The Pioneers

A year or so ago, I sat in the Shortwave Cafe in Bermondsey to watch a film called ‘Black and White Millwall.’ The film, made by Danish academic Ole Jensen, looked at the black Millwall fan base, including the legendary Ian Garwood, better known as ‘Tiny.’ Indeed it was Ole finding out about Tiny, who was certainly ‘top boy’ down The Den for many years that piqued his interest to then make the film.

I was in the crowd with an old mate of mine, Danny Walters and ex Millwall player Phil Walker, both black Londoners. After the film was shown, which gamely dealt with the blatant racism among the crowd especially in the 70s & 80s (and which still lingers on in football today of course) a question was asked from the floor by someone who was struggling to make sense on Millwall having a history of black fans.

I think it was Danny who in reply simply said ‘Millwall? It’s complicated…’

I knew exactly what he meant and of course that also applies to countless clubs up and down the country, both off and on the pitch, so it was timely then to hear of the book ‘Footballs Black Pioneers’ by Bill Hearn and David Gleave with a foreword by Viv Anderson MBE. The work documents the first black players to represent the 92 league clubs. Some of them you may have heard of, but many you wont have. Among some of the bios, there is still a debate as to who was the first to play for which particular club, but I’m not going to get bogged down in that and instead will highlight their footballing careers in general. All of the players mentioned suffered racist abuse on various levels, with some choosing to ignore it, and others confronting it. The fact that they made a career in the game despite all that going on is testament to the men.

Space doesn’t allow me to feature all the players within the book, so instead I have picked out my ten fave stories from the first read through, in no particular order, from over the years that the book covers.

Tewfik Abdullah – Born in Cairo, Egypt in 1896, he not wholly surprisingly picked up the nickname ‘Toothpick’ when he played for Derby in the 1920s.
He had heard about Derby from their full back Tommy Barbour who played against Tewfik in a game in Egypt during World War One.  In fact for Tewfik, it was a chance to study engineering in the town, that drew him to Derby more than the football, though whilst there, he met with the then manager Jimmy Methven, on the recommendation of his old mate Tommy. Methven gave Tewfik a game in the reserves and was suitably impressed with his skills. He then scored on his debut in a 3-0 win over Man City and played a total of 15 games for the club before joining Cowdenbeath, and going on to score 24 goals in 62 games. After spells at Brigend and Hartlepools United (as they were known up until 1968) he moved to Fall River Marksmen in the United States. There he was refused rooms in white only hotels, which hastened his return to Egypt to play, before finishing his playing career in the Canadian league. He certainly got about, I’ll give him that. He then became manager of the Egyptian national side till 1944 and led them to the 1952 Olympics, having played in the 1920 games himself for his country.

A maverick to the end, his date of death is not known.

Charlie Williams – Yes that Charlie Williams. Familiar to TV viewers of the 1970s & 80s with his ‘hey up flower’ catchphrase and all that. Born in late 1927, he was the son of a Barbadian sailor who settled in Royston, South Yorkshire and married a local girl, Frances. Charlie left school at 14 and worked down the pit at the local colliery. Already a promising footballer, he had joined Leeds as an amateur and then Doncaster on terms in 1947/48. Said to be a hard player, he was of a decent standard plying his trade in the old Second Division. He played a total of 173 league and cup games for the club, leaving them in 1959. He joined non-league Skegness and then joined Sydney FC in Australia. Well, until it was discovered he was black and the offer was withdrawn. Cue a large controversy. That decision was eventually overturned and Charlie was welcome to go, but by then, he had decided to stay in the UK. He left Skeggie in 1962 and by this time was working the social clubs as a singer and comedian, finally getting his big break after being featured on the TV show ‘The Comedians.’ Looking back at his act now, it is very clunky in today’s climate, but he did what he had to do the make a living back then, and there is nothing wrong in that in my book.

