Dave Hill's book Out Of His Skin analysed the racial tension surrounding the arrival of John Barnes at Liverpool in 1987. In an extract from the introduction to a new edition, Dave Hill reflects on the reaction to his book
Ever since the watershed of the Taylor Report, an anti-racist climate has undoubtedly been fostered in British football. Vocal racist elements within football grounds find it harder to proceed as if they have a divine right to define and dominate the mood, to chant, threaten and generally get away with things that would not be tolerated in any other public place. A wide-ranging campaign has been mobilised against racism in a way that would have been impossible as recently as the mid-Eighties. Such is the optimistic reading of the story of racism in English football since Out Of His Skin was written. It has substance and deserves applause. But any suggestion that racism has ceased to have a disfiguring impact on our football would be dangerously naive.
One of my hopes for this new edition is that it will provide the backdrop for a more searching audit of what has changed since John Barnes’s explosive arrival on Merseyside and what has remained the same. It unavoidably contains a few passages that may cause eyebrows to raise simply due to the passage of time. I hope, though, that today’s reader will be far more interested in the small but significant stink the book caused when it was first published in September 1989.
I don’t believe Liverpool FC offered anything in the way of public comment at the time. However, their then chief executive Peter Robinson did observe to a local TV reporter in declining his request to interview me at Anfield that “when someone throws a brick through your window, you don’t invite them in for a cup of tea”.
Tommy Smith, the former Liverpool captain, was even more annoyed. Neither of us knew when we met that his contribution to Out Of His Skin would be so crucial to illustrating its central thesis. Here was a man born and raised in the Anfield area of the city, the authentic voice of “the Liverpool way”, the icon who personified its most basic spirit – its character, to use a word so pregnant with meaning in the parlance of football – voicing with unexpected candour attitudes unlikely to have been held by him alone.
I got a phone call from him. There was, as they say, a sharp exchange of views, which ended with him assuring me that he was going to seek legal advice. I wasn’t worried about that: everything he’d said was safely down on tape. But I’ve often reflected on his fury, his seeming bewilderment about the entire episode. His comments still leave me as gobsmacked seen written on the page as they did when they came out of his mouth sitting over tea and biscuits in the foyer of the Adelphi Hotel.
At the same time, I cannot help feeling something for him that might even qualify as sympathy. Already struggling to walk thanks to his well-documented knee trouble, the cruel legacy of his Iron Man days, here was a man who had no idea at all how his remarks were being received as I strove to stop my jaw from dropping with a clang on to the coffee table beneath that ornate Victorian ceiling, in a city whose capitalists grew rich on the blood of slaves. His assumption can only have been that a fellow white man, albeit a white man from a quite different background from his own, would regard his perspectives on black men as perfectly reasonable and run-of-the-mill. It must have come as quite a shock to learn how very wrong he was.
And what of Barnes himself? I felt the original preface made quite clear my lack-of-relationship with him and why I believed it was in the best interests of us both. However, this was rather overlooked in the predictable flurry of denunciations that followed this quite openly “unauthorised” work, as if to write a book about a famous person without that person’s blessing or co-operation could only be an outrage against decency. I had already written to Barnes, advising him that the book was to be published, hoping it wouldn’t cause him serious embarrassment and, rather piously, assuring him that even if it did I would consider it to have been all in a good cause. Whatever the effect of this, Barnes was soon variously reported as “angry”, “raging” and “fuming” about the book.
Assuming his comments to have been accurately quoted, I am tempted to conclude that he (like the journalists who questioned him) simply hadn’t read the preface at the time he made them. Barnes later appeared to take a slightly less hostile view. He told Pete Davies in All Played Out, that celebrated account of England’s Italia 90, that “everyone says what a good book it is – I must read it some day”.
Maybe “everyone” included fellow black players. The PFA chairman Garth Crooks was nice to me about it, as were Paul Davis, Chris Hughton and others. Crooks became centrally involved in a Channel 4 documentary on British football and race called Football United. The show became briefly notorious for the embarrassment it caused the then Crystal Palace chairman Ron Noades, but it was also notable for Barnes joining those speaking, several for the first time, about experiencing racist attitudes and coping with them. Albeit often in a low key way, he has lent his support to a range of anti-racist initiatives ever since.
Not surprisingly, feelings about the book were mixed within Liverpool itself. The parts of black Liverpool with which I had dealings were generous. I like to think that my efforts were of some small use in bringing to wider attention the strange, often subtle and largely unrecognised racial zoning of the city, and to how damaged black Liverpool felt by the indifference of their local football clubs to an equal rights ethic that was taken for granted in other parts of British popular culture. For me, Howard Gayle’s story exposed and dramatised the informal mechanisms of exclusion that operated at Anfield during his time there.
Not everyone shares this analysis, and even generally fair and reasonable Liverpool fans have since said to me they believe Gayle had no real cause for complaint, notably about Bob Paisley’s decision to substitute him during the away leg of Liverpool’s European Cup semi-final against Bayern Munich in 1981, after he himself had come on for the injured Kenny Dalglish. By common consent Gayle had an outstanding game. There is, though, less agreement about whether Paisley was right to bring him off, either because he believed Gayle was exhausted or, more contentiously, for fear that he was in danger of losing his cool.
For some who, unlike me, saw the action at first hand, it was the only wise course of action. Moreover, it is not hard to see how the outcome of the match – Liverpool scored the goal that put them in the final after Gayle was taken off – can be read as vindication. But for others it betrayed what we now know about Paisley – that he shared the mistrust of black players’ temperaments that was routine among football men of his age and background. Would he have made the same decision had Howard Gayle been white? That the question even needs raising still seems to me an indictment of the environment within which Gayle was expected to exist. I stand by what I wrote.
From WSC 174 August 2001. What was happening this month