ANYONE who’s visited the Clove Hitch on Hope Street (two-word review: decent value) will no doubt have chuckled along at some amusing reading in the restaurant’s toilets.

In the men’s, and for all I know the ladies’, there’s a board on the wall full of ‘Big Ron-isms’, a riotous rundown of Ron Atkinson’s comedy quotes.

You know the kind of stuff old Ron came out with. Spotter’s badges, little Scholesy who can’t tackle, something about Carlton Palmer.

It’s a right hoot. Sadly though I think the board does a disservice to Big Ron’s broadcasting career, omitting as it does its defining moment – the one in which he described Marcel Desailly as ‘what is known in some schools as a fucking lazy thick nigger’.

Ron AtkinsonPerhaps they didn’t have room for that one.

I was reminded of the board, and of Atkinson’s comments, by the two much-discussed racism rows which have flared up in English football recently.

While we await the outcome of investigations into both John Terry and Luis Suarez, there’s much focus on who said what and how, whether YouTube clips of Terry incriminate or vindicate him, whether the apparent lack of any evidence in the Suarez case makes a ruling impossible to reach.

All diverting enough stuff, but in the end exactly that – a diversion. Like the Atkinson incident, like Busquets and Marcelo in el clasico last season, like Schmeichel and Wright in 1997, it becomes about personalities and rivalry, about bickering over process and accusations of bias in the disciplinary process and media coverage.

Amid the internecine battle between groups of supposedly rival fans far more alike than they would ever dare admit, it’s perhaps the worst time to discuss the actual mechanics of racism in English football.

I’ll add what seem like an obligatory few paragraphs here to say that the game in this country has changed for the better in many respects in recent decades.

That reflects changes in society as well as the vital work done by the likes of the Kick It Out campaign and figures such as Paul Elliott.

As the football-going demographic has altered so have many attitudes in the stands, with much credit also due to clubs cracking down hard on fans giving vent to racist attitudes. The huge influx of money and the moneyed in to the game has had an incidental yet significant effect.

It’s inconceivable now that Liverpool would tolerate the kind of racist graffiti around Anfield which shamed the club in the 1980s, or that Everton are White badges could be freely worn and distributed among sections of Blues fans.

It’s hard to argue that’s not an outward sign of progress, but deep down how much has really changed?

As a local newspaper journalist I sat through countless court cases involving racism. In the course of every hearing, without exception, a defence solicitor would claim at some point that while his client may have shouted ‘fuck off home you Paki bastard’ while kicking his victim into unconsciousness, he was by no means a racist. In fact, the court would be assured, he had many friends of different ethnic origins and simply could not explain why he used those words on the night in question.

This is the extreme end of a common problem in society – racists are pretty bad at self-diagnosis. Very few people believe they are racist, let alone face up to it. So when someone locks the car doors in a predominantly black area or tuts their way through a Daily Mail immigration scare story they’re pretty hopeless at recognising their own prejudices, still less acting on them.

Certain papersAnyway, there’s always someone else to blame – you’re pretty sure you read somewhere that 50 Cent says the n-word so doesn’t that make it alright? The politics of reclaiming slurs aside, there’s something absurd about a whole swathe of golf club middle Englanders proclaiming rappers they otherwise despise as linguistic arbiters. It’s still more ridiculous to appoint a few celebrities to represent all black men, women and children solely to satisfy your desire to establish that you’re ‘not racist, but…’

Football as a whole is wrestling with fundamental attitudes rooted in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It’s a comparatively young sport, at least in organised form, and collectively poor at recognising its deficiencies.

It took decades for any acceptance of racism as a problem in the game to be made. Even now it’s mainly seen in terms of black-white, with the failure of major clubs to nurture other ethnic minorities as players or fans barely addressed in the mainstream media.

Homophobia is still more problematic. The US army may have abandoned ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ but it effectively holds sway in our national game. Some way to the right of the American military on social issues doesn’t feel like the most healthy place to be.

A massive obstacle to dealing with any of these issues is the concentration on individual flare-ups at the expense of more considered analysis.

In a sense, whether Ron Atkinson is a racist or not is a side issue. The view he expressed, prefaced as it was by the revealing phrase ‘in some schools’, is no doubt shared by many in the game. That Atkinson was among the more enlightened managers of his era when it came to giving black players an opportunity, and yet could still use the n-word so casually, reflects how deep-rooted the problem was.

Superficial improvements have helped improve the game’s image. It’s much harder to detect if a tectonic shift has taken place beneath the surface, or if occasional visible flashpoints are indicative of an underlying, unresolved tension.

The easy answer in football and society is to focus on the personalities, the pantomime of it all, on who said what and whether this or that player or celebrity is or isn’t a racist.

Then we can complacently go back to our society where black people make up less than three per cent of the population but account for 15 per cent of those stopped by police, or where black graduates earn on average 24 per cent less than their white counterparts.

We can go back to enjoying a game where it remains inconceivable for a gay player to discuss a simple fact about their lives, where large sections of our communities still feel unwelcome at their local ground. Having reached a point where its image is sanitised the suspicion must be that the football establishment would quite like to keep it that way, with no real motivation to go beyond and tackle root causes.

In our society, as in our game, too many are ready to accept that everything’s alright now, that prejudice doesn’t really exist except in a few isolated pockets and the minds of some in the older generation. Tackling this lack of recognition of the breadth and depth of the issue is as important to football and Britain as a whole as punishing those who clearly transgress the laws of the game or the land.