FOOTBALL legend Gary Bennett who has become a notable coach at various levels and a prominent anti-racism supporter in the game has been awarded an MBE in the Queen’s New Year’s Honours.

News of the award came as an unexpected, but welcome 60th birthday present in the Bennett household, on Wearside, earlier this month.

But the popular ex-Sunderland skipper thought it was a wind-up when the formal letter informing him of the award arrived in the post.

“It was on my 60th birthday, on December 4, by coincidence.

“I thought it was one of the lads having a joke, but when I started reading it, I twigged after a while.

“I also received a call from the Cabinet Office confirming everything.

“Of course, it’s a fantastic honour.”

The honour notably highlights his services to anti-racism in football, as one of the pioneering patrons of the charity Show Racism the Red Card, set up, ironically, by Newcastle United supporter Ged Grebby, in 1996.

“It’s something I have a lot of belief in and I’ve been supporting and campaigning for since, but I didn’t expect to be honoured for it.

“A lot of thanks goes to Ged, using footballers as role models to raise awareness and effect society.

“Whenever I see anything, I’ve tried to speak out and raise, or explain, what it feels like, being on the wrong side of discrimination.

“It’s usually happening to a minority and we have tried to raise that.”

Having been the first notable black player to appear for Sunderland he thanked the recently deceased former Black Cats manager Len Ashurst for “gambling” on bringing the ex-Manchester City and Cardiff City centre-back to Wearside, in 1984.

Within minutes he won fans over, scoring in a victory over Southampton, at Roker Park, and following up against Manchester United.

Having played in 369 senior games for the club in 11 years, he is fifth in Sunderland’s all-time appearance list, going on to play for Carlisle United, Scarborough and Darlington, where he was player-coach.

Bennett also coached at Middlesbrough academy and formed his own coaching set-up, with roles at Sunderland University and most recently successfully managing Sunderland West End Ladies team.

He is also a patron for Washington Mind and Hope 4 Kidz charities, and an ambassador for Sunderland’s St Benedict’s Hospice and soup kitchen.

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