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A true British footballing hero

Cameron Carter reviews a documentary on the life and tragic death of Britain's first black outfield player and army officer

We sometimes forget how hard our modern-day players have it – up to two games a week, fans throwing coins at them, contractually obliged to visit an infant classroom to encourage a healthy diet – and yet even this suffering pales in comparison with what one player went through in the early part of the last century. Walter Tull: Forgotten Hero and Walter’s Story (BBC4) were, respectively, a documentary and dramatisation of the life of an almost inconceivably strong-willed man who was the first black outfield player in the Football League and then the first black officer in the British army.

Tull graduated from his orphanage team (I told you he had it tough) to Clapton FC and then to Tottenham Hotspur. At this high point in his life he was forced out of the Spurs team when the abuse levelled at him by fans became too awkward for the club’s management to deal with. After a game against Bristol City in 1909, a journalist reported that “a section of the spectators made a cowardly attack on him in language lower than Billingsgate” and Tull was hurriedly shipped off to Northampton, where he played until the outbreak of the First World War.

He immediately signed up for the newly formed “Football Battalion”, which consisted entirely of ex-pros and was created chiefly to encourage fans to join up in the months before the introduction of conscription. Only 30 survived the war – Tull was killed in March 1918 during the second Battle of the Somme and his body never recovered – and so the unit was disbanded forever.

In Forgotten Hero, Nick Bailey related an incredible story, striking only one jarring note, when leafing through the British Army’s 1914 rules and regulations in the Imperial War Museum. Coming upon the stipulation that British officers must be “of pure European descent”, Bailey demanded of the mild, white-gloved ­archivist whether this was not racism. The archivist was taken aback, partly because he must have been expecting a spot of easy TV page-turning, and partly because Bailey’s a little late with his sense of outrage, equivalent in its pointlessness to railing at the Apache tribe of the untamed frontier time for their significantly low proportion of vegetarian members.

If you’re looking for a quiet life, The Friday Football Show (Setanta) is the place to be. On November 14, James Richardson’s companions were Clive Allen and Alan Curbishley, both of whom talk in the manner of men sad to hear their words disappearing in the air. Richardson seemed to feel he had to counter his guests’ monotones by employing an ­exhilarating uplift on every other word.

The next week, perhaps deciding that some kind of vibe needed introducing, Richardson presented some light-hearted moments for guests Paul Parker and Steve Claridge. Unfortunately, following a thrice-repeated clip of a fan being knocked over by a pot-shot and a photograph of Carlos Tevez with his “mother” (Diego Maradona), there was no gratifying laughter from Parker, Claridge or the production crew. A silence fell. Richardson gamely plodded on – “Of course, it’s not his mum is it Paul?” – but Parker was so confused by now he could only mumble something inarticulate. The Chinese have a saying: “Do not plant weak humour in unprepared soil.”

Famously the man who praised Robbie Williams to his face for getting so far with such little talent, Martin O’Neill is an unsettling man to talk to. With phrases such as “as you say...” or “as you quite rightly point out...” he habitually frames his answers to make his questioner somehow the one squirming in the spotlight. In his recent up-close-and-personal interview on Football Focus, he began one of his answers “I’ve done this interview with you because we’re playing Manchester United and Arsenal in the same week...”, simultaneously sabotaging Manish Bhasin’s off-screen detachment from the process while sounding alarm bells that he might be about to exhibit challenging verbal behaviour once again. However, when asked what he thought about the Focus pundits’ opinions in the light of Roy Keane’s disparaging remarks, O’Neill came out with a small masterpiece of condescension: “I don’t mind it, I don’t mind it – if they feel they want to point out something that I would have already known, that’s fine.”

Compare the volatile wit here with the studied craft of the Match of the Day caption writer in the replay of Titus Bramble winning a penalty by dropping over Papa Bouba Diop’s outstretched leg. “Papa Don’t Reach”, it said. I ask you.

From WSC 263 January 2009

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