September 2001 marked the 20th anniversary of John Barnes's debut for Watford. We asked five other black players of the same generation to recall their problems with racism in the early part of their career and reflect on how things have changed since
Debut for Man City: November 1979
Now: Football Community manager, Man City
“When I first started coming down to Maine Road there were a lot of black kids so you’d end up playing with your friends, which cushioned you from racism a bit. My first real experience of it was when we played Millwall in the FA Youth Cup final. The first leg was at Maine Road and they brought 3,000 down. It was bad enough here but then we went there…
By my second year Clive Wilson was there too and we used to get all the stick. But there are different ways to react: you either fall and go back and you never recover or you just try harder than you ever did before. Sometimes it was harder being a goalkeeper – I did wish I could run up to the half-way line.
I always found there were two types of racism when I was in the first team: there was the mickey-taking type and then there was the real race hatred. I remember Leeds was quite bad – I had a load of bananas thrown at me when I ran up to take my position in goal – while Everton was more your mickey-taking.
I always remember as a kid running out for the second half at Goodison. I was running towards the Everton end and this guy had rolled up a programme into the shape of cross and lit it – he was hanging it over the top of the barrier. At the time it obviously wasn’t funny but I look back on it now and chuckle. I think I won over a lot of people that day and the experience was good for me.
My family didn’t really warn me that these sort of things might happen because they didn’t know anything about football. They came from the West Indies, were into a bit of cricket and that was about it. I remember when I used to have a bad game and people would have a go at my dad at work. He stopped coming to games because he was an asthmatic and he always wanted to fight everybody who slagged me off. It’s not a nice industry, football – the good things are nice, but there are lots of bad things about being a professional footballer that I certainly don’t miss.
I never had many racial problems with my fellow pros. Mick McCarthy was one of the hardest men I’ve ever played with and we always used to have battles, but they were fair. I remember as a young kid Tommy Hutchison was hard work, he wasn’t very helpful to the young pros, but you have to deal with people like that if you’re going to be a footballer.
Two things kept me going. First I was paid, for the time, a decent wage. Secondly, even now when I play occasionally I tell myself that it’s just a kickabout, but as soon as the whistle is blown something inside me says I want to win. If you put in a good performance they don’t see the colour thing, they say ‘he’s a good player’ rather than ‘he’s a black player’.”
Debut for Arsenal: April 1980
Now: Coach at Arsenal academy
“Racism was very prevalent, very strong, in my early years. Particularly among fans, not so much players. I can’t ever remember seriously getting any racial abuse from players – maybe one or two incidents. But you used to get a lot of chants from opposing fans, especially up in places like the north east. Leeds was pretty bad as well. I remember once at West Ham at the end of the game there were bananas and coins scattered all over the pitch. That was quite an intimidating place to go because you were so close to the fans.
Looking back on it, it was quite a lonely experience. I was almost the only black player at Arsenal in the early Eighties and there weren’t that many in other teams. It helped when other players started to come through, but I can’t say we ever really got together to talk about it as a group. I think it would have been a lot more comforting if we had been able to.
But in the end I didn’t let it affect me too much. Your ambition is to be a professional and you want to be the best. These things that happen really shouldn’t distract you from playing the game or doing your best, although that’s what they are meant to do. Definitely there was also a feeling among coaches that black players didn’t like the cold, didn’t like the physical side of the game, and I had to overcome that too.
If people don’t grow up with people of different nationalities and different cultures they tend to fear what they don’t know. Maybe fear is too strong a word, but they’re unsure of them. I think with me that was the biggest problem, the cultural thing – some of the humour wasn’t what I had grown up with. Not that they were necessarily aimed at me, but the general joking around the dressing-room, I don’t know, it could be something they saw on TV that was funny to them, but less funny to me.
Maybe it’s changing now, but generally when I was coming through black players tended to be a bit quieter and I think other players and coaches didn’t know how to handle that. I think this is where people got the idea that black players had a chip on their shoulder. It’s something that’s obviously got better – you don’t get the same chanting now – and it’s thanks to the generation of Luther Blissett, Cyrille Regis and people before them like Clyde Best and Ade Coker at West Ham. Even to someone like Pelé. As a black player you look to someone like that and think, well he’s black, he’s the best in the world. That’s got to inspire you, no matter what the problems you’re trying to get through in your career.”
Debut for Wolves: May 1977
Now: Commercial executive, PFA
I certainly was not happy about the racial comments and jokes in the dressing-room at Wolves. But when you’re only a baby, and it’s a couple of the senior pros at the club who are doing it, it’s difficult. But when you start getting on in the club a bit eventually you have to make a stand. On the pitch of course you just got it full stop. It was part and parcel of every single game you played. And what you didn’t get at that time was back-up from your team-mates. I was quite lucky in that the position I played, I could always mete out my own justice, as it were. There was always going to be an opportunity to hurt somebody if I had to – not in the sense of breaking their legs, but just to let them feel your presence.