Trevor Lee – A name still feted at The Den, home of Millwall. Trevor was born in the summer of 1954. A junior at Fulham, he signed in October 1975 for Millwall along with his good friend Phil Walker. As mentioned earlier racism was rife in that era and Millwall had a terrible reputation at the heart of it. Opposing black players were subject to vile abuse, whereas Walker and Lee were idolised by those same people on those same terraces.  However, when Trevor moved onto Colchester after a few seasons, and then appeared playing for them at The Den, he himself was on the wrong end of the abuse.

As I said earlier, it’s complicated. Gillingham next for Trevor and then the Orient, Bournemouth, Cardiff, and Northampton, before ending up back at Fulham, where it all started for him.

Mike Trebilcock – Born in Cornwall in late 1944, Mike’s dads name was not on his birth certificate but was acknowledged as ‘being of black heritage.’ Mike first played for non-league Tavistock, and then had 80 odd games for Plymouth before his move to Everton aged 21 for £23,000 in 1965. In the 1966 FA Cup Final he became the first black player to score in the showpiece event. His two goals drew the Toffees level with Sheffield Wednesday, before Derek Temple scored the late winner. Trebilcock finished his career at Portsmouth in 1968. He later moved to Australia and when asked in 2016, 50 years after his big day at Wembley, whether he now felt Australian or English, he replied, ‘I’m a Cornishman and I will be until the day I die.’

Tony Ford – Born in May 1959, Ford is second only to Peter Shilton in football league games played, 931 in total, over a 26 year career. Add cup games to the equation, and he reached 1,081 appearances before retiring aged 42. Some feat that. Mum was Bradford born Jean and dad Charles from Barbados. Tony started his career at Grimsby in 1975 aged just 16. In his time with the club, they achieved two promotions and Tony played all 42-league games in season 1983/84 and then again in 84/85, being voted player of the year on both occasions. When he moved on in 1986/87, Sunderland showed interest, but it was Stoke who got his signature before he ended up at West Brom. He played for England B in 1989. He then went back to Grimsby, Scunthorpe and Mansfield breaking Terry Paine’s long-standing record of 824, games for an outfield player along the way. He was awarded a PFA merit award in 1999 and an MBE in the year 2000.

Chris Kamara – Born in Middleborough on Christmas Day in 1957, Chris has become one of the most recognised faces, and voices, in football today. Mum was Irene and dad, Albert of Sierra Leone descent who had settled in Teesside after serving in the Second World War. Chris was a talented schoolboy player, but dad insisted on him joining the Royal Navy. However, he was spotted by Portsmouth and he made his debut for them at home in 1975 aged just 17. He quickly gained a reputation for a tough no nonsense player. He joined Swindon Town in 1977 and ended up captaining the side. Back to Portsmouth in 1981 and then Brentford. He ended up back at Swindon and achieved back-to-back promotions in 1985/1986 & 1986/87. Stoke next and then Leeds, before Luton and hometown club Middlesbrough, Sheffield United and finally Bradford City. He played 736 games before packing up in 1995. He then managed Bradford at the end of that year and achieved promotion to the First Division through the play offs beating Nott’s County 2 -0 at Wembley. He lost the job in 1998 then became ‘Kammy’ as his TV career went from strength to strength on Sky TV. Unbelievable Jeff!

Howard Gayle – Born in Toxteth in 1958. By the age of 18 in 1976, he was serving 4 months in a young offenders institution for petty crimes. Upon release, he decided to change his life around and four years later in October 1980, he became Liverpool’s first black player, it being the club he had supported as a boy. His career there was short at just four games for the club but he is remembered very fondly for his appearance in the 1981 European Cup semi final versus Bayern Munich, even though he was subbed on 61 minutes, after picking up a booking.  A decision that rankles with him to this day. He was part of the squad for the final and though he didn’t play, he did collect a winner’s medal.

Never able to establish himself in the first team, he left for a loan spell at Newcastle and Birmingham in 1983. Then Stoke and Blackburn Rovers where he scored 19 goals in the 1988/89 seasons. He left the club in 1992, just before the Jack Walker era, retiring in 1993.

He then turned down an MBE IN 2016, citing what the Empire did to his family as the reason. ‘I would have felt uncomfortable writing those letters after my name.’

