Black player history in England: Who broke through first at the 92 clubs and the prejudice they had to overcome

"Football's Black Pioneers: The Stories of the First Black Players to Represent the 92 League Clubs" by Bill Hern & David Gleave  (Conker Editions)

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"This book is a reminder of how things once were, and a stark warning that we must never return to those days," writes former Nottingham Forest and England defender Viv Anderson in the book's foreword. Right now, we need as many warnings as we can raise up the mast and flag to the world. Racism in soccer is no longer expressed in the overt and crass manner of the twentieth century, yet it never really went away. Bigotry just became a more subtle beast in partial hiding, and it's always waiting in the wings for an opportunity to make a full-on ugly comeback.

Anderson, who was inducted into the English Football Hall of Fame in 2004, was also awarded an MBE by the Queen of England for his achievements in the game. MBE stands for Member of the Order of the British Empire, and it's not a medal that every Black soccer player accepts. Former Liverpool, Birmingham City and Blackburn Rovers forward Howard Gayle turned the same honor down in 2016, saying, "When you look at what the empire did to my family and my ancestors, it just doesn't bear credence. I would always have felt uncomfortable writing those letters after my name."

Gayle is typical of many of the players in this book who made their debuts in the 1970s and 80s, just as clubs and coaches were beginning to finally realize the potential of the country's Black first and second generation immigrants from the United Kingdom's former colonies. They had to contend with hostility from teammates, spectators and -- the book's numerous press quotes testify to this -- absurd stereotypes among sportswriters who believed, with no basis in fact at all, that Black players were not suited to cold winters and the necessary hard work required to make it in the English game.

Such universal and stultifying ignorance wholly justifies the label of 'pioneers' in the book's title. Team by team, the authors list the first Black players at each of the current 92 English league clubs, and the virulent prejudice they had to overcome on and off the field. Though for every player who had to overcome vile chants, abuse and ignorance, there's another player who claims to have noticed nothing, or to have shut it all out in order to concentrate on his game.

By necessity, some players make multiple appearances -- Gayle, for example, was the first Black player to appear for Liverpool (in 1980!), Newcastle United (1982 …) and Blackburn Rovers (words fail me -- 1987). That's not a problem, as there's enough material to cover his experiences at all three clubs. The same applies to a remarkable player like Lindy Delapenha, 'the Jamaican David Beckham,' and the first Black player at Portsmouth (1948), followed by Middlesbrough, Mansfield Town and Burton Albion. He played in all four divisions while excelling at cricket too, and you feel there's a whole biography in his life alone.

Another 1948 debutant was Tommy Best at Cardiff City. "Like many black players of his day he was widely referred to as 'Darkie' Best," write the authors, "but did not regard this as offensive. It was, he said, meant more as a term of affection. Nevertheless, he always maintained that he was never selected for [his native] Wales because of the colour of his skin." The further back we reach, the more intriguing the characters and the stories. In 1899, John Walker came from Hearts of Midlothian in Edinburgh to play for Lincoln City, becoming the first Black player to play in both the Scottish and English leagues, but then dying at the age of 22 from tuberculosis.

If there's any criticism of this book, it's that the authors often invert superfluous adverbs like "unfortunately" and "tragically," when in almost every case the tragedy and lack of fortune are evident from the context. They have also opted to refer to the players by their first names, making the text read in places like a school report, and rendering the more important surnames less easy to memorize.

These, however, are nugatory quibbles in a book that has been thoroughly researched, and that is bursting with uncharted soccer history. As it digs up so much entertaining and thought-provoking material in covering the first Black players in English soccer, imagine the potential riches in a comprehensive history and analysis of the Black experience and influence on the UK game over the past 150 years.

Such a history would certainly mention, as the authors do here, that it took Arsenal 86 years to field a Black player in Brendon Batson. Three decades later, in September 2002, there were nine Black players out of 11 in Arsenal's starting lineup against Leeds. Progress, without a doubt. Yet Viv Anderson's introduction also points out that when he was appointed as Barnsley manager in 1993, he was one of only two Black coaches in the English game, and that "almost 30 years on, things haven't really changed." There's no room for self-congratulations in a sport that continues to be dominated in England by white men, many of them -- subconsciously or not -- still creating barriers on the insidious basis of skin color.

Recommended further reading (Black soccer history in Britain):

61 Minutes in Munich: The Story of Liverpool FC's First Black Footballer by Howard Gayle and Simon Hughes

Out of his Skin: The John Barnes Phenomenon by Dave Hill

Different Class: Football, Fashion and Funk – The Story of Laurie Cunningham by Dermot Kavanagh

The Three Degrees: The Men Who Changed British Football Forever by Paul Rees

1 comment about "Black player history in England: Who broke through first at the 92 clubs and the prejudice they had to overcome".
  1. R2 Dad, October 2, 2020 at 10:18 a.m.

    Look forward to reading these stories. Are there similar books out for players in the 90's & 00s? Curious to learn the more recent history of players I knew after the EPL launched, like Heskey, Hislop, Henry & Wright, in addition to Barnes.

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