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Red card to racists: Graham Taylor was told not to pick too many black players for England

Pitch Black reveals the prejudices that have plagued the beautiful game.

Pitch Black
Emy Onuora
Biteback, 329pp, £16.99

Emy Onuora’s compelling history of black footballers in Britain since the 1970s arrives at a moment when the sport again finds itself reflecting on the problem of racism. Chelsea has had to deal with fans who stopped a black man from entering a train on the Paris Métro because of the colour of his skin: more recently, a Bradford City fan was alleged to have shouted racial abuse at the Reading player Garath McCleary in the FA Cup quarter-finals. Meanwhile, the FA is continuing its investigation into allegations of racism by Malky Mackay while he was manager at Cardiff City.

The author, who is the brother of the former professional footballer and Ethiopia team manager Iffy Onuora, has produced an account that is both fluent and illuminating. To place the journeys of these players in the wider context of race relations in this country at the time, he chooses to focus only on those who were born or raised in the UK. As such, there are no accounts of the experiences of, for example, Patrick Vieira or Thierry Henry or, more latterly, Yaya Touré. Onuora’s approach allows the reader to accompany aspiring professionals as they encounter systemic discrimination at every level of the game.

What is most striking about Pitch Black is how recent so many of the incidents are – with perhaps the most serious (and largely under-reported) of them taking place in the early 1990s. Graham Taylor, some time after he had been sacked as England manager, made the following revelation to Richie Moran, a former professional player:

“Look, I’m going to tell you something . . . I’m never going to admit it, I will be sued for libel . . . When I was manager of England I was called in by two members of the FA, who I won’t name . . . I’m not prepared to say [who], but I was told in no uncertain terms not to pick too many black players for the national side.”

The alleged instructions are consistent with a pattern of prejudice that existed throughout football at the time. What Pitch Black makes clear is that racism was not confined to the stands, to boorish supporters throwing bananas and bellowing monkey chants: it resided among the managers and coaches. It may surprise and disappoint many readers to learn how several leading figures in the game were complicit, actively or passively, in the difficulties that black players faced. Jimmy Hill was instrumental in organising a football tour to apartheid-era South Africa in 1982, a trip that ended in controversy after Calvin Plummer, a black player whom Brian Clough had convinced to lend this misadventure some credibility, came home early. In 1988 the TV commentator John Motson referred to the racist abuse of Holland’s Ruud Gullit by England fans at Wembley as “good-natured barracking”. Dave Mackay, the late Spurs and Scotland great who shied away from few confrontations, turned a blind eye to allegations of racism against one of his players while managing Birmingham City. Jimmy Greaves, the former England forward, is said to have written “an article in which he questioned John Barnes’s commitment to England [in the 1990s], due to his Jamaican birth”.

These episodes seem united by a consistent assumption: that football was a tough game, and overcoming discrimination of this nature was just another way in which you should prove that you belonged in it. Yet there is more to the picture. As Onuora deftly demonstrates, racism within football manifested itself against the backdrop of worrying trends in British society. When Garth Crooks made his breakthrough in the 1970s, it was common for far-right groups to sell their literature both inside and outside football grounds. Leyton Orient’s Laurie Cunningham, who went on to grace the wing for West Bromwich Albion and Real Madrid, had to put out the flames from a petrol bomb thrown through the letter box of his house in Birmingham: his offence was that he was in a relationship with a white woman. Between 1976 and 1981, Onuora relates, “there had been 31 racist murders and countless racist attacks on British citizens of black and Asian heritage”, including the fatal stabbings of 18-year-old Gurdip Singh Chaggar and Kenneth Singh, aged ten.

Meanwhile, in scenes that faintly resonate with some of those we see today, politicians of the day stoked and took advantage of interracial tensions: in 1981 the Thatcher government introduced the British Nationality Act, which removed the automatic right of virtually anyone born in the UK to acquire British citizenship.

It is important to realise that the prevalence of black players in the game today was not inevitable, but achieved through the quiet and dignified work of footballers who, in more enlightened times, might have been far more widely celebrated. The best-known of this generation were the Three Degrees – Cunningham, Cyrille Regis and Brendon Batson, who starred for West Bromwich Albion; then there was Mark Walters of Glasgow Rangers, Chelsea’s Paul Canoville, who would often leave home games hours after the final whistle in order to avoid some of his own supporters, and Arsenal’s Paul Davis, who remained uncapped by England despite a fine career for the north Londoners. Pitch Black also gives pride of place to Ces Podd, the St Kitts-born fullback who played over 500 games for Bradford City, a club and town where he is still revered.

Naturally, their progress came at substantial cost; these players are merely the ones who made it. As Onuora notes, “We will never know how many footballers were lost to the game in the days before the authorities moved to impose sanctions for racist behaviour.” One of them may have become a British Mourinho or Guardiola.

As such, the story of black footballers in Britain is one of not just great success, but also needless waste. Today, although they have long since been accepted on the pitch, there remains a problem at management level, where appointments are made on a much more subjective basis. Onuora describes the struggles of his own brother and others to find employment in British football: viewed individually, these appear to be hard-luck stories, but collectively it seems there is a pattern. As Onuora observes, most black coaches work at academy level or in community programmes rather than in high-level positions:

The higher up the coaching ladder you go, the less likely you are to see black coaches or managers . . . The first group of black British footballers had struggled to break down the stereotypes that had been foisted upon them . . . Black footballers had been cast for their skill, speed, strength and athleticism. The compliments they received for their “natural athleticism” barely masked the racist undercurrent of blacks as primal, exotic and operating on instinct alone. They were perceived as lacking discipline, “bottle” and the required intellect. It was this perceived lack of intellectual skills that continued to impede the progress of black managers.

So, the current challenge is to encourage more black managers to make their way in the game, not only because there may be a Mourinho or Guardiola among them but because they have as much right to opportunities as their white counterparts. Although the game’s administrators are still resistant to reforms that would oblige football clubs to interview at least one ethnic-minority applicant for every top managerial vacancy – known in the US as “the Rooney rule” – there is not only growing public awareness of the shortfall of black managers, but also concern about the problem. It is the same awareness and concern that were key to the progress of black players: as such, Pitch Black is not merely a valuable addition to the literature in this field, but vital.

Musa Okwonga’s books include “Will You Manage? The Necessary Skills to Be a Great Gaffer” (Serpent’s Tail)

Musa Okwonga is a Berlin-based poet, journalist and musician.

This article first appeared in the 06 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Power Struggle