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Harkness hits back in Villa racism row

Liverpool defender Steve Harkness last night denied making racist remarks to Aston Villa striker Stan Collymore during the Premiership clash at Villa Park last Saturday.

Collymore claimed he was "hurt and angry" after Harkness's remarks and that he had deliberately told black players at Anfield what was allegedly said.

But, in a statement last night, Harkness said: "I vehemently deny the accusation that I made racist comments to Stan Collymore during or after the game.

"The particular background to this game may have meant that there was more going on on the pitch than is usual, but that does not extend to racial abuse."

The statement came after a day of silence at Anfield, as the Merseyside club held their own internal inquiry.

The Villa striker, who moved from Liverpool in a pounds 7million transfer last summer, has also claimed that as well as being labelled a "lazy coon'', there was a bust-up in the tunnel after the match, in which he scored both goals as Villa won 2-1.

But yesterday, Harkness held high-level talks with Liverpool manager Roy Evans, chief executive Peter Robinson and the club's legal adviser, before issuing the statement.

He added: "Contrary to reports, I did not attempt to enter the Villa dressing room and was not involved in any scuffle with Stan. I am not a racist and am proud to have Paul Ince and his family as some of my closest friends."

The club also pledged to support the 26-year-old defender and revealed that Brendon Batson, the assistant secretary of the Professional Footballers' Association, had been invited to mediate.

It continued: "The club are proud of the significant contribution that black players have made to the success of Liverpool and re-affirm their commitment to fight racism."

Such an emphatic denial means that Collymore has been put in a difficult position with his version of events completely refuted by Harkness. Referee Graham Poll, who officiated at the game, confirmed that the England international complained to him during the match.

But Poll did not refer to the on-field incidents or the alleged tunnel dust-up in his referees' report, because he had neither heard nor seen any evidence.

The Football Association are reluctant to act independently without such information from Poll, although they have the power to call an inquiry whether or not Collymore makes his complaint official.

The player has been given the full backing of manager John Gregory, although the club have declined to make a complaint to the FA. Gregory said: "The club will be in total support of Stan. I'm disgusted, to be honest, that something like this has happened on a football pitch, because we have a number of coloured players and they are superb people."

It will now be up to Batson to resolve the row. The former West Bromwich Albion defender helped instigate the `Kick Racism Out of Football' campaign, and after hearing of the allegations, he warned: "If we find one person was racist, the PFA will come down hard on them. This sort of thing makes me bewildered, upset but very determined to get rid of racism in football."

The latest incident coincides with the alarm expressed by David Mellor, head of the Football Task Force, that Collymore's experience is part of a deep-rooted problem. Mellor unearthed the extent of racism for the Task Force, a report of which is to be published within the next fortnight. It confirms that while incidents like this attract the publicity, racism runs throughout the game.

"You only have to ask black and Asian people who play park football what it's like," Mellor said. "There are a whole host of problems with racism. There were problems with Leeds United fans at Leicester the other day and these have to be dealt with."

Meanwhile, former Villa coach Allan Evans has been warned about his future conduct after an incident earlier this season. Evans had a run-in with a referee's assistant during Villa's game at Crystal Palace in November.

He was also ordered to pay costs after an FA disciplinary hearing at Lancaster Gate.

Copyright - Birmingham Post & Mail Ltd

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