Former Huddersfield Town defender Joe Skarz has told how he challenged fans on the touchline who abused him during a game because of his cleft lip.

The Golcar United player-coach says he was subjected to “vile” insults from fans at Hemsworth Miners Welfare on Tuesday night.

Joe, 33, whose baby son Boden has also been born with a cleft lip, said: “To me this sort of thing is like racism. A player gets abused for the colour of his skin, something he can do nothing about, just like I can’t help having a cleft lip.”

Joe, also lead youth development coach at Rotherham United, told how he was abused by three men, one of whom had a young boy with him.

Joe said: “I can take banter from the touchline. If I am playing badly and opposition fans call me out for it, that’s fine. It all adds atmosphere to the game.

“However, what happened the other night, in my view, was unacceptable and discriminatory. All game I was subjected to constant comments from three men regarding my cleft lip.

“It got to a point at the end of the game where I chose to ask them what gave them the right to think they can say that.

Joe Skarz with his son and daughter

“After this they became aggressive and just wanted to fight. One of these men had his little son with him too but he left after 75 minutes so I didn’t get a chance to ask him his reasoning behind it.

“He said to me: ‘I bet you can’t grow a moustache.’ He then just continued to say things in front of his little lad.

“By the time the game ended I was so angry and walked down the tunnel still being subjected to the vile comments. I was very angry and emotional and raised my voice to one of Hemsworth staff members in the tunnel who completely understood why I was so upset.

“I want to make it clear that the Hemsworth players and management team were great. They really apologised and they deserve to be mentioned for that.”

Skarz said he had been asked by Golcar officials if he wanted to make a complaint to the Football Association but he declined.

“I said no, but I do want Hemsworth to do something as a punishment. We, as a club, have written to them asking them if they can punish those three fans in some way and I will happily go and point them out.

“Even asking those fans to not go to any Hemsworth games for a number of weeks may hopefully make them think about their actions.”

Joe Skarz in action for Golcar United. Picture by Sean Doyle

A cleft is a gap or split in the upper lip or roof of the mouth (palate) which is present from birth. It occurs because the affected part or parts did not join together fully during the baby’s development in the womb.

Cleft lip and/or palate affects one in 700 babies. Between 2010 and 2020, 10,765 babies were registered as having been born with cleft lip and/or palate in the UK. Of those with the condition, 45% have a cleft palate only, 24% a cleft lip only and 31% have both.

Joe said his emotional reaction to what happened was heightened after the birth of his son.

He added: “I grew up with a cleft lip and I have always had comments said about it. I think because we now have Boden, who has taken after me and has a cleft lip, it has brought it all more into focus for me and I think that’s why it made me more angry and emotional.

“Me and my partner Leoni got told at 20 weeks that Boden has a cleft lip and she got quite upset about it.

“However, because I have dealt with it all my life, I understand the difficulties and challenges Boden will face. Like for example we can’t give him a dummy and he can’t suck on a bottle so we have to find different ways of doing things.

“When he has the operation to sort it, obviously it will be very sore and for a number of weeks we’ll have to manage him through that.

“He will, no doubt, get comments growing up just like I did though, fortunately, his cleft isn’t as bad as mine was at his age.”

Joe has completed many charity challenges in recent years and now plans to raise money and awareness for the Cleft Lip and Palate Association.

“Last year I ran the marathon in Exeter for a friend of mine to raise funds for his cause,” said Joe. “However, for next summer I will be coming up with a challenge to raise funds for this cause which I will be really proud to support and it is something I am obviously connected to.”

Hemsworth was asked for a statement and asked that we publish an email which they sent to Golcar United and Joe Skarz which says: “Hemsworth Miners Welfare FC would like to sincerely apologise to both of you for the hurt and anger that was caused by an incident that occurred at our football club on Tuesday night.

“Although we cannot control what people shout during a football match, we realise that it is not acceptable and a line was crossed.

“We will seek out the individuals responsible and action will be taken on those found guilty of any discriminatory comments.

“At Hemsworth Miners Welfare we pride ourselves on being a community-based club who welcomes all who come through our doors. Any kind of discriminatory comments will not be tolerated at any level throughout our club.

“We hope that this apology goes some way to repairing the damage caused and we look forward to our trip to Golcar later in the season.”

Ben Senior, secretary at Golcar United, said: “We wholehearted support Joe and condemn the actions of these so-called fans. We would like to thank Hemsworth as a club for launching an investigation and for the support of their players and staff towards Joe.

“In no way does this reflect on the players and committee at Hemsworth who have been very supportive in helping stamp out this abhorrent behaviour.”