A league of our own

Tomorrow, London plays host to the first-ever pan-European conference on the problem of racism in football. Jason Burt talks to six generations of black players about their experiences and asks: is this 50 years too late?
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One hundred and fourteen years ago, Arthur Wharton ran on to a football pitch and became the first black professional footballer in Britain. Yet over the next 80 years only a handful of black sportsmen – around one or two a decade – would follow in his footsteps, and it wasn't until the 1970s that this began to change in any significant way.

One hundred and fourteen years ago, Arthur Wharton ran on to a football pitch and became the first black professional footballer in Britain. Yet over the next 80 years only a handful of black sportsmen – around one or two a decade – would follow in his footsteps, and it wasn't until the 1970s that this began to change in any significant way.

But then the problems really started. A sudden influx of what the media called "black pearls" was matched by an alarming rise in racism. What followed were 20 shameful years for British football and its fans. The National Front found a home on the terraces, the fans were unforgiving and the authorities turned a blind eye. Racist chants were a matter of course; the players were expected just to get on with it.

Ten years ago, the Football Association's much-lauded Kick It Out campaign was launched, in an attempt to stamp out racism on and off the pitch. But while, as a result, the 300 black or Asian professional footballers who now play in the UK (out of a total of 2,200) have an easier time of it than the trailblazers had, there is still not one Asian player who features regularly in a first team, and no more than a smattering of black managers. Surveys show that black players are paid less and discriminated against when it comes to applying for jobs in management and football administration. So tomorrow's conference, with all 52 of Europe's national football associations represented, has a lot of work to do. The delegates would do well to listen to these voices, the voices of six decades of black football in Britain.

The fifties

During the course of a 10-year career, the Jamaican Lloyd "Lindy" Delapenha played inside-right for, among others, Portsmouth, Middlesbrough and Mansfield Town. In 1964 he returned to Jamaica to work as a sports commentator. Now 75 and retired, he helps run a golf shop.

"I left Jamaica for England in 1945 on a boat full of British PoWs returning from Japan. My sports master at school had said I should make the journey, as he had played for Leicester City's second team as a young man and thought I was good enough to be a professional.

The plan was that I would join the British Army and take it from there. Players such as Tom Finney, Stanley Matthews and Tommy Lawton had all been called up during the war and were still playing for the Army's teams; this meant that I would have the chance to play alongside them and, ideally, get spotted. In fact, this was just what happened. I signed up, was posted to Egypt and while there was spotted by a scout for Portsmouth.

I stayed with Portsmouth two years, and got a championship medal; then Middlesbrough FC decided they wanted me. I told Portsmouth I was happy where I was, but Middlesbrough offered £7,000 and I went.

I was probably the only black player in the league; I was definitely the only West Indian. I was always in the team – they would say my name was glued to the team-sheet – so I had a lot of respect from the players. And I think my temperament helped me: I was very easy-going, had good ball control and worked hard, so I didn't get a lot of abuse from the crowd. If there was any dirt slung at me – they would shout, 'Get back on your banana boat' and call me a 'black so and so' – I just said to myself, 'What the hell,' although I admit that it was upsetting at times.

There was one altercation when I was at Mansfield. I was not even playing – I was injured – but as I went down the tunnel after the game this spectator leant over and abused me. I reacted and hit him on the head with a plastic bucket. The next day he came round to my house and said that he had told his wife what had happened; apparently she had told him to apologise.

Some players were bad. There was one Scottish full-back who was very nasty. He kept saying he would break me into a hundred pieces – though I don't think he was racist; he was just like that. Other players would try to rough me up in a tackle and thought I couldn't handle it. But I was always very careful, and many times managed to avoid having my legs broken.

I was very aware of all the things the media said about black players not liking cold weather and not being disciplined. It was probably said about me. My answer was that football is entertainment, we were not there to hurt each other. So when the Daily Mirror interviewed me in 1953, and I was asked if there were many more players like me back home, I said, 'Yes. They just need the chance.'"

The sixties

Peter Foley, now aged 58, had a relatively short career, playing as a winger for Workington and Scunthorpe United between 1965 and 1970 before a knee injury took him out of the game. He now lives in Cumbria, where he works for British Nuclear Fuels and is a union official with the GMB.

"I originally played junior football in Scotland. But there was only one black professional player in Scotland at the time, a guy called Douglas Johnstone, and I felt the Scottish clubs never gave me a chance. So I moved to England to start my professional career, and joined Workington.

My first bad experience came soon after. It was April, we were playing Queen's Park Rangers away, and I remember during the kick-in the crowd was chanting 'Zulu, Zulu, Zulu'. It took a while for the penny to drop but I eventually realised it was directed at me.

I then went through a bad time, taking a lot of stick off players. For some of them it was just banter, but it affected me. They would say, 'Go back to the jungle' and so on.

We had a reunion at Workington a while back. My former captain came up to me and said it used to make the other players cringe the way the crowd shouted at me. But they never said anything about it at the time. It was hard, especially as I was a winger and was next to the touchline, close to the crowd; particularly with smaller crowds as you could see the people abusing you and hear their voices. And the stewards never did anything. I'll never forget one particular match. I was getting so much abuse from one spectator that the referee stopped the game and had him thrown out of the ground. I never witnessed anything like it before or since – yet the referee never said anything to me.

But what made it worse was seeing fans shouting racist abuse with their little boys sitting next to them. You knew that one day they would start shouting the same.

I was never badly treated by Workington, although once I moved to Scunthorpe it soon became clear that one director obviously did not like me because of my colour. He victimised me and tried to prevent me being picked. I was a good player, but I don't think I was allowed to fulfil my potential. I would try to shut it out; only afterwards did I realise how much it affected me."

