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Saturday 10 December 2016

The special one from Coventry

Ireland's Christie has battled racism all his life but learned to brush it off

The Republic of Ireland’s Cyrus Christie during a press conference at the National Sports Campus in Abbotstown, Dublin. Pic: Sportsfile
The Republic of Ireland’s Cyrus Christie during a press conference at the National Sports Campus in Abbotstown, Dublin. Pic: Sportsfile

A kid growing up in Coventry not so long ago had two routes to success out of the city, football or music. Coventry City FC didn't always reach the heights but bands like The Specials did put the place on the map.

Sadly for Ireland defender Cyrus Christie as he was finding his way through life in that midlands city, racism was also a fact of life there and while the two-tone movement fought against prejudice, football was also a stage for racist thoughts and behaviour.

Christie took time out from Ireland's Euro 2016 preparations yesterday to outline his remarkable family background. Like the fact that his Irish eligibility was discovered by current Ireland coach Steve Guppy through a bizarre series of family links. Like the life and times of his uncle, Errol Christie, a very talented boxer in his day, a man who sparred with Muhammad Ali, and was active in street battles with skinheads.

"His experiences of fighting the National Front when he was younger, that's how he kind of went into it (boxing). It gave him a way out," says the defender.

Decades later, that hate borne from racism caught young Cyrus in its talons. "It was still quite racist at the time," he says.

"Where I went to school it was bang in the middle of two racist areas. There used to be a lot of race wars. A lot of people jumped in over the fences with knives and machetes. At one time someone tried to spray detergent in a lad's eye and tried to stab him to blind him. That's just the way it was. It did gradually get better as we went on. It is a lot better now. There's a lot more diversity.

"Where my school was, it was surrounded by BNP areas and it was quite bad up there. It was obviously quite worse in my uncle's time," Christie adds.

"I've had experiences when I was younger. There was a lot of racism back then, when I was younger, from opposition, that's even in the Sunday League. Some of the stuff they would say was a bit wrong.

"Back then there wasn't too many mixed teams about. When I got older, in the academy there was a lot of black lads. One time we played a team and it did kick off between the parents, someone calling someone the 'n' word, and she kept repeating it. I must have been 11 or 12 at that time. It did happen quite a lot but the older you get, it does lessen out a bit."

Almost four decades on from the occasion when Chris Hughton became the first black player to win an Ireland cap, some still feel the need to reach out to Christie because of the colour of his skin.

"I have had it sometimes on Twitter. People have said it, you kind of take it with a pinch of salt right now.

"The only other time I've had it is at Millwall, which is probably expected down at Millwall," he says.

"I've experienced it a couple of times down there, but you tend to switch off a bit when you're playing, so you wouldn't really hear it. You're concentrating on the ball, but on social media it does happen quite a bit because it does give certain people a platform to get away with it. You just take it in your stride, you take it with a pinch of salt.

"It doesn't really faze me too much. I wouldn't really respond to it. I just brush it off, to be honest. Sometimes you just have to brush it off. I think that's just how it is nowadays."

One of the batch of players in the Ireland squad who has yet to play top-flight football at club level, Christie has not been daunted by international football since he made the step up, once the FAI followed up on his eligibility.

"They obviously knew I was Irish and had played for Coventry at that time. It had been mentioned a couple of times with younger age groups but no one ever really followed up. You have to be patient and wait for it, it's come around in the end," he says.

Having played only a part in the qualifying campaign, Christie did, however, prove his value on the road to France and it was an achievement in itself for the Derby County man to win a place in the squad.

"It has been a breakthrough campaign for me," he reflects.

"I've five caps now and when I've been on, I think I've played well. For me, at the start of the campaign, I was coming in to try and prove what a player I am, what a good player I am and put thoughts in the manager's mind.

Impressed

"I think I've done that each time I've played. I had an opportunity against Belarus and the manager was very complimentary of me after the game when he spoke to me, he said I done really well," added Christie, aware that whatever about the manager, the assistant manager was not so impressed with those who played against Belarus.

"I haven't spoken to Roy. Have I avoided that? I'm not too sure. But the manager was complimentary of me which is always a positive sign. I think I did myself no harm in the build-up to the selection and thankfully I'm here now."

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