This article is part of The Athletic’s series celebrating UK Black History Month. You can find the full series here.
You don’t need to look too hard to find examples of the impact people from the Caribbean have had on everyday life in the United Kingdom.
When you turn on the radio, you will hear songs by artists with Caribbean heritage or musicians who have been influenced by them. Notting Hill Carnival, which is held in west London, is the largest street party in Europe and attracts around two million people each year. The carnival originated in the 1950s as a celebration of Afro-Caribbean culture.
The Caribbean has had a huge influence on sport too. Several members of England’s squad at last year’s World Cup, including Raheem Sterling, Marcus Rashford and Kalvin Phillips, can trace their roots back to the small but mighty collection of islands in the Atlantic Ocean.
June 22 marked the 75th anniversary of the Empire Windrush arriving at the docks in Tilbury, Essex. There were more than 800 passengers from the Caribbean onboard who had been invited to live in England and help the country rebuild following the Second World War.
In 2018 it emerged that the UK government had not properly recorded the details of people granted permission to stay in the UK. Those affected could not prove they were in the country legally and were stopped from accessing healthcare, work and housing. Some of them were wrongly deported.
While there were no footballers onboard the Empire Windrush, many future stars came from Caribbean families of that era and were subjected to incredible hardship on arrival, followed by horrific abuse during their careers.
Here, Brendon Batson, the first Black player to represent Arsenal, and Viv Anderson who was the first Black senior England international — both pivotal in paving the way for modern-day heroes such as Rashford and Sterling — tell their stories of success despite their suffering.
Batson was born on the small island of Grenada and lived there with his mother Evelyn. After his sixth birthday, they relocated to Trinidad and Tobago which is where his older siblings, Godfrey and Diane, grew up. They all lived together in Trinidad for three years until Evelyn sent her two sons, aged nine and 13, to England in April 1962
“My mum sold us the idea of moving to England as an adventure and promised that she would join us in two years,” Batson tells The Athletic. “It was exciting and daunting. We flew to Heathrow airport and my uncle met us there. When we arrived it was cold, grey and I had never seen snow before. It was the worst winter for 30 years.
“We got the train to Tilbury and during the journey my uncle pulled out a green apple from a bag. We had never seen one before because all the apples we have got in the Caribbean are from the U.S. or Canada and are yellow, pink, or red.”
The two boys lived with their uncle Dennis, aunt Sybil and a collection of cousins in Tilbury for two years until Evelyn and Diane arrived. The quartet then moved to Walthamstow in north London.
“My family was always split, so when my mum and sister came to England it was the first time we were all settled together and it was great,” Batson says. “There was a decent-sized Black community around Walthamstow and Leytonstone, but at school we were the only Black kids. I was being subjected to racial taunts. I had a fight within a week of arriving at a school in Tilbury because someone called me a chocolate drop. Every school I went to, it was the same thing.
“The call came from England to help post-war, but the welcome wasn’t what people from the Caribbean expected — it wasn’t very warm. It’s only later on you realise some of the struggles our parents had to go through.”
Batson only discovered football after he moved to England. He was introduced to it by his friend Dennis Sheridan, who encouraged Batson to attend a trial for the school team. The coach, Mr Fitzgerald, suggested he might be better off playing cricket — traditionally the most popular sport in the Caribbean.
“I was a disaster,” Batson says. “I didn’t have any boots so I wore plimsolls. Mr Fitzgerald told me to come back next week. My talent bubbled to the surface and I started playing for the school.”
Anderson had a different experience growing up to Batson. His aunt moved to England from Jamaica in the early 1950s and his mother, Myrtle, followed a few months later. The sisters reunited in Nottingham and became part of a large Caribbean community there. Anderson was born in July 1956, followed by his younger brother Donald two years later. Anderson doesn’t have any memories of being racially abused as a child and “never had a conversation” with his parents about the challenges they encountered.
