THREE Years ago, I witnessed a Fremad Amager player take the field to a sound I had not heard at a football match since the 1980s – the monkey chant. In itself, it was unpleasant, but it was even more shocking to witness this in a supposedly enlightened and progressive society like Denmark.
The BBC has recently screened a documentary on the Black v White testimonial match played in 1979 for Len Cantello’s testimonial. At the time, the discussion around this game was mixed, but it did provide a demonstration on how the game – and society – was changing. West Bromwich Albion, Cantello’s club, had made headlines by including three black players in their line-up, at a time when not all top clubs had ventured beyond all-white squads. In 1979, Chelsea had yet to field a black player, Manchester United and Liverpool had not included black players in a competitive match and Arsenal had given just 10 games to Brendan Batson, a player who would become an influential figure in the development of black footballers in Britain.
So for West Bromwich Albion to have three black players – Batson, Cyrille Regis and Laurie Cunningham – in their team was very notable.
Although the BBC did its best to exclude Ron Atkinson from their film, due to some unfortunate on-air comments that have all but removed the larger-than-life figure from the game, it was “Big Ron” that reaped the benefit of the emergence of Regis and Cunningham. He didn’t sign either of them for Albion, that was Ronnie Allen and Johnny Giles, but in 1978-79, Atkinson’s Albion side thrilled the nation and, with a little luck, they would have been Football League champions. It was Atkinson who coined the “three degrees” phrase that helped publicise the trio of Batson, Regis and Cunningham. Although nobody seems to remember whose idea it was to play a Black v White game, I felt sure Atkinson was behind it.
While Albion’s side was certainly eye-catching in more ways than one, they were not the first English club to include three black players in their team. It has been largely forgotten that West Ham United were the first top flight club to do so, although it was much more low profile than the Batson – Regis – Cunningham triumvirate. It was a rare occurence, however, as the Hammers’ players involved with the club from the mid-1960s through to the early 1970s – John Charles, Clive Charles, Clyde Best and Adie Coker – were seldom on the pitch at the same time.
John Charles was West Ham’s first black player and was born in Canning Town and captained the club’s FA Youth Cup-winning team of 1963. He played for West Ham at a time when they had such luminaries as Bobby Moore, Geoff Hurst and Martin Peters in their team. His brother, Clive, also played for the club, but also found competition tough. Sadly, both John and Clive died very young.
Clyde Best was the first black player to make a broad impact and despite the presence of Hurst and later Jimmy Greaves and Bryan Robson, became a popular figure after making his debut in 1969. A bustling English-style forward, Best was from Bermuda. In 1971-72, Ron Greenwood also blooded Ade Coker, a Nigerian youngster who had moved to England in 1965. He made his first appearance in October 1971 and scored as West Ham won 3-0 at Crystal Palace.
On April 1, 1972, West Ham fielded Clive Charles, Ade Coker and Clyde Best in their team for the first time. West Ham won 2-0 in front of 30,000 people at Upton Park and Coker scored one of the goals. It was also the first time that any team had fielded three black players in top-class English football.
Thankfully, the sort of widespread abuse that the likes of these lads had to endure is seldom heard today, but we would be foolish and naïve to assume that it doesn’t exist anymore. Racism can still be heard at most football grounds – over the past couple of seasons, I have heard comments about Asians, Africans, Poles, Muslims, Serbians and Belgians. It’s not the mass chanting of the 1970s and 1980s, but it is still there – just see how many people join in the “banter” when racist or homophobic comments are thrown-up out of the crowd.
Unless you are one of the victimised groups, and you’ve been subjected to the sort of prejudice that plagued the 1970s, and indeed subsequent decades, it is not really your place to say racism no longer blights our lives. It is hard to believe some of the appalling behaviour that went on in that period and how racism, be it disguised in the convenient wrapper of “banter” or openly offensive with the intention to cause harm, was allowed to flourish for so long.
Les Ferdinand reminded us that there is much work still to be done. “You can make all the documentaries you like, but you won’t change what’s in people’s heads”. He has a point, only last week, I was told that “darkies” have got all the money in the property market at the moment – a throwback phrase to a different, less tolerant time.
One of the takeaways from the BBC documentary was that the white players involved in the Cantello match struggled to recall much from the event, while the black players remembered everything. I wonder why?