Shaka Hislop vividly recalls the youths emerging from the dark and hurling racist abuse as he filled up his car at a petrol station near St James’ Park.
It was 25 years ago this week. Kevin Keegan’s ‘Entertainers’ were heading for a 10-point Christmas lead in the Premier League and charming the nation with their football.
Hislop, despite being 6ft 4in, and having prepared mentally for the “macho” actions he would take if confronted, was “frozen with fear”.
He said: “When you are in front of it, you are scared, genuinely, for your life – no exaggeration. It is such a shuddering experience.
“Then, as they got closer, one recognised who I was, and they started singing my name and wanted autographs...”
It could have been left there, banked as an awful memory. Instead, it was the start of a 25-year mission. Show Racism The Red Card was founded and has reached a million kids. These days it is Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford who speak out and take actions to confront the political and humanitarian issues of the day. Back then, Hislop, from Trinidad and Tobago, was the footballer taking a stand – in a very lasting way.
He explained: “I was a black footballer worthy of the most vile racist abuse from 50 yards away, but worthy of having my name sung from 50ft away.
“I felt the need to do something. I understood how highly footballers were regarded about town and how that platform could be used to challenge the stereotypes and have a discussion about race.”
He joined forces with local campaigner Ged Grebby, now Show Racism The Red Card’s chief exec. “It started with school visits. My team-mate John Beresford joined me, and we talked of our experiences and what we had learned sharing dressing rooms with people from all over the world.”
Hislop will mark the anniversary on Wednesday after a tough year. The former Toon, West Ham and Portsmouth star is now a presenter for ESPN and lives in the US.
“I have gone through every emotion over the past year,” he said. “The George Floyd murder hung very heavily. When we got involved in this work, it’s a promise to our children to build a better world. I felt I had failed on my promise.
“Recently my friend Leroy Rosenior said to me, ‘Shaka, you can’t feel it like that. See this as a relay. We’re running the third leg. It is up to us to deliver the baton to our kids in the best position, and give them the courage and confidence to run the final leg’.
“That was empowering. It shed me of the guilt I was feeling. We went into Boston and joined a Black Lives Matter march. You see the youth and diversity of the crowd, and the energy, and that is when I recognised what Leroy was saying.
“It’s work that was started so long ago, generations, and continued through the abolition of slavery and the civil rights movement. In football, work that Viv Anderson, Laurie Cunningham and John Barnes all did. All they had to endure.”
At Christmas, 25 years ago, Newcastle were 10 points ahead at the top of the table. Manchester United clawed it back to take the trophy. Hislop recalled: “It was an intoxicating time. At least something good came out of 1995, if not a trophy!
“I felt if you come up short, learn, you eventually win it. But the disappointment was soul-crushing.
“Then the club went public (on the stock exchange) to raise capital. Kevin Keegan was replaced in the fallout.
“Instead of building on that season, we fell off track and the club has not been able to recover since.”
But there are powerful words on how supportive his team-mates were, on and off the pitch, joining in his school visits about racism.
Hislop added: “We would go out regularly, as a team. Every single player, 30 strong, from Alan Shearer and Les Ferdinand, to the young lads who had signed first-year contracts. That was unifying and powerful.
“And my team-mates joined the SRTRC school visits, and helped make films.
“There was no more powerful experience I could have had as a young man of 25.”