Crowds were a nightmare, a total nightmare. The worst ones were Leeds and Millwall, they were unbelievable. I remember a game against West Brom at the Hawthorns. A big local derby. They had Cyrille Regis, Brendon Batson and Laurie Cunningham playing. I can remember vividly waiting for an Albion corner at the Baggies’ end. I was marking Cyrille Regis. And this fan behind the goal is going, ‘Fuck off you nigger, fuck off you black bastard,’ and all that kind of stuff. I could see him in the crowd right by the near post. Cyrille’s shaking his head. And I looked at the bloke and said, ‘Excuse me, who are you fucking talking to? Is that aimed at me or Cyrille – make your mind up!’ And that summed it up for me. The fans were having a go at me, but they didn’t realise that it was equally offensive to a player who was actually giving his blood for the cause which is his team.
There was a big incident when I jumped into the crowd after a game – thank God it was cut out of the ITV coverage. We played Watford in the Cup at Molineux and got beat 3-0. Luther Blissett scored a screamer of a goal from a bad clearance from me, right on the final whistle. As we were coming off the pitch I was getting some absolutely terrible abuse from this bloke in the crowd – a Wolves fan. I thought, ‘Hold on, I’m not taking this.’ So I walked back down on to the track and said, ‘Excuse me, what did you say?’ And he said, ‘You fucking heard.’ And I just lost it and jumped into the crowd and started beating him up. We had to go down to the police station and got a bollocking from the chief inspector, but it all got hushed up.
But mostly, if the crowd got on my back, I knew I was doing my job. If I was having a crap game I never got slaughtered, but when I was having a good game, everything was coming at us. Because obviously what they were trying to do was make you lose concentration. Because I knew that, it used to spur me on. It was not nice – it was horrible and unacceptable, but you have to take the negatives and turn them into positives.
The thing is they would never talk to me in the street like that. But because they’d paid their money they thought they had the right to say what they wanted. If they want to say ‘George Berry’s crap’, that is legitimate. But there’s not enough money in the world you can pay to give you the right to make it racial.”
Debut for Cardiff City: September 1981
Now: Manager of Darlington
“The worst racism I experienced was probably Newcastle, partly because of the Sunderland rivalry. Then Millwall, though eveybody got abuse there, it wasn’t just because of your colour, playing for the opposition was enough. The abuse I had was only ever from the fans, not others players or managers. But as more black players appeared in football, it died down.
Crystal Palace was a place I remember for the lack of racial abuse. I remember playing against them when they had several black players, maybe a majority of the team – Ian Wright, Mark Bright, Eric Young, Andy Gray and so on. Wimbledon too, when they had four or five black players. There’s been a vast change since the early Eighties. Around 90 per cent of teams have black players now. Back then it was maybe only 25 per cent. Young black kids coming into the game have seen what players can achieve – they see Ian Wright and feel that they can be where he is.
When I was a player at Sunderland I went through a stage when I was getting stopped three or four times a week by the local police, because I had a nice car. A couple of times it happened when I was out with friends, another Sunderland player Gordon Armstrong and his girlfriend, whose dad was a policeman. I made a complaint then and it stopped for a while. They’d stop you for the sake of stopping you. It was always: ‘What are you doing in a car like this and in this area?’ I made another complaint, to the CID superintendent who lived opposite me, who’d actually seen it happen. Then they acted on it and they laid off.
I have to thank my chairman at Darlington for my becoming a manager, he’s taken a gamble. Occasionally there’s a reaction. Sometimes I might walk into an office at another club and I’ll be stopped and asked what I’m doing but as I soon as say that I’m Gary Bennett and I’m the Darlington manager they say, ‘Oh, OK.’ But they are surprised.
I get it sometimes when players who we want to sign come to see me and don’t know I’m black. But it probably does help when it comes to signing black players, they’re maybe a bit more relaxed about the prospect of playing for you – especially when they otherwise might not think to come to the north east.”
Debut for Leeds: November 1979
Now: Reserve team coach at Wolves
“When I began, Viv Anderson had just made his debut for England and we were like the next generation: people like Fashanu, Regis and Barnes. But if you look through most of the teams, it was like they had – I wouldn’t say a token black player – but more or less one per team, mainly as a centre-forward or winger. But as the Eighties moved on, people like Des Walker and midfield players came in behind us.
It was a case of breaking down one barrier after another. As a midfielder will they get up and down? Yes they will. As a defender will they be tough enough when the boots are going in? Yes they will. It was a progression, but we always had to answer the question. But I do feel that from the later part of the Nineties equality has really broken through – now you can have any player in any position of any colour or nationality.
I wouldn’t say people said those kind of things to you openly, not to me personally anyway, but I think that was the feeling we had as players. You’d play against someone like Justin Fashanu and have a chat afterwards and say, ‘We’ve got to keep pushing, got to keep making the way for other people to come in.’ Now Paul Ince has captained his country, which no other black guy had done before. The next thing is more black people will go on into management and one of us will come through as a top coach or a top manager.
Leeds wasn’t a particularly tough place for me to start, because I was born and brought up in Leeds. The fans were fantastic towards me. Yet I could never understand that they would give so much stick to players on the other team. The only way to silence them was to try to show them that you weren’t intimidated.
The players were fine, no problems. Of course you got the odd name-call. You knew what they were trying to do and I never once took it as a personal thing. I never got booked for retaliating against things like that and that’s what I coach now to young black players facing the same problems, though it’s rare that those things happen now. With the foreign players coming in it’s become even less of an issue, it’s become what it should be, which is a multicultural, multiracial sport.”
From WSC 174 August 2001. What was happening this month