Durham City AFC