Gary Bennett MBE: “Sunderland football club is my life”

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“I sat down the other day and said to my wife, ‘To get awarded an MBE, from where I’ve come from, who would’ve thought that?’ I’ve been lucky enough to play football, and sign autographs, and run out in a red and white shirt. I’ve had a very privileged life.”

Gary MBE is sat in front of a shirt signed by the entire Sunderland squad, emblazoned with ‘Benno 60’. In the last six weeks, he’s turned 60 and been awarded an MBE for services to anti-racism in football. While many professional footballers, especially those who had a career as long and illustrious as Bennett, might be seen to have peaked during their playing careers, this clearly isn’t the case for this Sunderland legend.

Legend is an oft overused and abused word in modern vernacular, which risks devaluing quite what a Sunderland legend is. After joining in 1984, made the fifth-most appearances of any Sunderland player, captaining the side for five years and seeing them from the old First Division, down to the Third Division, and back up to the top flight again in 11 ½ years at the club. He played in an FA Cup Final, a League Cup Final and a Playoff final and finished his time at Roker Park with a testimonial against Rangers.

Manchester born and bred, started his career with his hometown club, “I was lucky enough to start off at my local club, which was Manchester City. Unfortunately I got released on a free transfer and had to go to Cardiff, and learned my trade there for three years. Then I got my move to Sunderland.” Luck is something which mentions time and again throughout our interview, which may seem surprising for someone who’s had his career.

I became the black player who represented Sunderland

But this wasn’t the life that a black kid born in early ‘60s Manchester could grow up to expect: “Now every team has a black player, or a foreign player, playing in their team. If you go back to when I was breaking through in the ‘80s, my brother played for Man City, but there weren’t many clubs who had black players. I was lucky enough to start my career at Man City, we five or six black players there. We had myself, my brother Dave, Alex Williams – maybe one of the first black goalkeepers to play Premier Division football, Clive Wilson, Roger Palmer. But there were some clubs who didn’t have a black player at the football club. That was something that went on for numerous years.”

This disparity became very clear for when he followed Cardiff manager, and one of the few people to have made more appearances for Sunderland than him, Len Ashurst, to the North East: “The biggest hurdle was obviously being a black player playing for Sunderland back in 1984. There had only been one black player there before, a lad called Roly Gregoire, who played about half-a-dozen games. Besides that, I became the black player who represented Sunderland.”

talks about the New Year’s Day derby game against Newcastle in 1985 as a particularly significant example of the challenges faced by black players in this period. Facing constant abuse throughout the game, himself and fellow black Sunderland player Howard Gayle were sent off. It’s this tie that credits with inspiring Newcastle fan Ged Grebby to say, “well, we need to do something about this”. Grebby went on to set up anti-racism campaign Show Racism the Red Card in 1996. One of its founding patrons? Gary Bennett.

(Image: Tom Elliot)

It’s been 25 years and is still heavily in involved in Show Racism the Red Card. Despite all this work, he’s still sceptical as to the progress made fighting racism, in football and in wider society. “I used to say we’d made giant strides, but for every two steps we take, we take three backwards. We’ve been talking about racism for 25, 30 years, and it’s still going on. It’s in a different way now, because we’ve got social media. When we started the campaign, we didn’t have people who could sit at home, behind a screen, and just push a button. No doubt we’ll have a lot of it again this weekend, we’ll have players who will be racially abused on social media. It’s something we’re still challenging, we’re still tackling. It’s important that we continue the fight.”

’s solution to this problem is twofold. Firstly, he explains, “Social media should be accountable now. They know and understand and see what’s being put up and what’s not being put up. There’s time that they can stop what’s going up on their page. You push that button and it goes worldwide – it’s not just to friends. They need to be accountable.”

You’ve got to be in the North East to actually understand what football is

“When we talk about FIFA, or the FA, or UEFA, especially when it’s happening in football clubs, at football grounds, fining football clubs or players now, does that make any dent in what they’re doing? Fining a player £10,000 or banning them for two games, it’s not going to do anything.”

Alongside this, he talks a lot about education. “By educating yourself we build up the strength to challenge people, and ask questions why. Why the first thing you see is the colour of somebody’s skin, or their nationality, or their religion, or their culture?” “Look at the Suarez/Evra case, or the Cavani case. Sometimes when we talk about terminology in some countries, they don’t see it as a racist tone, that’s something where we need to educate foreign players. What they use as a normal word, may be a racist word in our country, or vice versa.”

Having spent the best part of his adult life fighting racism, is still incredibly tolerant and understanding in how he deals with it. “What we’ve got to be careful with, if someone uses a racist word – are they racist? I don’t think they are. If you’re in a household, and you’re hearing something on a constant, daily basis – let’s say a certain word, you grow up believing that’s the right word to use to describe something or somebody. If somebody does use a racist word, you have to turn around and question it, ask why? And they might say they thought it was the right word to use.”

Since he moved to Sunderland nearly forty years ago, has become something of a naturalised Mackem. Football in the North East has defined his life, and it’s something he still plays a huge part in today. Alongside his role as a matchday co-commentator at Sunderland, he’s also been head coach of the five teams at the University of Sunderland for the last 15 years, overseeing success at all levels.

He’s also set up his own coaching company, Back2Basics, with another player who made the North East their second home, former Sunderland and Middlesbrough fullback Julio Arca. The company does everything, “coaching not just young people, but adults, teams, individuals, all the aspects, the mentoring side, understanding the game, the fitness side of it, the technical side of it.”

By educating yourself, we build up the strength to challenge people

As someone who spends his life involved in it, he knows exactly what football means to people in the North East: “I don’t know where you want to put it – it’s in the top three, put it that way. It’s either before your wife, girlfriend, boyfriend – is it before you eat? Before you drink? You’ve got to actually be in the North East to understand what football is, what it means to this area. No matter where you go, what industry you’re in, there’s only one thing you talk about – football. You’re either black and white, or red and white, there’s no inbetween.”

“That’s how you’re brought up and that’s what football means to people in the North East – it’s their life, it’s what they live for, what they work for, they’ll travel miles to watch their team and they’ll find the funds to do it. Once you’re in the North East you get that mentality and before you know it you’re part and parcel of what the North East is, and what football is. It’s 24 hours a day, seven days a week – whatever you do, wherever you go, football is a number one topic. It’s infectious.”

Whilst playing for Sunderland may have had its challenges for Bennett, he is in no doubt as to just how important the club has been, and is, for him. The club, and city, welcomed him and gave him his career, and he now seems set on spending a lifetime giving back to them.

“Sunderland football club is my life. I’ve got to thank Sunderland football club for a lot of things. Without them, I wouldn’t be where I am now. I’m a patron for Mind, I’m an ambassador for St Benedict’s Hospice, and I do a lot for the Sunderland soup kitchen as well. I try to put my hand in and help as much as I can, especially with the community.”

is clearly one of football’s good guys. He was awarded his MBE in the New Year’s Honours list for services to anti-racism in football. As with all of his charity and community work, he tells me “I wasn’t doing it to get pats on the back or get any accolades. I was doing it because it was something I believed in.”

Image: Ben Sutherland

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