England reporter notebook: How emotional England dealt with racism in Bulgaria
By Rob Dorsett in Sofia
Last Updated: 02/12/19 4:01pm
Sky Sports News reporter Rob Dorsett reflects on an emotional and angry evening in Sofia, following racist chanting in England’s Euro 2020 qualifier against Bulgaria.
There was an air of hostility around the Vasil Levski Stadium, even several hours before kick-off, as the giant armoured vehicle wielding a water cannon rolled onto site, flanked by scores of Bulgarian police officers in riot gear.
But throughout the entirety of the disturbing events that followed, those police officers remained encamped and unused in the service tunnel, alongside the stand that housed the 3,500 England fans.
And yet, at the other end of the stadium, scores of individuals were launching volleys of racist abuse from the home end directed towards England's black players.
We were in the main stand, along with all the English and Bulgarian media, to the side of the England fans, who were as vocal as ever. That meant that none of the media could really hear what was emanating from the two sections of Bulgarian supporters away to our right, and directly opposite us on the other side of the stadium.
Large sections of the stadium were empty - partly because UEFA ordered a partial closure as punishment for racist abuse from Bulgarian supporters during both of their international matches in June - and partly because many tickets were simply un-sold as a result of the malaise in Bulgarian football that has seen them winless in the whole of 2019.
I first became aware that there was some hostility from the stands towards England's black players after about 15 minutes of the game. But, because of the vocal England support, I could not hear anything specific.
So I decided I needed to get over to the Bulgarian fans on the other side of the stadium. I and producer Tom Driscoll were the only media over there.
Within a minute of us sitting down on a bench next to the fire officer, I heard monkey chants coming from behind me. It was a handful of voices in unison, not widespread, but very clear.
Throughout the next 10 minutes I heard another six incidents of monkey chants - they came from various small pockets of Bulgarian supporters in the stand immediately behind me, whenever Tyrone Mings or Marcus Rashford touched the ball.
Then, I heard 'Hey, monkey!' shouted loud and repeatedly from somewhere away to our left. Mings - making his England debut - seemed to be the primary target.
Following the tannoy warnings and the half-time interval, the abuse on that side of the stadium became more infrequent, but it was still there, with Raheem Sterling the focus of the bile, with him now operating down that right wing.
And when Jadon Sancho came on as a substitute - loud monkey chants again.
Midway through the second half I made my way round the other side of the stadium, to the tunnel area, where FA chairman Greg Clarke and technical director Les Reed had come down from the stands to offer their support. Discussions were constant, involving them, the FA's head of security, UK police and UEFA delegates.
At this stage, an official told me that around 50 far-right extremists dressed all in black had been ejected from the section of Bulgarian supporters in the stadium to our right, and that specialist security teams were now in place to monitor that part of the crowd. Those security teams were not there in the first half, when TV pictures showed individuals making Nazi salutes.
I made my way over there and tried to film the crowd on my phone - whenever England scored, whenever a black England player touched the ball. I heard no more racist abuse but, now, that part of the crowd was being scrutinised and filmed by the specialist security teams and Bulgarian police.
The show of unity between the England team and the England supporters at the final whistle was emotional to see, as was the sight of the FA's media assistant, Zander Brown - a black man - in floods of tears at what he had seen and heard, finding some sort of solace in the reaction and the empathy of the travelling support.
Then, to the post-match tunnel interviews. I was made to wait much longer than usual - maybe 15 minutes after the final whistle - for reaction. Southgate and his players were taking stock, taking a breath, and planning what they wanted to say.
Nevertheless, the anger in Jordan Henderson's voice and face remained when he spoke to me over an hour after the final whistle.
He explained the confrontation he'd had pitch-side in the first half with Bulgaria's head coach, Krasimir Balakov, who had told the England man he had not heard any racist abuse.
Henderson was incensed. He demanded the Bulgarian coach apologise now and said his response was "disgraceful".
As for Southgate - there were tears in his eyes when he spoke to me.
He seemed to be grappling with the thought of whether he had done enough to prepare and protect his players. He is like a father-figure to many of them, especially the youngsters he has nurtured since his time in charge of the U21s.
It was the same face I saw in Montenegro in March when England's players were first subjected to racist abuse on Southgate's watch.
Yes, he said, they discussed walking off, when the second stoppage and tannoy announcement took place. He asked the players what they wanted to do - they said they wanted to play on until half-time, so he agreed.
It is what they had discussed at St George's Park last week, deliberating over what to do in the event of any racist abuse in the future. A plan had been laid out to ensure a united front and solidarity. Had any one player said they did not want to go back out for the second half, I understand the whole team would have refused to continue.
After the game all of England's support staff looked stunned. Or angry. Or upset. Or all three. But all of them seemed more united than ever and unanimous in their praise of the way the players had behaved.
Henderson told me the team decided they wanted to "punish" Bulgaria by being professional, ruthless, and by scoring as many as possible.
All eyes now turn to UEFA to see if they can finally produce a "punishment" which befits the crime.