Football: A Working Class Black History

By Rob Burns

Taking the knee has become a form of debate and to some a pointless, controversial gesture. However, this gesture is not about ticking boxes it is about human respect for Black footballers and Black people – a level playing field. It’s no coincidence that no one seemed to mind when the grounds were empty of spectators, but authorities and media have become uncomfortable since the public have been allowed back in and the debate to scrap taking the knee is rising. To those who’s courage is failing I say this,

“it only stops when they have respect as equal humans”.

The strange anomaly is that a lot of abuse comes from the terraces, which except for colour many are from the same working class backgrounds as many of the footballers. Respect is not a giant step.

The history of Black footballers in Britain goes a long way back Arthur Wharton the first Black professional footballer when he signed for Rotherham in 1889. Wharton was an all round sportsman, 3 years earlier in 1886 he broke the world 100 yards dash record at Stamford Bridge, he was the Usain Bolt of his day. Walter Tull the war hero signed for Tottenham Hotspurs but his death in ‘No Mansa Land’ just before the end of the first world war cut short what would have been a magnificent career.

There were many notable stand alone heroes through the decades from Jack Leslie (Plymouth), to Roy Brown (Stoke), to John Charles (West Ham) and I’ve highlighted a few below. But a special mention must go to those who faced the racist crowds and hooliganism of the 60’s and 70’s, these are just a few of those pioneering heroes – Clyde Best, the Neville brothers, Laurie Cunningham, John Barnes, Cyril Regis, Luther Blissett, Brendon Batson, John Fashanu and many other greats who fought through prejudice to give the working class public of all shades some wonderful moments to treasure.

NOTE: Further below some observations from Emy Onuora regarding his book ‘Pitch Black’.

Arthur Wharton

The Ghana-born goalkeeper is widely considered not only England’s, but the world’s first Black professional footballer. He started his career at Darlington and was also part of Preston North End’s so-called ‘Invincibles’ during the 1880s.

Wharton was quick and athletic, even setting a new world record for the 100-yard dash (ten seconds) at Stamford Bridge in 1886

Walter Tull

After Arthur Wharton, the First World War hero Tull was the second person of Afro-Caribbean/mixed-race heritage to play in the top flight of the Football League, and the first to be commissioned as an infantry officer in the British Army.

His professional football career began after he was spotted whilst playing for his local amateur club, Clapton FC. Tull, an athletic wing-half, played for Tottenham between 1909-1911, but spent the majority of his pro career with Northampton Town, before he went to fight in the First World War, thereby putting paid to a proposed transfer to Glasgow Rangers.

Jack Leslie

Born to a Jamaican father in Canning Town, Leslie was the only professional black player in England during his time with Plymouth Argyle (1921-1934). He was set to become the first non-white player to represent England at international level before he was denied the opportunity when selectors were made aware that he was “a man of colour”. Later in his life, Leslie told journalist Brian Woolnough: “They must have forgot I was a coloured boy.”

Emma Clarke


Britain’s first-known BAME female footballer was first described by the South Wales Daily News as:

“the fleet footed dark girl on the right wing.”

Clarke made her professional debut for British Ladies in 1895 in Crouch End in front of a crowd of over 11,000, and graced famous stadiums like Wembley, St James’ Park and Portman Road.

Clarke also played in goal, though was actually confused for decades with fellow keeper Carrie Boustead, who was originally billed as the first Black female footballer until historian Stuart Gibbs discovered she was actually white.

John Charles

The West Ham United defender first represented England’s youth teams on 20 May 1962, and thus became the first Black player to feature for a representative team when he scored against Israel in Tel Aviv in a UEFA tournament, a 3-1 win for the Young Lions.

In March 1963, the U18s travelled for a game in Switzerland and on 21 March 1963 he was in the side that beat the Swiss by 7-1 in Bienne. He also played in and won the 16th International Youth Tournament which was held at the now extinct Shepherd’s Bush Stadium in London from the 11-23 April 1963. 

Charles also played for Young England v England at Highbury in April 1967, when they beat the World Cup winning team by 5-0. ‘Young England’ was for players aged up to 23 and John was 21 on this date. He went on to play over 100 games for the Hammers before retiring. Sadly, Canning Town-born John Charles passed away in August 2002 at the age of 57.

