Sunderland AFC legend Gary Bennett made MBE in New Year's Honours list
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The defender turned radio pundit has been named in the New Year’s Honours list in tribute to his work as an anti-racism campaigner.
Gary was one of the first three patrons of charity Show Racism the Red Card (SRtRC) and has worked tirelessly to promote its message among football fans for more than 20 years.
"I received the letter on my birthday, the fourth of December,” he said.
"We thought somebody was playing a joke, especially with it being on my birthday.”
Although nominees are expected to keep the news from all but their nearest and dearest until a formal announcement is made, Gary admitted he had let the news slip to his BBC Newcastle co-commentator Nick Barnes: “He is my sidekick, so I had to put him in the picture,” he said.
The first black footballer to play for Sunderland – he joined the club in 1984 and went on to make more than 350 appearances for the Black Cats – he has used his own experiences of racism to educate others in combating it.
Gary continues to promote the sport in the community – he became Head Football Coach at the University of Sunderland in 2006 and has coached both men’s first and women’s first team, enjoying equal success with both.
He has acted as a mentor to many student coaches, pushing some to their ‘UEFA B’ coaching award and other officiating awards and has also used his vast experience and knowledge to support many students struggling at the University.
A patron for local charities Washington Mind and Hope 4 Kidz is also an ambassador for Sunderland’s St Benedict’s Hospice.
He had been ‘overwhelmed’ to be nominated, he said: “I think is fantastic and there are a lot of thanks that need to go out to my family, to Sunderland football club and to the fans who have given me so much support every since I came to the club.
"And a special mention has to go to Ged Grebby, the chief executive of Show Racism the Red Card – he is the one who first came to me and that is how I got involved.”