Paul Canoville – I have to declare a personal interest in the next player, ‘Canners’ as those who know him, call him. I first met him when a mutual friend of ours, the dearly missed Dean Powell, introduced us. I already knew of Paul Canoville of course, it being a name I grew up with and I had heard subsequently of his personal struggles, both on and off the pitch.  I have since worked with Paul on this and that and have always found him to be a top fella.  His early life however was one of a tough upbringing and a life of petty crime that ended with him having a spell ‘away.’ He came out of the institution and was homeless, sleeping in an abandoned car. Despite that he signed semi pro terms with Hillingdon Borough and then in December 1981, Chelsea came calling, with the effect of him becoming the first black player to play for the club. However, he suffered constant racist abuse from is own fans as well as those supporting the opposing side.

However, he managed to establish himself in the first team, though he was often hampered by injuries; In December 1983 he scored a hat trick against Swansea and he seemed set for a decent career there. But, a change of management signalled the end of his time at Chelsea, and by the summer of ’86 he was transferred to Reading. . Sadly, injuries returned to haunt him and ended his league career in 1987. His life without football then spiralled out of control, with crack cocaine taking a hold of him. Finally getting off the drug, he was then diagnosed with cancer, not once, but twice.  Thankfully he survived and became active against racism in football through the ‘Kick It Out’ campaign and has since set up the Paul Canoville Foundation which helps those as disadvantaged as he once was. Fair play sir.

Viv Anderson – Vivian Alexander Anderson MBE was the child of Jamaican immigrants Audley and Myrtle. He was born in Nottingham in July 1956. Early interest in his football talent was expressed by both Sheffield United and Manchester United, but at 16 he was released and back in Nottingham playing locally. Then scouts from Nottingham Forest spotted him and he made his first team debut aged 18 in September 1974. He was soon the victim of racist abuse, which he admitted made him not want to play at times.

In January 1975, Brian Clough took over at Forest and transformed a side that was going nowhere, into serial winners within few seasons. It all started in 1977 when they won the First Division title as well as the League Cup. A season later they beat Malmo 1 -0 to lift the European Cup, as well as retaining the First Division trophy. Also during that season Viv achieved a personal landmark by becoming the first black player to become a senior full international. Forest then repeated winning the European Cup in 78/79 beating Hamburg in the final. Viv joined Arsenal in 1984, Man Utd in 1987 and Sheffield Wednesday in 1991. He finishing his playing career as player/manager at Barnsley, before becoming Bryan Robson’s assistant at Middlesbrough, then taking over as sole manager in 1993. Viv was awarded an MBE in the 2000 New Years Honours List.

And then finally…

Walter Tull – This may be a name familiar to some, and it is some story this. He was born in Folkestone in 1888. Dad was from Barbados, a son of a freed slave, and mum was a local white woman. Mother died in 1895 and dad remarried. Then his dad died in 1897. His step mum struggled to raise the children, so Walter and his brother Edward were sent to a children’s home in the East End. In 1908 he joined the amateur club Clapton and it was there that Tottenham spotted him and he signed for them in 1909. He started well for the club, but he was subjected to a virulent racist attack away at Bristol Coty and it is said the Spurs hierarchy lost their nerve in having a black player among their ranks. He transferred to Northampton in 1911 going on to play 111 games for them. In 1914, Glasgow Rangers had come in for him, but that year the ‘great war to end all wars’ began and Walter enlisted.

He served in France in 1915, taking part in the Battle of the Somme in 1916, and then fought in Italy in 1917. Sadly in March 1918, he lost his life ‘leading his troops.’ Despite army regulations stating that ‘no Negro or person of colour’ could be officers, it appears Walter had been promoted to second lieutenant and therefore an officer, sometime in 1917.

Northampton’s Sixfields stadium stands on Walter Tull Way and a memorial to him there states

‘Through his actions W.D.J.Tull ridiculed the barriers of ignorance that tried to deny people of colour equality with their contemporaries.’

As did all these gents as far as I’m concerned.

The Mumper of SE5


‘Footballs Black Pioneers’ is available to order here



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