Benjamin Odeje

In 2013 The FA, in conjunction with BBC London, were able to confirm the 64-year-old was the first Black footballer to represent England schoolboys. In March 1971, the then 15-year-old was called up for England schoolboys in a 1-0 win over Northern Ireland. Odeje was known as ‘Pele’ by his peers after scoring almost 400 goals in youth football. He went on to play for Charlton Academy, Hendon, Clapton and Dulwich Hamlet, while after retiring he coached at Queens Park Rangers, too.

Cyrille Regis

Regis scored 112 goals in 297 appearances for West Bromwich Albion and also played for Aston Villa and Coventry in the English top-flight, winning the 1987 FA Cup with the latter.

A true pioneer for Black footballers, he played alongside Lawrie Cunningham and Brendan Batson during his time at the Hawthorns, with the trio nicknamed the ‘Three Degrees’ by their then-manager Ron Atkinson.

Regis won his first England cap in 1982 in a 4-0 victory over Northern Ireland. He sadly died in January 2018 of a heart-attack, but will always be remembered for paving the way for future generations of Black footballers.

Brendon Batson

Born in Grenada, Batson moved to England aged nine, in 1962. In 1971, Arsenal signed him as a schoolboy, but he didn’t make it at the Gunners, and signed for Cambridge United in 1974. However, the full-back is best-known for his time at West Brom (1978-1982), when he was one of the famous Three Degrees, along with Cyrille Regis and Lawrie Cunningham.

Laurie Cunninghan, Brendan Batson and Cyrille Regis Statue at West Bromwich Albion

Express and Star Three Degrees statue unveiled honouring footballing icons May 21st 2019

Brendon Batson and family members of the Three Degrees with the statue at the unveiling of the statue

And for surviving Three Degrees star Batson, the statue should come to symbolise that ongoing fight against prejudice.

“The statue isn’t just about the three of us,” said the 66-year-old.

“It symbolises the journey that we are on as players in that era, but also all the other black players in that era that had to show a lot of resilience as well, so I think it is a tribute to all the black players, no matter what the generation.

“I think people can come along and see, those who have never heard of us, will be able to look us up and see what it was all about and why that statue was put in place.”

John Barnes


Heralded as one of Liverpool and Watford’s greatest stars, Barnes won 79 England caps. Born and raised in Jamaica, he moved to London when he was 12 and after starting his career with Watford went on to win two titles at Anfield after his move north, with his speed and vision mesmerising fans all over the world.

He was also voted the 1988 PFA Players’ Player of the Year. Both as a player, and since retiring, Barnes has been a vocal voice on issues such as racism and discrimination, appearing regularly at rallies and, most recently, as a guest on BBC One’s political affairs programme Question Time.

Luther Blissett

The Jamaican-born striker became the first Black player to score a hat-trick for England, netting three times on his debut in a 9-0 victory over Luxembourg in 1982. Blissett was born in Falmouth, Trelawny Jamaica.

Domestically, he is best known for his fruitful partnership with John Barnes at Watford and spells with AC Milan (who he joined for £1 million in 1983) and Bournemouth. Blissett still holds Watford’s all-time records for both appearances (503) and goals (186).

Viv Anderson

Anderson was the first Black player to win a senior England cap in 1978 against Czechoslovakia. The speedy and tenacious right-back went on to claim 30 caps and was part of the squads at two World Cups, Spain 1982 and Mexico 1986, although he didn’t make a single appearance at either.

Anderson played under Brian Clough at Nottingham Forest – who he has often praised for helping him deal with racist abuse – and was Sir Alex Ferguson’s first signing (along with Brian McClair, who joined at the same time) at Manchester United in 1987.

Hope Powell

The 53-year-old is currently manager of Brighton Women in the FA WSL, but is perhaps best-known for her tenure the first female and Black manager of any England national team.

After winning 66 caps for England Women, scoring 35 times, Powell took charge of the Lionesses between 1998-2013, winning the Cyprus Cup in 2009 and 2013. She was also the first female ever to obtain a UEFA Pro licence –the highest qualification available to a coach in Europe.

Uriah Rennie

Uriah Rennie was one of England’s top referees. At his peak, the now 61-year-old was described by Keith Hackett (head of the Professional Game Match Officials Board) as:

“the fittest referee we have ever seen on the national or world scene.”

Rennie took charge of over 300 Premier League games and officiated the 2001 play-off Final as Bolton Wanderers beat Preston North End 3-0 at Cardiff’s Millenium Stadium. Rennie retired in 2004 and is now president of Hallam FC, who play at the world’s oldest football ground, Sandygate Road, in Sheffield. He has also recently been elected as an FA Council member, representing the Sheffield and Hallamshire County FA.

