Kick racism out of football: Very Best of role models

Clyde and his crusaders in claret and blue stress need to protect family values
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The Independent Football

Though his current job with the Bermuda Department of Corrections is a very long ball indeed away from the game in which he made his name, Clyde Best has been much cheered this weekend by two items of news: the first, that the proposed takeover of his old club, West Ham United, is in difficulties; and the second, that the latest stage in the Let's Kick Racism Out of Football campaign will get under way in Britain next week and run until the end of the month.

What kept Best's resolve high when he came to Britain as a 17-year-old striker of high promise but raw experience was the welcoming family atmosphere he encountered at Ron Greenwood's West Ham, an atmosphere that he insists is what made, and continues to make, the club so special.

"For anybody to come in and just take it over would not feel right," he said. "You have had generations of people supporting the club, with season tickets passed on through the family. One day I was sitting in my living room here in Bermuda when there was a knock on the door. It was a West Ham supporter who was over from England and just wanted to say hello. That's the sort of club it is."

As for kicking racism out of football, Best would have welcomed such an organisation in the late Sixties and early Seventies, when he suffered the brunt of prejudice as the leading black player of a very small group in the Football League. "Racism existed then, let's not deny it," said Best, while stressing he faced few problems at Upton Park, "apart from one or two stupid people."

His most miserable moments, he says, came on trips to the north of England, where the word "nigger" was hurled from the terraces of clubs he opts not to name.

"It would have been easy to pack up, put your tail between your legs and go home, but that wasn't going to happen as far as I was concerned. Friends still ask me, 'How did you put up with it?' I tell them that I knew I had a responsibility as a role model for black people. I tried to do it to the best of my ability, and I think I did a pretty good job.

"Somebody had to be the front-runner. I don't know if it was a God-given plan, but He chose me. I was keen to play my football and do well, but I had to think of those coming behind me rather than myself. When you look at how things have changed today, if I had anything to do with that coming about, great. That's what I was there to do."

The documented experience of other black footballers highlights what the modest Best suffered. At West Bromwich, Cyrille Regis felt the abuse he received was "the supporters rebelling against me because I had taken a white guy's place in the team". And when Vince Hilaire started warming up before coming on for Crystal Palace at Port Vale in 1976, he recalled: "I couldn't believe the abuse that was coming at me... animal noises and all the names you think of calling a black person.

"It frightened me a bit, so I couldn't wait to get back in the dug-out, and I thought, 'Well, if this is the sort of reception I'm going to get, then I don't really want to know'."

In addition to the fatherly presence of Greenwood (who called Clyde "the best 17-year-old I have ever seen"), Best was boosted by the inspiring example of his team captain, Bobby Moore. "Bobby took abuse wherever he went, not because of the colour of his skin but because of how good he was. From him I learned that it doesn't make sense hiding, you have a job to do.

"Being in Bobby's company every week gave me the support I needed. He was a fantastic person. My being able to keep things under control and not losing it was down to playing with Bobby. You never saw him waver, and I tried to copy that. Being in that sort of company teaches you how to handle situations."

The ability to handle situations is something black footballers still need, as Best notes, in Eastern Europe. "If you allow these people to get into your mind, they are going to affect your game." He feels much more could be done on an official basis. "Clubs, associations and Fifa must take action in Eastern Europe. In England the problem seems to be under control, but in those parts of the world they need help.

"When you think we are in 2006, something needs to be done urgently. Close down the stadiums, hit them in the pocket."

That Western, as well as Eastern, Europe nurtures racism was highlighted when the Spanish national coach, Luis Aragones, called Thierry Henry "a black shit" and still managed to keep his job. "Hey, show him the door if he makes comments like that," said Best. "It's inexcusable."

What a 17-year-old Best was entitled to find inexcusable was that there was no one from West Ham to meet him when he flew into Heathrow from Bermuda to join the club. "Right then, I wished I had never come." He took the Tube to West Ham, not realising the station he needed was Upton Park, but was helped by a Hammers fan, who directed him to a house where the club's young players lodged.

Best made his first-team debut against Arsenal in 1969, recalling in Brian Belton's newly published book The Black Hammers*: "I took the No 7 shirt that had been Harry Redknapp's for much of the previous year." His first goal came against Burnley in October of that year, and in 218 games Best scored 58 times.

Despite playing at Old Trafford in front of a bigger crowd than Bermuda's 60,000 population, Best never lost his sense of perspective. He did come close to losing his cool, though, when he was omitted by John Lyall from the West Ham team for the 1975 Cup final, and it led to his departure for a new career in North American soccer with Tampa Bay, then two seasons in the Dutch League at Feyenoord before a return to North America at Toronto and Portland.

Admitting he "wasn't happy at the time" about his omission from the Cup final, Best says: "You can't afford to be bitter. In fact, if I had my time over again I would still go back to West Ham because we were one big, happy family. I've got claret-and-blue blood, and every time I go back to England I go to the stadium."