Anderson’s father, Audley, used to drive him to play football as a child and there was never any trouble. However, after Anderson progressed through the ranks in Nottingham Forest’s academy and broke into their first team under Brian Clough, everything changed.
“One of my first games for Nottingham Forest was away at Newcastle United. I walked onto the pitch before kick-off to check the conditions and see what boots I should wear. The whole stadium booed and shouted at me,” he tells The Athletic.
“I went back into the dressing room and said to Mr Clough, ‘I don’t think I can play tonight.’ He looked me in the eye and said, “You will play, end of. Get it out of your head.’
“He made it clear you wouldn’t be in the team if you weren’t good enough. ‘All you’ve got to do is prove to these people you can play football.’ Throughout my career, that was at the forefront of my mind when anything ever happened.”
Anderson went on to win the top-flight First Division in 1978, then won the European Cup two years on the trot, while playing 30 times for England and featuring for five other clubs including Arsenal and Manchester United.
Batson was spotted and recruited for Arsenal’s academy by George Male at 14. He made his debut for the first team in a 2-0 defeat against Newcastle in March 1972. He replaced Charlie George at half-time and created history by becoming the first Black player to represent the north London side, but he had a similar experience at St James’ Park to Anderson.
“I didn’t have a clue,” Batson says. “I was just a player trying to make his way. I was so excited and nervous about coming on that it flashed by me in a whirl. It was a miserable day, though. It was raining and racial abuse was being hurled at me. I heard monkey chants too.
“The reception we received up and down the country was appalling from bananas being thrown at you to hearing the N-word. I’m not saying you become immune, because it is upsetting and unnerving, but you have to get through it if you want to have a career. I adopted the attitude of: ‘I don’t care what you call me, I will see you next week, next month and next year.’
“Cyrille used to say, ‘Give me the ball, I will bang it into the back of the net, get the points and go home’. All of us dealt with it in a different way. We saw other people in the Black community overcome obstacles and we were doing the same.”
Batson is referring to Cyrille Regis, his team-mate at West Bromwich Albion, the side he joined in 1978 following four years at Cambridge United and three at Arsenal. It was rare to find two Black players in the same team, let alone three, which is what happened at West Brom under manager Ron Atkinson. Winger Laurie Cunningham, Regis and Batson were collectively known as the Three Degrees after a popular African-American female soul group.
During the 1978-79 season, with Regis, Batson and Cunningham in the side, West Brom played a thrilling brand of football and emerged as serious title contenders to Bob Paisley’s all-conquering Liverpool. In December, they came from 3-2 down to beat Manchester United 5-3 at Old Trafford and were at the top of the table. West Brom failed to maintain their form, though, and eventually finished third, nine points behind champions Liverpool.
— West Bromwich Albion (@WBA) December 30, 2014
“Laurie was magnificent and Cyrille was exciting,” Batson says. “They were a joy to play with. Everything seemed to click between the three of us and the team as a whole. It was the best season of football I played in.
“I thought the three of us playing together would help us to overcome racial taunts, but it made the situation worse.”
At the end of that season, a testimonial match to celebrate Len Cantello making more than 300 appearances for West Brom was organised with a slight twist. A team made up of Black players beat a team of white players 3-2.
“Everybody embraced the idea,” Batson, who released an autobiography titled The Third Degree last month, says. “Nobody thought it was going to be divisive in any way and it was a good turnout. There were more Black spectators at the game than any time before or since. People were selling jerk chicken and other Caribbean food outside the ground. It was great fun. In the dressing room, Garth Crooks came out and said, ‘It might be a testimonial but we have got to win’. It was great fun.”
Shortly after the testimonial, the Three Degrees broke up after just over a year together when Cunningham agreed to join Real Madrid. He became the first British player to represent the legendary Spanish club, blazing a trail for David Beckham, Gareth Bale and — 44 years later — Jude Bellingham to follow. Cunningham won La Liga with Real Madrid but never hit the same heights he did at West Brom. In 1989, after spells with Marseille, Manchester United and Rayo Vallecano, he died in a car crash in Madrid aged 33.