Paul Ince

The self-styled Guvnor, who shone in Man Utd’s midfield, was the first black player to captain England, when he took the armband in a tour match against the USA. Ince was also the first black Briton to manage a top flight team in England (Blackburn Rovers, in 2008).

Forty years after black footballers entered the modern game, racism is still a huge problem

By Emy Onuora (first published in 2015)

The claim that the former England manager Graham Taylor was asked by senior Football Association officials to limit the number of black players in the national football team is just one of several stories related by players I interviewed for my book Pitch Black.

The book charts the development of black footballers from the time they first came to prominence in the 1970s to the present day. Some 20 black players told me of their experiences, insights and perspectives on their careers, and on the overt and covert racist discrimination they suffered (and continue to suffer).

Three things have been lost in the media coverage so far. First, that as England manager Taylor never gave in to pressure from FA officials.

While he will, like all England managers, be subject to the usual armchair criticism of his squad selections, racism cannot reasonably be seen as a factor in his decision-making. Taylor has a fine record of supporting black players for both club and country. He was also among those who spoke out against racism before it was popular to do so. In breaking colour bars in the game, Taylor is inarguably a hero, not a villain.

FA told Graham Taylor not to pick ‘too many’ black players for England

Second, his comments were made to Richie Moran, a former professional footballer, during a function at Watford’s ground during the 1999-2000 season. They were reported several years ago, though Taylor was not named. Naturally, in researching the book, this was one of the things I wanted to pursue with Moran. He recalled having the conversation with Taylor in the presence of his then girlfriend and was shocked by what he was told – it’s:

“something I wasn’t likely to forget”.

And third, though Taylor disputes the story now, it’s clear Moran has nothing to gain from it. Moran has been consistent in his recollection, in the face of a legal threat from the FA, and has been categorical as to why he refuses to buckle:

“Because I’m telling the truth.”

The book examines how black players tried to cope with fans, managers, team-mates and opponents. It includes tales of dressing room punch-ups and terrace hostility, but also of mothers so distraught at the treatment meted out to their sons that they could no longer attend their games.

Retirement from Playing

After retiring from playing, black footballers often struggle to maintain meaningful roles in the game. Almost every former player I interviewed expressed frustration that their experience and expertise were overlooked. They wanted to put something back into the game they loved but were consistently denied the opportunity to do so

John Barnes’s case is a good example. Twice Footballer of the Year, former PFA Player of the Year and with over 70 England caps, he was appointed Celtic manager in 1999. He won 11 of his first 12 games in charge. However, the better-resourced city rivals, Rangers, won 12 of 12. Despite keeping Celtic within touching distance of their Old Firm rivals – he even won SPL (Scottish Professional Football League) Manager of the Month for February – he was sacked the following month after a shock exit from the Scottish Cup. In spite of all his experience, it would be an incredible nine years before he got another managerial appointment, at Tranmere Rovers.

Former England striker Les Ferdinand remarked how, in a recent conversation, a football club chairman told him he had never considered employing a black manager. Mostly, however, the denial of opportunities has been subtle, shrouded in appointments made within informal networks, involving word-of-mouth recommendations. This is as much an issue today as it was 25 years ago.

In any discussion on racism in football, the game likes to tell itself it has moved on. We smugly look at football in eastern and southern Europe and say we’re not like those backward, unenlightened folk. Scratch below the surface, however, and the picture isn’t as rosy as it’s often painted.

There has been a black presence in British football since the beginning of the professional era, but it wasn’t until the 1970s that black players entered the game in significant numbers. At that time there were few black referees, few black coaches, few (if any) black people in the boardroom, few black administrators, few black faces on the terraces, and black players were habitually subject to vitriolic racist abuse.

Four decades on, there are still few black referees, few black coaches, few black people in the boardroom, few black administrators and few black faces on the terraces. While the increasingly financially-driven nature of the professional game has seen a corresponding merit-based rise in the number of black players – and banana throwing and racist chants are unacceptable at English grounds – the lack of black faces in senior administrative positions reveals that in 40 years we simply haven’t made as much progress as we like to think.

Featured image at the top: John Barnes back-heeling a banana off the pitch during a Merseyside derby in 1988 is iconic. Copyright Getty Images. Guardian Interview: John Barnes: ‘I was seen as the voice of reason on race. I haven’t changed’ 14th October 2019

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