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Feature: A Level Playing Field

Almost two years ago, Mal Benning was subjected to unacceptable and inadmissible online abuse – an incident which set him on a path to stamp out racism as it encroaches on the game. But what more can be done to tackle the issue?

27 December 2021

Disgust, surprise, and anger. Just a snapshot of the emotions running through Mal Benning’s mind when he first opened up his mobile phone to see a message which included expletive and racially abusive language, directed towards the then-Mansfield Town defender.

Rewind to a decade-and-a-half ago. Following trials at Aston Villa, West Bromwich Albion and Birmingham City, he joined Walsall at Under-8s level and eventually made his breakthrough into the Saddlers’ first-team, inking professional terms in January 2013.

All the while, weighing on his mind was the pressure to succeed as he came through the West Midlands team’s academy.

“The older I got, I knew my chances to get into the youth team were getting greater,” he remembers. “My dad instilled in me from day one that I needed to be that 20% better than everyone else to get recognised. That’s stayed with me throughout my professional career.”

Benning, now 28 years of age, recalls two instances of discriminatory abuse as he made his way through the Saddlers’ ranks.

He was aged around 12 when he first experienced racial abuse on the pitch, which provoked him to storm off the field in a furious protest, unable to digest what he was hearing.

“At that time, there wasn’t much noise about it. Both instances, I got angry to the point where the manager took me off the pitch for everyone’s sake. It’s not on because I don’t want it to scar any other Asian players coming into the game.”

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It wasn’t until 15 years on, after signing for Mansfield in 2015 from Walsall, that it reared its head once more.

In January last year, he was scrolling through his social media feed after a training session when he came across a racially abusive tweet from an opposition supporter. Local police took matters into their own hands and investigated the incident, whilst the post was reported to social networking platform Twitter.

“I was taken aback when I first saw it,” he says. “I clicked on his profile and saw that he was a Chesterfield fan. The previous year, I scored the winner against them when I played for Mansfield. I thought about it in the sense of, yes, I scored a goal against your Club, and that put them in the relegation zone. It was a big rivalry, but at the same time, it’s football.”

With over 250 appearances under his belt for the Sky Bet League Two side, Benning – who was christened ‘Sir Mal’ by Mansfield supporters as a nod to his heroics in a Stags shirt – praised the role of the Club’s fanbase – with whom he had built up a rapport during his six-year stay at the One Call Stadium.

“Mansfield, at the time, were very good with me and made sure I was alright,” he adds. “I texted the media man at Mansfield and he said, ‘we’ll deal with it as a Club however you want us to’. I took it upon myself to make it publicly aware that it’s not on.

“I had a great relationship with the Mansfield fans. They loved me and I loved them back. When I made it public on social media, I got a great backing from them which I did throughout my whole career at Mansfield. The love and support from the fans did help when I was thinking that I was playing football to put smiles on fans’ faces.”

Highlighting the importance of educating the younger generation, he discovered that his perpetrator was just 13 years old; around the same age Benning was when he first witnessed racial abuse.

“I was disgusted because, at that age, you’re still learning about life, in a sense. He had a picture of a Chesterfield player, but he was able to write what he wanted to whoever he wanted, but I hope he learned about it.

“The way kids are brought up now, they’re brought up to know that every colour is the same and it’s an equal playing field. I felt that I had to be better just to make it as a professional footballer being from Asian descent. That’s one way it can help.”

Earlier in June, the defender – who made the switch from the Stags to Port Vale in the summer – was named on Kick It Out’s Advisory Board, as part of his mission to tackle discrimination head-on.

The EFL has continued to work with players, Clubs and authorities to combat discrimination in the game, releasing a League-wide anti-discrimination video in August as part of the Together Against Discrimination campaign, which encourages all in stadiums to call out abuse, report discrimination and to respect players and one another.

“More needs to be done,” Benning reaffirms. “The people that got involved with me were very good. Hopefully, it can be stamped out to a certain extent. The people that do it, they know that if they do it, players like myself are going to make it aware to everyone. They know it makes the game worse.

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“There’s been more racial abuse if anything in the last couple of years. We’ve been trying to get together and come up with ways that we can help because we can be there for players who do experience it, whilst at the same time, we’re working on initiatives to stamp it out as much as we can.

“Back in my Walsall days I played with Romaine Sawyers, and the fan that racially abused him at West Brom has gone to jail. We’re trying to come together as a Board to help people that do experience it and the punishments that go with it.”

Despite his own experiences of racial abuse, Benning is striving towards shaping a better future for football.

A role model in his own right, he hopes to inspire a new generation to take up the beautiful game, which could be even more beautiful without the threat of online and discriminatory abuse.

This feature originally appeared in the winter 2021 edition of the EFL Magazine.


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