The seventies

Bob Hazell, 42, played defence for his home-town club of Wolverhampton Wanderers in 1976 before moving to Queen's Park Rangers and Leicester City. He now works across the UK for the youth offenders service, teaching sport as a way to raise self-esteem.

"My colour was a huge barrier, without doubt. In my first job at Wolverhampton, I was staying in digs run by this sweet little old lady. I couldn't have been with the club more than four weeks when one day I was called in from training and told by the club to go and pack my bags. I was in a state of shock: I thought perhaps I was being sacked. But when I asked my coach what was going on, he just said I had to find somewhere else to stay.

He drove me to my digs to get my things, and kept saying I had to leave, but without going into any detail. When we got there, the landlady said it was because I played my music too loudly, which was nonsense: I used to listen to my music on earphones. When I had packed she admitted that her neighbours were not speaking to her because she had a black boy staying.

Games were tough, too. You would have the whole of the crowd behind one goal chanting racist abuse. And if you were troubled by it, you would be considered some kind of softie, someone without character. When I was at Leicester the fans would chant, 'Nigger, nigger, lick my boots' at black players on the opposing team and then seconds later be chanting, 'There's only one Bob Hazell.' I wanted to make a stand, but fell foul of my team-mates and manager. I said I would not do any public engagements for the club, but the other players felt I was not pulling my weight. Instead I was told to say stupid things about the abuse, like that it did not worry me in the slightest. The clubs just did not want to talk about it.

It still goes on. A lot of the jokes people now consider as just banter are racist. And then you look at the authorities and positions of power. What excuses are there? Why are there so few black managers? The truth is that the football institutions have not changed."

The eighties

Gary Bennett, 41, played defence for Manchester City, Cardiff City, Sunderland, Carlisle United, Scarborough Town, Darlington and Exeter City. He still works in football and was, until very recently, assistant manager at Exeter City.

"I'm from Moss Side in Manchester, which has and had a large black population. So I was lucky to start at Manchester City, a club which at the time was producing a lot of black players, such as Alex Williams, Clive Wilson, Roger Palmer and so on. There were half a dozen of us in the team and there were black faces in the crowd.

But when I moved to Cardiff I started to encounter racism. We played against clubs such as Millwall, which was very, very bad. And then I went up to the North-east to join Sunderland. I was the only black player there, so I felt I had overcome a huge barrier in being there. But my race was still like a millstone round my neck: the manager, Len Ashurst, told me that it would be tough but if I did well the fans would idolise me. If I did not, I may as well get on the first train home.

Still, I knew what I was doing, and things worked out well. I was made captain and became a bit of a folk hero. But when I went out socially in Sunderland, heads would turn and I would stick out like a sore thumb. It did make me feel uneasy at times.

The worst place to play was Newcastle, which was a tough place anyway. Very hostile. The rivalry between the two clubs did not help, and being a black player simply added to the spice. Vendors would sell fruit – bananas and so on – outside the ground to throw at the black players. You just tried to ignore it and would tell yourself that they were only doing it because you were a good player and a threat to them. But it was tough; and as no one would take up the issue, it was no use complaining. Now, the huge influx of black players has undoubtedly eased matters, especially role models like Ian Wright. People used to say that black players were talented but had an attitude problem, but no one says that any more. The best players in the world are black."

The nineties

Robbie Earle, 38, from Newcastle-under-Lyme, played midfield for Port Vale and Wimbledon. Since he retired from football he has made his living as a commentator and sports pundit for the media.

"Football changed drastically in the 1990s. I was at Wimbledon then, which was a cosmopolitan club. The owner was an Arab and we used to joke that we could almost field an all-black team. Black players, such as Paul Ince, were more prominent and fans were getting more educated.

But racism was always there, even as an undercurrent, especially in north and north-east England. There would be chanting from the crows and racial slurs on the field. I would try to turn it into a positive and use it to spur myself on, telling myself they would not be doing it if they weren't worried about me. But I do remember once or twice saying to the referee, 'Did you hear that?' They either ignored me or did not want to get involved. I think they felt they did not have the jurisdiction.

Now it has become more subtle. I remember staying overnight at a hotel where the staff were uncomfortable serving me my food. So, while racism may not be as overt, we cannot be complacent. Just look at how few black players have made it into management and positions of authority in the game: there are one or two, but really there should be dozens. That side of the game is suffering from the same kind of stereotypes as playing did 20 years ago.

The other major concern is the Asian community. They are where black players were two or three decades ago. They need a couple of pioneers to break through."

The noughties

The Londoner Joel "Jobi" McAnuff, 21, has recently launched his professional football career. He currently plays in midfield for Wimbledon.

"To be honest, there is not a lot of racism now on the terraces and any abuse you get from the fans does not tend to be about your colour. I have been subjected to racist abuse only once, five years ago when I was in the youth team. It was an FA Youth Cup game with a club notorious for its attitude. The spectators were shouting 'black this and that', and directing abuse at the parents and away fans as well as the players. It even carried on after the game, which we won, which made them even more angry. We told the manager, who had witnessed it himself. But there wasn't an awful lot we could do.

The situation has undoubtedly improved enormously. An older black player at Wimbledon, Michael Thomas, told us what it was like in the 1980s with bananas being thrown and abuse. Back then it was definitely much harder to make it as a black player. If the racists had had their way then there would not have been any black players at all.

Despite my experiences, I still believe that not enough is being done to counter racism, especially by the authorities. Organisations such as Uefa and Fifa should be taking a stronger stance, especially in European games. Clubs who have a problem with racists should be penalised. It is as simple as that."