Liam Palmer: ‘Sports people have a platform to challenge discrimination’

Scotland defender Liam Palmer
Liam Palmer made five appearances for Scotland in 2019
Venue: Hampden Park, Glasgow Date: Friday, 4 September Kick-off: 19:45 BST
Coverage: Listen on BBC Radio Scotland 810MW/DAB/online; live text commentary on the BBC Sport website & app; highlights on BBC Scotland channel from 22:30

Liam Palmer had his bags in the boot of the car and the engine running when he started rethinking his trip to Scotland and started planning a route to the maternity hospital instead.

Already a father of two boys, he added a daughter when Honor was born a year ago this coming Monday. She arrived on the day Scotland lost a European Championship qualifier to Russia and a few days before they got battered in another qualifier by Belgium. Perfect timing in a sense.

This week preparing for Nations League games against Israel and Czech Republic has been fun, the versatile Sheffield Wednesday player says.

His first experience of Arsenal’s Kieran Tierney in a Scotland squad? “The amount of positive energy he brings is huge,” he says. “All the boys spoke about how much they loved him and I can see why now.”

Another exposure to Liverpool’s Andy Robertson as captain? “He’s won the Premier League since I saw him last. It’s just so interesting to see how brilliantly he conducts himself.”

And Israel? “It’s a chance to build on our momentum. It’s an important game in its own right, but it’s also an opportunity to land a psychological blow on them ahead of the play-off next month.

“Not having any fans will be weird. If I get to play then I’ll have to watch my language. In the heat of battle, my language wouldn’t be great. I should apologise in advance to my mum, just in case.”

Born in Worksop, whose most famous son is either Lee Westwood the golfer or Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden, Palmer made his debut in the debacle in Kazakhstan. “We’ve had to come through a bit of adversity,” he says, putting it mildly.

In his head, that night is a complex arrangement of pride and angst, but the game he remembers most fondly is his home debut, a 6-0 victory over San Marino in October. His mother brought a framed picture of his late granny, Jean from Carluke, to Hampden that night and then waved it in the air when he came out to play.

“Before the match, I could see her waving something, but I’d no idea what it was.” He likes the message behind it, though. His gran saw him playing underage football for Scotland but wasn’t around when he made the big step up. She was there in spirit, he says. The memory of it makes him smile.

One club, many positions

For a guy who’s played Scotland Under-19s and Under-21s, and who has started his country’s past three games (three wins) under Steve Clarke, not a lot is really known about him in Scotland. He can put you straight on that. Basically, it’s Sheffield Wednesday and more Sheffield Wednesday.

Right-back, right centre-back, right-wing back, left centre-back, left-wing back – he’s played in all of those positions in recent seasons. There was a time in his youth when he just wanted to call one spot his own, but now he’s older and wiser and likes the game time that versatility gives him. He finished the Championship season as a centre-half.

He joined the club when he was seven and now he’s 28. Last month marked the 10th anniversary of his first professional game. He’s played 258 of them since then for the Hillsborough club. Managers have come and gone – 11 in a decade – but Palmer endures.

If you fancy it, he’ll give you chapter and verse on Wednesday’s frustrations in trying to get up to the Premier League in his time there. He’ll also tell you that, despite finishing 16th last season, their average home attendance was almost 24,000 – a big beast, if it ever learns how to growl.

They will begin next season on minus 12 points after a financial breach. Palmer’s ready for whatever comes – a promotion challenge or something more turbulent down the other end of the table. Being a one-club man, bar a loan spell at Tranmere Rovers, means a lot to him.

‘It’s about equality for everybody’

As does the fight for equality. He’s involved with Show Racism The Red Card and he’s keen to have some involvement in Scottish Football Association campaigns around this area. Sadly, he speaks as a player who has been on the end of racial abuse.

“I was about seven when it happened first and at seven you’re not sure how to deal with it,” he says. “You almost try to forget it instead of reporting it. I remember my dad sitting me down and saying that the best way to answer these people was to play as well as you can. Don’t let them put you off realising your dream.

“And that’s what I’ve achieved. Playing so many games for my local team and playing for Scotland is more than I ever thought I’d do.

“As a youngster, I remember one incident in a game when I got into a bit of a scuffle and that’s when dad spoke to me about it. We have Show Racism The Red Card and Kick It Out and now Black Lives Matter. What all of these movements help do is give people the confidence to report racism when they hear it. That’s a step forward.

“We had an incident last season where a constable from South Yorkshire police came to our training ground. He was following up on a report of racism in a game and he spoke to me and a couple of other lads. He was asking if I’d heard anything. I hadn’t, but one of our fans reported that a guy in the ground was aiming a chant at one of our other black players. And they got the guy. I was taken aback, and impressed, at how seriously the police took it. That’s progress.

“And this isn’t just about racism. The focus is on Black Lives Matter right now because of what’s happened, but it’s about equality for everybody – skin colour, sexuality, religion, everything. Nobody should be abused.”

Palmer runs a coaching school and he’s built in educational workshops for the kids.

“Shaping these youngsters’ views is important,” he says. “The SFA has an advisory board and I’ve spoken about having an input on that. Sports people have a platform to challenge discrimination and you see more of that now. People are becoming confident in talking about this. I’d encourage everybody to speak up for what’s right.”

His international career got off to a grim start with that awful 3-0 loss to Kazakhstan followed by the 4-0 pummelling by Russia. When he says that things are looking up he hopes he’s not making himself a hostage to fortune. He doesn’t think so.

“There’s been a lot of change since my debut. It’s turning around. We just need to make sure it keeps turning. Every training session, every game, every minute, just give it everything. We know there’s not going to be any fans at Hampden, but we also know how desperate they are for us to win. We all have that desperation. We all want to kick on now.”