The disturbing video footage that has emerged of football fans chanting sexist abuse at Chelsea club doctor Eva Carneiro has prompted the sports minister, Helen Grant, to lend her voice to demands that the sport does more to eradicate “the scourge of bigotry and discrimination".
The BBC broadcast clips of Manchester United and Manchester City fans inviting Carneiro to get her “t*** out for the lads” and other specific contortions, and few clubs could claim they are free of similar injunctions to females who happen to be in the vicinity of a football ground.
She has also been quick to speak to a “senior representative” of Chelsea about the much-publicised racism incident in Paris recently and heartily applauds the initiative of the public in filming and reporting these events.
“I think it is a very good development and that is how we will tackle the scourge of bigotry and discrimination,” she said. “It means people are no longer prepared to stand by and listen to abuse. Racism is abhorrent and inexcusable. For the person on the receiving end, it’s awful. It makes people feel so bad. So for all those reasons we’ve got to have a complete zero tolerance approach. If the public are saying ‘We don’t like it’, we’ll get rid of it.”
There is a tremendous opportunity for the Premier League and clubs to significantly increase the investment that goes further down the pyramid...and most definitely women’s football.
She is wearing blue, she is in pearls and she is a Tory, but there her resemblance to Margaret Thatcher probably ends. The 53-year-old MP for Maidstone and the Weald in Kent is the Conservative party’s first black female MP, and her intolerance of discrimination in sport goes deep. For personal as well as political reasons.
She was racially abused as a young girl growing up on a council estate in Carlisle. “It was upsetting. I used to get into fights when people hit me. I’d respond or run away. It makes you feel very bad. Now, as a grown woman with confidence and self-esteem as a result of my sport and a really great family, you deal with it in a different way.
“Sport, because I was good at it, gave me confidence. When I started to run, I felt free. I could think. I was the best and it was lovely winning competitions. I got involved with judo to a pretty high level and then represented my county at hockey, tennis, athletics and cross country. I understand what it does for people, what it does for society.”
But there’s an election coming up and after 17 months in the job, she - like every other minister in the coalition - may have the employment security of a relegation-threatened manager in the Premier League. For the record, she’d like to stick at it. “I’ve got the best job in government and I would dearly love to continue to do the work I’ve started.”
That work includes meaningful support for women’s sport, and with regard to women’s football she is eyeing the £5.16 billion the Premier League has just received for the latest round of television rights. “That means as far as I’m concerned that there is a tremendous opportunity for the Premier League and clubs to significantly increase the investment that goes further down the pyramid of football to the lower levels, communities, grassroots and supporters. And most definitely women’s football.
Chelsea club doctor Eva Caneiro has been subjected to sexist abuse
“I had the privilege of meeting our women’s England team when they played Germany at Wembley last year. It was packed and the standard of play was superb. Clearly there is a real desire to watch women’s football and women’s sport. We need to invest in it and this is something I have already mentioned to Richard Scudamore fairly recently. I will certainly be having a conversation with him about a number of issues before parliament dissolves.”
Maybe one of those things will be a discussion about why Manchester United, the world’s greatest football brand, has no women’s team. “I’ve been a supporter of Manchester United all my life, ever since I saw Georgie Best score a goal at Old Trafford. I have always been a big fan. They do very well with their men’s team and I think [regarding a women’s team]: why not?”
She says the same thing about the Sports Minister being elevated to Cabinet. “Of course it’s not my call. That’s one for the Prime Minister. But it cuts across so many government departments and goes to the heart of society.”
It could sound flimsily implausible: sport becoming a Cabinet position when its sole purpose often appears to be the provision of photo opportunities for portly MPs gravitating to gold medals like a heat-seeking missile, but this Labour-turned-Tory politician has a strong record of achieving her not inconsiderable aims. “I set myself a number of goals when I was 14-15. To become a lawyer, to find a good husband to marry and have a couple of children, God willing, and to have enough money for choice and provide for my family. Not millions and millions.
“I had years as a family lawyer, representing women who had suffered domestic violence and children who’d suffered abuse. I really did see life. I hated injustice and still do. I was brought up in a very strong matriarchal household. My mum was a nurse and a single mother. I was born in London and when I was 10 days old we moved to Carlisle to live with my grandma and great grandma. Dad was never around at all but I didn’t feel the loss. That was my life. I had these three strong women around me. They provided everything I needed. We lived on a council estate. There was a lot of deprivation. There were issues, but I had a happy childhood.
“I got in from school. Uniform hung up - not just flung on the floor. I was expected to do homework first then go out to play and do sport. That was it - no slacking.”
Black, female, sporty, from a council estate up North, once gainfully employed outside parliament and a non-believer in slacking, the House of Commons has never seen anything like it. She is certainly an antidote to the generalised picture of Tory Toffs. “No comment,” she says for the first and only time.
Grant is set to urge Premier League boss Richard Scudamore to increase investment in the women's game