Its black history month but ironically its also been a month when the issue of racism in football has raised its ugly head again, following three high profile instances of black players accusing opposing players of making racist remarks at them. But to end the month on a lighter note here is a tribute to some of the very best black British players that have contributed to English football over the past 35 years.
For many of us that grew up at around the time of the emergence of black British footballers in the mid to late seventies, there is one name that stands above them all. Laurie Cunningham was an exceptionally talented footballer. So much so that he attracted the attention of Real Madrid at a time when arguably the world’s most famous club had never previously shown any serious interest in British players, let alone black British players. When he signed for them in 1979, he became the first Englishman to do so.
Cunningham was also the first black player to play for England in a competitive match (Viv Anderson is officially the first but his debut came in a friendly). He was also the very first black player ever to represent England at any level when he played for the under 21s in a friendly against Scotland under 21s in 1977, scoring on his debut.
Cunningham was in the Real Madrid team that lost the 1981 European Cup final to Liverpool courtesy of Alan Kennedy’s solitary goal. But it represented the high point in his career and in his life, which sadly ended at the tender age of just 33, following a car crash in 1989 in Madrid.
Before his dream move to Real Madrid, he was the shining light in Ron Atkinson’s exciting young West Bromwich Albion team of the mid to late seventies. Along with team mates Cyrille Regis and Brendan Batson he was part of the trio of black players at the club. Cunningham and West Brom came to national prominence one cold December afternoon at Old Trafford in 1978, when they demolished Manchester United 5-3 in a game that is still considered a classic. Cunningham’s electric pace and trickery systematically took United apart in that match and made the rest of the country take notice of his exceptional talents. West Brom finished the 1978-79 season in third place, due in no small part to Cunningham’s flair and brilliance.
When John Barnes signed for Liverpool in the summer of 1987 from Watford for a modest fee of £900,00, few could have anticipated the monumental impact he would have on an already successful team. Barnes added flair to a well-oiled machine and gave the Liverpool side of the late eighties something they had never had before. His arrival also came with a fair degree of controversy. The city of Liverpool had two successful teams but neither of them had ever had a player of colour that had made a major contribution to either of their teams. Barnes was already an established England international when he arrived at Anfield and had showed the world in patches what a prodigious talent he was. However, he came with a reputation of being a bit inconsistent. But from the moment he first wore the Anfield red shirt he quickly emerged as the most gifted player of his generation and between the years of 1987-1991 was probably in the top five players in Europe, twice winning the Football Writers player of the year award.
Barnes was recently voted 5th in the top 100 Liverpool players of all time in a fans poll, ahead of legends such as Kevin Keegan, Graeme Souness and Michael Owen.
Barnes often drew praise for more than just his talents with a football at his feet. His handling of numerous incidents of racism directed towards him was exemplary and he always responded by doing his damage on the pitch. Although he started out as a left-winger, he was equally adept when moved into a more central role and in the 1989-90 season he finished as the league’s top scorer. After two career threatening Achilles tendon injuries in the early nineties he returned to play in central midfield having lost some of his explosive pace. His intellect and craft on the pitch saw him fill this role brilliantly and he captained Liverpool between 1995-1997. He was sold to Newcastle after 10-years at Liverpool, making 407 appearances for the club. He also made 79 appearances for England, but although there were some highlights he never really shun in an England shirt quite like he did for his club side and was often seen as an enigma. Still, he will always be remembered by Liverpool fans as one of the greatest players in the club’s history.
Ian Wright, Wright, Wright entered the professional game at the ripe old age of 22 years old having been snapped up late by Crystal Palace from semi professional outfit Dulwich Hamlet. He went about making up for lost time forming a deadly strike partnership with Mark Bright. Palace earned promotion to the top tier in 1989 but in their first season in the top flight Wright suffered a broken leg. The team still managed to reach the FA cup final in his absence, having beaten Liverpool 4-3 in a classic semi-final encounter. There they faced Manchester United and were two goals to one down when Wright, who was still coming back to fitness from his leg break, was brought on as a substitute to try to rescue the result. He announced himself with a superb equalizer then put Palace 3-2 up in extra time. Mark Hughes scored a late goal to force a replay, which United won and the rest, as they say, is history.
Wright moved to Arsenal in 1991 in the season after they were crowned champions. He made an immediate impact, scoring on his debut against Leicester City. This was the catalyst to an amazing goal scoring career at Arsenal that elevated him to become the club’s record goal-scorer eclipsing Cliff Bastin’s 58 year record. This has now of course been overtaken by fellow club legend Thierry Henry.
