Award-winning study of race, ethnicity and identity in English football

Mattias Melkersson
Dept. of Sport Sciences, Malmö University


Paul Ian Campbell
Football, Ethnicity and Community: The Life of an African-Caribbean Football Club
271 pages, paperback.
Bern: Peter Lang Publishing Group 2016 (Sport, History and Culture)
ISBN 978-3-0343-1905-8

Paul Ian Campbell’s new book is a significant contribution to the body of literature and research regarding BAME (Black Asian and Minority Ethnic) in a British context. Furthermore, the book contributes with vital insights into and reflections over challenges and socially adopted norms regarding race, ethnicity, identity and the exclusion and inclusion of “the others”. The football sphere are certainly, both through history and nowadays, struggling with the ugly faces of racism, discrimination and prejudices.

Campbell’s intention is to examine an intertwined relationship between identity, inclusion and exclusion by investigating the football club Meadebrook Cavaliers. The author argues that clubs such as the Meadebrook Cavaliers have had a significant and important role in diversifying British football. The Meadebrook Cavaliers club is situated in Leicester, England, and was initially formed by young men who were the children of African-Caribbean immigrant workers in the 1970s. The club quickly became a symbol of a local embedded identity and gained societal significance. This was achieved by offering a venue almost exclusively for individuals with African-Caribbean heritage, but also through various community projects of inclusion and cohesion. In order to investigate the Meadebrook Cavaliers club’s experienced, affected and lived settings, Campbell uses an intertwined historical and sociological perspective. The aims were to examine the club’s social and physical challenges, issues, and settings over time, starting from the mid-1970s up until today.

The author uses ethnographic methodology to aquire empirical data for his research. This approach encourages the researcher to a close and involved relationship with the examined subject. Campbell’s relationship to the club took the form of an inside perspective as he became a Meadebrook Cavaliers player and coach, and he got involved administratively. By doing this, he obtained, and became affected by, preconceptions of the investigated setting. He found that an inside perspective would give him access to information and an openness that he would not have been able to acquire from the outside. The author argues for both advantages and disadvantages with an inside and an outside perspective, respectively, in a reflective yet convincing manner.

The excellent way in which Campbell carries out these reflections both highlights and problematizes the nature of ethnographic research. Hence, a strength od the book is Campbell’s ability to involve the reader in a deep reflective thought process which makes the reader both engaged and wiser regarding the topic at hand.

Identity in relation to race and ethnicity is a multifaceted concept which both express who you are, as much as who you are not.

Another strength is Campbell’s ability to deliver a rich and nuanced contextual description from an historical perspective, which is cleverly accompanied with an imagery of contemporary society. For these contextual portrayals, the author mostly uses archives and secondary data together with a variety of interviews. The book is structured so that the author takes the reader on a time-travel through the Meadebrook Cavaliers Club’s both situated and on-field football endeavours whilst putting the club into its societal context over time. However, rather than following a chronological order (past to present), Campbell structures his narrative around specific themes (policies and norms, change, resistance, development, to name a few) and from there takes the reader along on his past-to-present journey. Possibly a matter of taste, but I would rather have had an overall linear and past-to-present journey depicted, as it would ease the reader’s comprehension of the Meadebrook Cavaliers’ challenges and endeavours over time.

However, Campbell provides an engaged and engaging contextual description from a historical perspective that conveys situated knowledge about a contemporary setting. The historical portrayal highlights commonly occurring norms and preconceptions that still exist in contemporary society (and football) regarding racism and discrimination. The research at hand discloses that individuals that are born British are yet still discriminated and perceived as “the others” in contemporary society based on the colour of their skin. As the Meadebrook Cavaliers initially emerged as a football club by, and for, African-Caribbean descendants, societal progression meant that the club had to re-negotiate its position (and identity) in the local community. The club’s intention changed from initially engaging black football players, due to historical racism in local and national football clubs which meant exclusion and mistreatment of non-white players, to becoming further engaged in the local community by embedding a local identity. The club’s adaptation to changes in the surrounding society also highlight coping strategies associated with racism, exclusion and discrimination.

Campbell’s most significant contribution is how he pinpoints that identity is a continuously changing and re-negotiated process which is affected by the environment and the specific time which the individual, club, or community is part of. Identity in relation to race and ethnicity is a multifaceted concept which both express who you are, as much as who you are not. In this regard, the Meadebrook Cavaliers club have both retained and developed its identity dependent on its situated contextual conditions. As the Meadebrook Cavaliers club was initiated in an era where racial discrimination hindered football participation, the club did manage, over the years, to not only offer a venue by engaging individuals in football, but consequently also generating cohesion and societal significance for both the local African-Caribbean community and the Meadebrook community as a whole.

Paul Ian Campbell’s book Football, Ethnicity and Community. The Life of an African-Caribbean Fotball Club, incidentally the winner of the British Sociological Association Philip Abrams Memorial Prize 2017, delivers important and spot-on reflections regarding race, ethnicity and identity by visualizing and analysing lived-through and experienced narratives and endeavours of individuals affiliated with the Meadebrook Cavaliers football club.

Copyright © Mattias Melkersson 2018

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