Cunningham was the first Black player to represent England at any level when he featured for the under-21s in a friendly against Scotland in April 1977. He made his senior debut two years later but Anderson had overtaken him. Ron Greenwood, England’s manager at the time, started Anderson in a 1-0 victory over Czechoslovakia at Wembley in November 1978.
“Laurie and I joked about it. ‘Who is going to be first? Me or you?’ There was no animosity,” Anderson says.
“There were a hundred thousand people in the stands at Wembley and the crescendo got louder as you walked through the tunnel. Policemen were coming into the dressing room asking for autographs. It was chaotic. Coming out onto the pitch, there are hairs on the back of your neck. Once you get the national anthem out of the way, it’s back to what you do every Saturday afternoon: make sure you don’t make a fool of yourself and do all the basics right.
“Even today, I get stopped by people who say ‘I was at your debut.’ It’s a great honour to be the first Black international. Until you go through that process and come out the other side, you never know how big it really was.”
Anderson and Cunningham were followed by Regis, John Barnes, Luther Blissett, Mark Chamberlain and Ricky Hill. Regis’ call-up in 1982 was overshadowed, though.
“We had pigeon holes in the dressing room at West Brom where our fan mail would be delivered,” Batson says. “Cyrille opened a letter and there was a bullet in it. The letter said something along the lines of, ‘If you ever put on the white shirt of England, one of these will be for you’. It was unnerving.
4️⃣5️⃣ years ago today, Brendon Batson became a Baggie. 👊 pic.twitter.com/sKIPdsYUZS
— West Bromwich Albion (@WBA) February 24, 2023
“Nowadays, the club would tell the police but I don’t remember Cyrille saying to the manager, ‘This is what I have received.’ It was something you dealt with yourself because there was no external support.”
The vile abuse Black players suffered during that era, and are still subjected to in 2023, deterred some of them from pursuing a career.
“I remember, as a schoolboy, playing for a team in the Regent’s Park League and there was one lad up front called Georgie Campbell,” Batson says. “He had been offered an apprenticeship by Tottenham, but his parents wouldn’t let him sign it.
“There were no Black players at the time and there was a campaign that they were lazy, not brave and didn’t like the cold. Georgie’s parents said, ‘We can’t see you having a career’ and he became an electrician.
“I heard that story several times about Black parents denying their sons the chance to become professional footballers because they were fearful for them. That’s why I’m proud of the Black players of my era that, despite all the obstacles, we kept coming forward in increased numbers.”
Everybody remembers the Three Degrees, but West Ham United were the first English club to field three Black players when Clyde Best, Clive Charles and Ade Coker all featured in a 2-0 victory over Spurs in April 1972.
Throughout The Athletic’s conversations with Batson and Anderson, Best’s name is repeatedly brought up. The striker was born in Bermuda and at 17 moved to England to play for West Ham. He made his debut in August 1969 and went on to score more than 40 goals in nearly 200 appearances.
“I remember seeing Clyde play at Highbury,” Batson says. “When he ran onto the pitch I thought ‘I want Arsenal to win but, please Clyde, be good.’ You always have to be better than your white counterpart. If you don’t play well, they single you out and make it harder.”
Best was at the vanguard of the Windrush Generation and made it easier for Anderson, Cunningham, Batson, Regis, Paul Elliott, Tony Ford and many more to follow in his footsteps. Even today’s players owe him and them a debt of gratitude.
“When I first wanted to play football, the only Black face you ever saw on the television was Clyde Best,” Anderson says. “He was the player I said, ‘I want to be like him, I want to be a footballer.’ He was the only one I could relate to.
“Now every team up and down the country has several Black faces. Hopefully, they have seen us and said, ‘I want to be like them’ just as I did with Clyde Best all those years ago. It fills me with a lot of pride that I was one of the pioneers that paved the way for everybody else to play the sport they love.”
(Photos: Getty Images; graphic: Sam Richardson)
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