Wright was a cult hero at Arsenal as much for his vivacious character and personality as his goal-scoring exploits and he formed a tremendous connection with the fans. As a player he was quick and instinctive but often had a short fuse. But this was part of what made Wrighty so special and he will go down in the club’s history as one of the greats. He made just 33 appearances for England over an eight year period. He often struggled to get a regular run of games as he had to compete with Alan Shearer and Les Ferdinand for the England number 9 shirt for much of that time.
The self styled ‘Guvnor’ and midfield general throughout the nineties was one Paul Ince. Born and raised in East London he made his name at local club West Ham United. But he left the club under a wave of controversy after he was photographed wearing a Man United shirt before he had actually signed for them in 1989. This ensured he will always be seen as a hate figure by the West Ham fans but undeterred Ince went on to have a fantastic career, playing for some of the world’s biggest clubs.
After his move to United he became a key part of their early success story, which led to them dominating the domestic scene for years to come.
He left United for Inter Milan in 1995 and spent three mainly successfully years there before returning to England to play for United’s sworn enemy, Liverpool.
Ince was a dynamic player, with typical British midfielder qualities but had good technique and an ability to occasionally pull the trigger from outside the box, scoring many spectacular long range goals.
He was also a key member of the Euro 96 England team and one remembers his clever flick in England’s second group game against Holland that bamboozled the Dutch defence and earned England a penalty. This set England up to a stunning 4-1 victory, a result that ranks amongst the best ever achieved by the national team. He became the first black player to wear the England captain’s armband when he led the team out to face the USA in 1993.
Ince is also one of a few black players to have broken the glass ceiling and into management enjoying considerable success in the lower leagues with Macclesfield Town and then later with MK Dons, where he earned them promotion to League 1, as League 2 champions. Sadly his well earned appointment as Blackburn manager lasted only six months before he was mercilessly sacked by the club.
Nevertheless, he has enjoyed probably the most decorated career of any black Briton involved in professional football to date.
Sol Campbell started his professional career at Tottenham and made his debut in 1992. Initially deployed as a holding midfielder it was clear that his pace and superb tackling ability would be best served at the heart of defence and he went onto become a colossal defender for club and country. Campbell represented England in six consecutive major tournaments between 1996 and 2006, the first player ever to do so. After enjoying a highly successful first season at Arsenal he excelled in the 2002 World Cup tournament scoring England’s opening goal against Sweden. He was the only England player to be named in that tournament’s best 11 by FIFA.
In the summer of 2001, Campbell made the highly controversial decision to switch allegiances from Tottenham, where he had played his football for 9 years, to their bitter north London rivals Arsenal. Although the Spurs fans never forgave him for it, his career blossomed at Arsenal and he was part of the most successful period in the club’s history winning two league championships, two FA cups and a runner’s up medal in the 2006 Champions League final, where he scored in the 2-1 defeat to Barcelona.
Rio Ferdinand has been regarded by many as one of the world’s best defenders for many years. Elegant and classy, Ferdinand represents the modern defender at its very best and has always been comfortable in possession. Sadly, too many injuries look to have taken their toll on him in recent seasons.
When he first came on the scene as a young lanky kid at West Ham United, Rio was seen as the latest in an illustrious line of centre backs in the club’s history. He was called up as part of the 1998 World Cup squad to get a flavour for the big occasion, but was not selected for the 2000 Euro Championships, which served to give him the kick up the backside he perhaps needed at the time. He then went about producing some mature displays at the heart of the Wet Ham defence. It was just a matter of time before one of the bigger clubs came in for him and in 2000 he joined David O’Leary’s revolutionary young Leeds team for £18m, a world record for a defender at the time.
It was during his time at Leeds that Ferdinand established himself as one of the top defenders in Europe following masterful displays during Leeds’ fabulous Champions League adventures at the turn of the century. This prompted Sir Alex Ferguson to again smash the world transfer record for a defender and pay around £30m for him to sign for Manchester United.
For England, Ferdinand has formed formidable central defensive partnerships, firstly with Sol Campbell and more recently with John Terry. During the 2002 World Cup he demonstrated his class, performing brilliantly in all five of England’s matches. He again featured in the 2004 Euro championships and the 2006 World Cup. Sadly, having been installed at England’s permanent captain, he missed out on the 2010 World Cup squad after sustaining a serious knee injury in a pre-tournament training session.
Ferdinand has won just about everything there is to win in the game at club level and will always go down as one of the best defenders this country has ever produced.