Les Napsack is a former professional footballer who played as a left-back for a string of mid-table clubs throughout the 80s and 90s. He represented England 12 times, mainly as a substitute. After retiring in 1996, he moved to Spain to open an Irish bar and now spends his days curating karaoke competitions and concentrating on his art projects (which have variously been described as “inspired”, “courageous” and “baffling”). He has kindly given permission for some passages from his autobiography to be reprinted here.
This week, Les gives his thoughts on racism and player abuse in the game.
Racism has always been a serious matter in football, especially during my playing days. But the players’ attitudes towards the issue were not always as black and white as you might think (pun intended). Everybody remembers the story of John Barnes causing a stir at a Liverpool fancy dress party by turning up in a Ku Klux Klan outfit as a joke, but what is usually forgotten is that the Liverpool players weren’t the brightest bulbs in the box and thought Barnes was a legitimate racist. He was shunned by his team-mates and forced to train with the youth team for 3 weeks. That’s a good example of how humour often doesn’t translate across racial boundaries (the exception being Eddie Murphy’s ‘Norbit’, which sits easily in my top 5 favourite films).
Throughout my career I’m proud to say I never had to resort to using racist slurs. I much preferred to break down the opposition through good old-fashioned psychological manipulation. Sometimes I’d even use this on my own team-mates. I’ll never forget the time I suggested to the gaffer that we play a new game I’d come up with called ‘Last Man Standing’. I asked the rest of the defenders to form a line whilst I attempted to dribble around each of them. Anyone who didn’t slip as they tried to stop me could give me a right kicking at the end, but if they all went down then I’d get to dish it out to them. The other players readily agreed (after all I was about as mobile as a tank and hadn’t been on a decent run in my life). Little did they know I’d come in early that morning and loosened the studs on each of their boots. I left training that day with 3 teeth that weren’t mine and a place in the first team for the following week. But more importantly, I’d won the respect of my fellow professionals.
Of course, you’d never get away with that these days. Most modern football boots have non-removable blades instead of studs. I’d like to think I played a small part in that.
‘Call Me Les’ is out now in all good bookshops, with a foreword by Andy Townsend.