Football and racism

There have been black players in British professional football since the game’s earliest days, although they were very few in number.

Probably the first black player in Britain was Andrew Watson. He captained Scotland in 1881. In England the first was probably Arthur Wharton who played in goal for Preston North End in the 1880s. He was followed by Walter Tull, who played for Tottenham Hotspur and Northampton Town.

These players were sometimes abused by the crowds because of their colour. After Tull was abused in one in 1909 the Northampton Echo said of him

“Let me tell these Bristol hooligans (there were but few of them in a crowd of nearly twenty thousand) that Tull is so clean in mind and method as to be a model for all white men who play football whether they be amateur or professional. In point of ability, if not in actual achievement, Tull was the best forward on the field”

During the First World War Tull became an officer in the army.

In 1931, Eddie Parris, who was born near Chepstow and played for Bradford Park Avenue, became the first black player to be capped by Wales.

It was not until immigration into Britain from the Commonwealth grew in the 1950s that the number of black players began to develop. But progress was slow and it was only in the 1970s, when the children of this generation of immigrants reached adulthood, that black players began to make a real impact on the British game.

In the 1970s and 1980s, as the profile and number of black players grew, so did the racist abuse from the terraces. It was not uncommon for crowds to make monkey noises and throw bananas onto the pitch when visiting teams had black players.  Even black players on the home team were sometimes called racist names, especially if they were not playing well. There were few places in society where racism was as open and vocal as it was in football grounds. The sport was revealing how poorly some people were reacting to the multiculturalism that was emerging in Britain.

In 1984, Swansea City signed its first black player, midfielder Steve Mardenborough.  In the 1984-5 season he made 36 league appearances and scored 7 goals. He left Swansea at the end of the season because of the club’s financial problems.

One fan remembered of him: ‘surprisingly enough (especially for those days) he didn’t get much racist abuse, unlike the black players who visited the Vetch … because of his performances, the North Bank took him to their collective heart’.

Mardenborough was a good example of how black players helped move wider society towards becoming multiculturalism. The talent and achievements of black players slowly won over fans and helped build a more accepting view of racial diversity. The hostile abuse those players endured also woke people up to the extent of racism in society and this shocked many and encouraged them to speak out against it.

By the 1990s, it had become the norm for most British teams to have black players. At the highest level of the game, teams were also becoming more cosmopolitan as players were brought in from overseas. Indeed, there was probably no other part of British society that was as ethnically diverse as Premiership football clubs.

In the 2012-13 season Swansea City have players who are Dutch, English, French, German, Northern Irish, South Korean, Scottish, Spanish and, of course, Welsh. Twelve of the players are black or mixed race.

Racism, however, still exists within professional football. The mass monkey chants of the 1970s and 80s may be gone but prejudices still exist and crowds and clubs can sometimes still use racial stereotypes.  This might help explain why so few British Asian players have become professional players.  It appears that some scouts and coaches believe that Asian players do not have the physique to make it in professional football and that their diet is not right for the game.

Crowds have also been slower to reject racist chanting when the target is Asians rather than black players. When Sam Hamman owned Cardiff City in the late 1990s, a portion of the Swansea crowd used to sing a song that called him a racially-abusive term.

Such racist chanting at Swansea has almost disappeared since the move to the Liberty Stadium in 2005. That is partly because the move to all-seater stadiums has changed the atmosphere and culture of attending football matches but it is also another sign of the growing tolerance and equality of Welsh and British society.

Questions for discussion

  1. Does race and colour matter in football?
  2. Do you think football helps fight racism or does it act as an outlet for racism?
  3. How do you think racist abuse might affect players?
  4. How would you react if you heard racism at a football match?

For more information on racism in football please visit the Show Racism the Red Card website.


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