Look at this.
A powerful image to show football’s social conscience as all of the players take the knee.
The referee did as well.
Sky Sports’ long-serving commentator Rob Hawthorne was simply blown away – as were the millions upon millions watching live from around the world – by Aston Villa, Sheffield United and the Premier League’s match officials all taking the knee in protest against racism following the chilling death of George Perry Floyd Jr in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on May 25, 2020.
Dad-of-five Floyd, 46, was murdered by Derek Chauvin, the disgraced white Minneapolis police officer facing up to 40 years in prison, who pressed his knee to his neck for nine long minutes and 29 seconds while Floyd – defenceless and in clear distress – was handcuffed faced-down in the street as he pleaded for his life.
Just 10 days after Floyd’s death, Aston Villa’s Tyrone Mings attended the 4,000-strong Black Lives Matter march in Birmingham city centre. Mings, who wore a face covering with ‘Won’t Be Silenced’ etched across the fabric, said: “Nothing but energy and passion today. I make no apologies for standing up for what I believe in.”
Less than two weeks later, Mings and Villa would be behind the most striking moments in sporting history when those in claret and blue and Chris Wilder’s Sheffield United united as one against racial hatred and injustice as the Premier League returned to globe after a three-month lay-off due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Villa Park was where taking the knee all started as it continues to this day – and it was Mings who helped orchestrate such a powerful stand alongside his former Ipswich Town teammate David McGoldrick before kick-off on June 17, 2020.
“We wanted to make a point,” recalled McGoldrick, the 33-year-old Sheffield United and Republic of Ireland striker who came up with the idea. “No one was expecting it. We kept it quiet. The referee was told about it but not many people knew.
“We were the first game back after lockdown. We knew all eyes would be on the game. We knew everyone would be at home watching it in lockdown. I don’t think anything like that had been done before, just on the whistle to start the game.
“We wanted to make a stance and show we were united; 22 players on the pitch, the subs, people on the side, all doing it, to show we were altogether in saying no to racism.”
McGoldrick added: “A lot was going off in lockdown with the murder of George Floyd and the protests. Things had been brewing in football with racism before lockdown as well so, before the Aston Villa game, we all sat down, me and the captain Billy Sharp, the manager Chris Wilder and the chief executive Steve Bettis, and spoke about what we might do.
“The captains of the different clubs were in a WhatsApp group, speaking regularly about things to do with Project Restart and what they wanted to do with the ‘Black Lives Matter’ on the back of the shirts.
“This wasn’t about politics. It wasn’t about anything other than showing the players were together. All races, all backgrounds, all nationalities, all religions, all coming together to say no to racism. That was the main concept behind it.”
It was McGoldrick who ran the idea past Mings prior to arriving at Villa Park for their Premier League match, with Mings speaking with captain Jack Grealish and senior figure Tom Heaton. “They were on board straight away,” McGoldrick pointed out. “We came together and we did it.”
Fast-forward to February 2021 and Crystal Palace winger Wilfried Zaha became the first Premier League player who stopped taking the knee prior to kick-off, branding the act as “degrading”.
In the Championship, Bournemouth’s Arnaut Danjuma stopped, as did Brentford striker Ivan Toney, who said: “We’re kind of being used as puppets. We take the knee and the people at the top can rest for a while now. It is pretty silly and pretty pointless. We get the tops and the kneeling and nothing is changing.”
However, in light of black players taking an opposite stand to taking the knee, Villa’s influential leader Mings continues to speak out about racial injustice and why taking the knee before matches remains vitally important and should continue.
“That’s why the gesture is so powerful,” he said, “because there is no right or wrong reason to take the knee.
“This is a demonstration of the injustices or inequalities the different cultures and races within football have felt and continue to feel.
“Historically we’ve never had something like this. We’ve had T-shirts and stuff but to say we’ve unified the sport with an anti-racism message pre-game before the Premier League in every game is so powerful. This is something we should let go or stop without thinking deeply about why we’re stopping.
“To be honest, I haven’t heard one substantial argument as to why we should stop it. I’ve heard it’s lost its power but my argument and contradiction to that would be who have you spoken to?
“I get that it can people who think it’s becoming monotonous or we’ve done it for a long time now and it’s not as impactful as it was at the start. I completely get that.
“I had to ask myself the same question, ‘Is it still having the desired impact?’
“But, having spoken to people out in the community, I got the size and the importance of what we were actually doing. People were saying it’s in support of the Black Lives Matter as a political organisation but people are starting to understand that it’s absolutely not.
“This is about sport first and foremost, creating pathways. It’s not about Black Lives Matters. That’s a cheap argument that they threw at the movement at the start.
“But we can see the power of what it can do. The doors it can open. The opportunities it can create by keeping on the forefront of people’s minds.”
Mings added: “It’s still creating conversations and it’s still keeping the topic relevant. Sometimes it may feel like it’s plateauing but Wilf (Zaha) speaking out, Bournemouth players stopping or Milwall fans booing whatever they were booing, it oxygenates the conversation. It reinvigorates it and makes people talk about it again. There’s been no setbacks yet with what we’re trying to do. There’s no right vs wrong, it’s not black vs white. It’s all of us understanding why we do it.”
England defender Mings explained how taking the knee helped launch the FA’s groundbreaking football leadership diversity code back in October 2020 which tackles inequality across senior leadership positions, broader team operations and coaching roles.
Elsewhere, Mings also wants the movement to help bring about a new law to stop online abuse, with the 28-year-old joining the wider footballing world in last month’s social media blackout across three days after he and many other black footballers became a target for sick, abhorrent abuse online.
“Another day in the life of social media with no filter,” Mings posted after he was sent sickening messages. “Please don’t feel sorry for us, just stand side by side in the fight for change. Social media isn’t getting any safer without it.”
In Villa’s final match of the season – and the first with fans in more than 15 months – against Chelsea, it was Mings who was appalled at those who support him week after week with a small minority of the 10,000 fans inside Villa Park booing as the Villa and Chelsea players took the knee once more before kick-off.
The boos were quickly drowned out by loud cheers of support, as Mings addressed after Villa’s 2-1 win: “It was brilliant to have our family and the fans back at Villa Park. To anyone that booed us taking the knee, have a look at yourself and ask if you truly support equality and equal opportunity for the black players on the pitch. It’s tiring. Educate yourself.
“There was also a lot of applause by the way and, to you lot, I love ya’ll Thank you.”
Mings also replied to a Villa fan who outlined how they helped to drown out those petulant boos, to which he replied: “This was the best thing about today, the acknowledgement that the booing wasn’t acceptable and then the applause to drown it out.”
And that, right there, is the message behind what Mings and the thousands of others will continue to portray and will do so next season by taking the knee once more. The message is simple: hatred will never prosper.