Documentary tells story which was more than black and white

VIEW FROM THE PRESSBOX: Did we really accept this as “normal”? PATRICK COLLINS reviews a gently absorbing, and disturbing, BBC documentary

Nearly 40 years have passed since those awful Saturday afternoons, yet their ugliness remains as stark as ever. There was the violence, of course, the surge of the crowd, the swelling roar, the sudden awareness of flying punches and bottles, the beleaguered desperation of the police.

Up in the Pressbox, we would assess the scale of the disturbance: “A riot?” – “Nah, not remotely.”

“A skirmish, then?” – “Worse than that.”

“All right, a fracas.” – “Perfect.”

We would settle on “fracas” and the nation would be informed. It was a weekly ritual.

The same with racism. Small-scale chanting could be ignored, even vile choruses of the N word. Indeed, my own instinct was to try to ignore the Neanderthals altogether, lest they be given the attention they sought. But when they singled out an individual black player for particular abuse, then it became too disgusting to ignore. And so we would write our stories, in the sad knowledge that the headlines might well be cherished by the culprits.

Looking back, I can’t recall ever asking one of those black footballers how he felt about the weekly abuse. For one thing, it felt intrusive. For another, he would have been raising his head above the parapet. And he would have paid the penalty on the following Saturday.

After watching Whites v Blacks – the Match that Changed a Nation, I wish I had been more inquisitive.

Adrian Chiles with Cyrille Regis and in the BBC's Whites v Blacks
Adrian Chiles with Cyrille Regis and Brendan Batson in the BBC’s Whites v Blacks

Adrian Chiles presented a gently absorbing BBC2 documentary, telling the tale of Len Cantello’s testimonial match at West Bromwich Albion back in 1979 when they lined up two sides, one entirely of white players, the other made up of black footballers. Nobody took credit for that idea, which is understandable. Today, the scheme would never have left the drawing board but, as Chiles observed, this was the era of the Black and White Minstrels and execrable sitcoms such as Love Thy Neighbour, where they used the N words as a punchline.

At that time, Albion included three black players in their first team. In the face of outrageous criticism, Ron Atkinson brought through Brendan Batson, Cyrille Regis and the supremely gifted Laurie Cunningham. Being Atkinson, he immediately ruined his civilised decision by dubbing them “The Three Degrees”. But they could play, how they could play! And the ferocity of the abuse they received on grounds all over England was, in part, a recognition of their collective ability. One entranced Albion fan, as well-meaning as he was wrong-headed, said: “I used to think: ‘If only they were white’!’’

Cunningham was the shining star; quick, sharp and lethal in the box. A former girlfriend told a tale which illuminated the times. She was walking with Laurie in Birmingham when three men passed by and one of them spat at her and yelled a racial insult. Cunningham thumped him, knocking him down. The other two were about to receive similar treatment, when the first man, blood pouring from his nose, looked up from the gutter. He seemed awestruck. “Hey!” he said, in broadest Brummie. “You’re Laurie Cunningham.” And you knew that he would boast to his friends about the one – sided encounter.

But this was 1979, when Margaret Thatcher could speak of the “fear that people might be swamped by people of a different culture”, when almost every pitch would be showered with bananas when the best of the black players were in action, when every pass, every tackle was played out to crude choruses of monkey chants. And if they sought help from official England, then none was forthcoming. Bob Hazell, a strong, talented central defender who played for Wolves, remembered the time when he wanted to change his hairstyle. The Football Association intervened: “No dreadlocks.”

It takes a remarkably tolerant, forgiving nature to lay such slights to rest, to shrug it off as a painful stage in the journey towards a time when such offences would be unthinkable. Yet the men that Chiles assembled were stunningly forgiving.

It takes a remarkably tolerant, forgiving nature to lay such slights to rest, to shrug it off as a painful stage in the journey towards a time when such offences would be unthinkable

For they knew that the times were a-changing, and football itself was changing, slowly but certainly. We have now reached the stage when 30 per cent of British professional footballers are black. One day, down the line, we shall achieve a similar healthy ratio in dugout and board room. And attitudes – while still imperfect — are markedly, mercifully different.

So Batson smiled, and chose to recall the good times. Regis spoke of “turning the other cheek”.

And Hazell acknowledged the change in the climate, before remarking, quietly: “When I think of the things we had to go through, in what was meant to be the best time of our lives.”

  • Patrick Collins, the former chief sports writer of the Mail on Sunday, is the President of the SJA