Emy Onuora’s book, ‘Pitch Black: The Story of Black British Footballers’, is a wonderfully written and thought-provoking history of what two generations of pioneering black players went through to make it in British football.
Assembled from interviews with some of the most influential players of their generations, including John Barnes, Viv Anderson and Cyrille Regis, Onuora gets behind the former institutional racism of clubs and the virulent hate from the stands that many football fans would like to whitewash from their liberal memories. When black players like ‘The Three Degrees’ (Brendon Batson, Laurie Cunningham and Regis) broke through at West Bromwich Albion in the late seventies, it was a time of ‘Love Thy Neighbour’ and ‘The Comedians’ on TV. Jim Davidson did racist impressions in prime time and prejudice was not just condoned, but normalised and expected.
The lazy social stereotypes of black people were also ingrained in the institutions and figureheads of the game: these men were quick runners, flamboyant and extravagantly skillful, but they ultimately lacked intelligence, discipline and heart. It was a divisive time where black players weren’t safe even from their own fans and could not rely on their own team mates or clubs to back them up. In the book, Onuora captures the values and experiences of brave men playing football for a pittance compared to today’s astronomical wages.
The most vivid example of football’s neglect at this time is Chelsea’s Paul Canoville, who faced a torrent of monkey noises and “Seig Heil” chants from his own fans. He was the only member of the team whose name was booed, he had no kit or boot sponsor and he received razor blades in the post. He even took to staying in the ground for two hours after the final whistle to avoid being attacked, while having no faith in the protection that the club would give him.
“I think the experience of Paul Canoville was perhaps the most shocking incident I came across… and there were a few,” says Onuora. “He was racially abused by a team mate and attacked with a golf club. He was then shipped out of the club.”
Onuora’s wide angle lens takes in not just the trailblazing Premiership-era superstars like Ian Wright and Rio Ferdinand, but also the men who plied their trades without capturing as much public attention. The author’s brother, Iffy, was one such journeyman pro, who, in an injury affected career, had successful spells at Huddersfield Town, Gillingham and seven other clubs. He says of hearing chants from the terraces: “I’ve heard it from fans, of course, I’ve had it shouted to me from people stood a few metres away and I’m thinking, if me or you were a bit closer, it would be a very different situation.”
The financial spoils available to players who make it now are considerable and the globalised nature of the game means that there are not the same obstacles in the way of black players. However, we should be careful in thinking that we are in a post-racial age. “I think the barriers have moved on, although money has impacted the game in two ways,” says the author. “Firstly, it’s made the English/British game more cosmopolitan, so there are more black players from Europe and abroad. The mere existence of large numbers of black players has normalised the issue of black players in the game and this has broken the idea of stacking black players in wide positions.
“Secondly, the Premier League as a global brand is sold throughout the world and racism is bad for business. Ron Atkinson lost his job because media outlets in the Middle East picked up his comments. However, in general, the barriers have moved on and the old prejudices about black players still remain. Lack of intelligence, laziness… see how Benteke and Lukaku were treated recently. The old misconception of black players’ inability to employ tactics, strategy or to motivate others, and also be the public face of the club, is one of the reasons why there aren’t more black managers in the game.”
One of the most intriguing figures in the book, Kevin Harper, a diminutive, Glasgow-raised winger, was the first black player to represent Scotland (at Under 21 level). He has recently pointed to the lack of black managers in football and, in particular, in Scotland. Onuora makes the same point in the final chapter of ‘Pitch Black’ and is quick to note the moral is that this fight isn’t over: “The debate around racism in football has been largely driven and framed by the media and to a lesser degree the football authorities,” he says. “Their narrative has been racism was bad in the old days and we don’t want to return there – but it’s all good now, albeit with one or two isolated incidents. But, just look how bad the incidents are in Spain, Italy and Russia, for example.
“What’s missing from the whole debate is the collective voice of black players, their thoughts and their perspectives. I wanted to challenge the narrative and provide a voice for black footballers and place the debate within a historical and social context. There weren’t any books around that did this.”
For Evertonians, the club Onuora has supported since moving to Liverpool from Glasgow as a toddler, there are a number of difficult passages. The first section of the book, the author’s vivid portrayal of the racism aimed at Garth Crooks that he witnessed at Goodison Park as an 11-year-old fan, sets in context the Britain of the seventies and early eighties. In 2000, a University of Leicester research survey found that Everton was the club that fans had seen the most racist abuse at.
Things have undoubtedly got better at all grounds since this survey, and it’s not just thanks to the ‘PC Brigade’ – the largely fictional quasi-militarist band of lefties invented by the fevered imaginations of the Daily Mail and assorted right wingers. Rather the proactive role of campaigns like ‘Show Racism the Red Card’ and ‘Kick It Out’ have been fundamental in changing the outlooks of many fans and what they see as acceptable behavior.
“They’ve played a very important role in educating football fans,” agrees Onuora. “For most white supporters, their activities are probably the only anti-racist education they’ve ever received… certainly within a footballing context. They’ve both done great work on very small resources.”
‘Pitch Black: The Story of Black British Footballers’ by Emy Onuora is out now on Biteback Publishing
Pic courtesy of Mirrorpix