Friends and family and complete strangers often ask me what I’m working on. Of late it’s been most satisfying to get a response along the lines of, “You what? Really? Never!” And to elicit that reply all I’ve said is the truth: “It’s a film about a football match in 1979, at West Bromwich Albion, between black players and white players. Blacks v whites!”
It’s nice to provoke a reaction. And I suppose it’s reassuring to see how alert people now are to cultural sensitivities. Many questions are raised: why was it, sort of, all right to stage such a match then? And why does it feel now, in retrospect, kind of awful? It’s more complicated than you might think. One (white) football fan I got talking to about it in a pub told me I was a disgrace for even suggesting the match was ever anything but a disgrace. That same evening another (black) fan I know, said, “You know what? It might be a sign that we really have come a long way if one day we could have another match like that and nobody bats an eyelid.”
The match was a testimonial for West Brom’s white midfielder Len Cantello, as thanks for his long service to the club. Quite whose idea it was to pit black players against white ones is unclear. Nobody seems to want the credit, or the blame.
At the time West Brom, my team, were regarded as trailblazers for black footballers. Famously, we had three: Brendon Batson, Laurie Cunningham and Cyrille Regis. And we felt different, even special, because of it. In that context the match felt like nothing so much as a celebration of how far they, and black footballers generally, had come. Never mind any misgivings about it not being in the best possible taste, it just felt like an achievement to be able to field a whole team of black players. Where once there had been only one or two in dressing rooms, on that day, they had the room to themselves.
Cyrille Regis, Brendon Batson, Adrian Chiles looking at archive photographs
That decade had been riven with racial unrest. I’m ashamed to say that I actually needed reminding just how brutal life was for black footballers. All the black players I spoke to recall with perfectly appalling clarity the kind of abuse they got. “Every word,” said Bob Hazell, the ex-Wolves defender. “When you were playing, you heard every word that was said.”
Disappointingly, West Brom fans, even with all our black players, weren’t without sin either. George Berry, one of the black XI, recalls playing for Wolves at West Brom. “I’m marking Cyrille on the near post at a corner. And all I can hear from this West Brom fan is, ‘You black b*****d, effing get back up the tree, you effing golliwog!’ And I’m marking Cyrille Regis! I just said to this bloke doing the shouting, ‘Who are you talking to? Me or Cyrille?’ Cyrille just shook his head.”
All of which begs the question, why play a blacks v whites match if this is what the world was like? The only objection we came across was in a Guardianarticle reporting on the worries of a local councillor that it could spark racial unrest (it didn’t). Ultimately I can only respect the views of the black players who took part.
“It was just a novelty and we never once thought about any of the social aspect of it,” says Brendon Batson. “We didn’t hear any dissenting voices. There was never anybody who said, ‘Do you realise the implication?’ Nothing at all. It was just a novelty thing. And it was fun. In that dressing room it was great fun.”
Interestingly, the white players I spoke to who took part have only sketchy memories of the game. Not so the black players, who remember it clearly, fondly and with some pride. And they wanted to win. “Big time, yeah,” smiles Cyrille Regis. “Because you got the banter, you got the bragging rights. It was so important to us.”
Spoiler alert: Cyrille’s team won 3–2. At a reunion last month Tony Brown, who played for the white team, explained earnestly this was only the result because the whites had agreed to let them win. As everyone roared with laughter you could only give thanks that even in those troubled times, there were days when the world was starting to look like a better place.
Whites v Blacks: How Football Changed a Nation is on BBC2 tonight at 9pm