Best's most recent visit was in June, to collect from Buckingham Palace the MBE awarded to him for services to football and the community of Bermuda. Those services have not been in football for some time. He was appointed as technical director of the Bermuda national side in 1997, but his contract was not renewed in 2000. Since then he has worked in a transitional centre for prison inmates, "advising those who are ready to be released back into society".

That advice will surely be cherished from someone who has achieved, and been through, so much in football, of which Clyde Best says in summation: "Whenever a goal is scored nobody looks at your race, do they? That's the good thing about the game."

The Black Hammers (Pennant Books, £16.99)


Johnny the One - but he wouldn't be the only one

Self-styled "Johnny the One", Charles was the first black player to appear for West Ham, making his debut in May 1963. He was born in Canning Town in Sept-ember 1944, the son of a white mother and a West Indian seaman father, and the eighth of nine children. The ninth, Clive, also briefly played for the club.

Having turned down a trial with Essex at cricket because he was mourning his father's death, Charles joined West Ham straight from school in 1959 and signed professional forms two years later at 17, captaining the FA Youth Cup-winning side against Liverpool. His five England Youth caps were the first won by a black player at any England level. A left-back who played 132 times alongside Bobby Moore, Charles said he did not encounter any racism at West Ham. "You got the odd 'black bastard' but that never worried me."

From 1969 he was plagued by recurring hamstring problems, leaving the club in 1971 and joining his wife's father in running a market stall. "At West Ham I was earning £65 a week, my first week as a barrow boy I got £200," he recalled. But Johnny the One descended into alcoholism, suffered bankruptcy and spent time in a mental hospital before dying of cancer, aged 57, in August 2002.


Abused - but only because he wore a Man Utd shirt

Capped 53 times by England in midfield, Paul Emerson Carlyle Ince was born at Ilford in October 1967. Having played for Essex Schoolboys, he was spotted at the age of 12 by John Lyall, then a Hammers coach, signed as a trainee at 14, joined the Upton Park youth training scheme aged 15 and turned pro a year later.

He made his full debut at 19 in November 1986 against Chelsea and quickly became a regular in midfield, playing 81 games and scoring eight goals, before leaving in sour circumstances to join Manchester United. West Ham supporters never forgave Ince after a picture of him wearing a Manchester United shirt appeared in a national newspaper before the transfer had gone through, and whenever he played at Upton Park subsequently the boos which greeted him were mistaken for racist abuse.

His time at Old Trafford (278 games, 28 goals) also ended in argument, Alex Ferguson dismissing Ince as a "big-time Charlie" and selling him to Internazionale in 1995. In Italy he suffered racist chanting at away games before returning to England with Liverpool, going on to play for Middlesbrough, then Wolves, and closing his playing career last week at Swindon. Management beckons.


'Racism is a big problem everywhere. It is in Africa'

Born in Cameroon in May 1975, the man known to all as Marco had won 54 caps for his country by the time he joined West Ham from the French club RC Lens for a club-record £4.5 million in January 1999, having seen an earlier projected move to Manchester United fall apart when he suffered a broken leg during training with Cameroon just before the 1998 World Cup finals in France.

In his 14 months at Upton Park, Foé scored twice from midfield in 48 appearances. He said that he encountered no racism at West Ham - "the fans were always very good to me" - but he claimed: "Racism is a big problem everywhere. There is racism in Africa."

Though he settled quickly in the friendly atmosphere at West Ham at a time when African football and African footballers were making their mark on the world game, Foé regularly fell foul of referees, collecting two dismissals and nine yellow cards in his final year.

At the end of the 1999-2000 season Foé came close to a much-anticipated £4.6m move to Liverpool. Instead, the then Hammers manager Harry Redknapp sold him to Olympique Lyonnais for £6m. In June 2003, playing for Cameroon against Colombia in Lyon, Foé collapsed and died of a heart attack. He was 28.


Out of the shadow of big brother steps a home boy

The youngster born in Peckham, south London, in February 1985 signed professional forms for West Ham at 17 in the same week that his older brother, Rio, completed a £30 million move from Upton Park to Manchester United.

Anton abandoned thoughts of a singing career in order to sign YTS forms for West Ham, the only club he has known or, he claims, wants to know. He pays tribute to his previous and present managers, Glenn Roeder and Alan Pardew, for helping him to develop into a valued regular at centre-back.

Already an England Under-18 international, he made his Hammers debut at the start of the 2003-04 season following the club's relegation, a campaign which ended with him being named Young Hammer of the Year by supporters. The special moments of his career to date are helping West Ham regain their Premiership place and scoring (against Fulham) at Upton Park, something brother Rio never managed.

"I have experienced racism in football," said Anton, "but you get that everywhere. It's in a very small minority at West Ham." He believes that publicity to help ethnic minorities feel more welcome at football stadiums is something which would make a difference.

Ronald Atkin