1979: Memories of a different time
THE 1978/79 season was among Albion’s most historic in all kinds of ways, from the dramatic fantasy of our football to the barrier breaking composition of our team.
Both elements came together in a remarkable testimonial game at season’s end when midfielder Len Cantello was recognised for ten years of service to the Albion with the traditional benefit match. Such games were always known for their novelty value – Tony Brown’s game five years earlier had seen a combined Albion and Villa side take on Blues and Wolves for instance.
Len’s game was more remarkable still, an Albion XI against a team assembled by his colleagues Cyrille Regis and Laurie Cunningham. TV producer Caj Sohal, currently working on a TV documentary about the game in tandem with Adrian Chiles, takes up the story.
“There were lots of testimonials back then but the thing that stands out about Len Cantelllo’s is that it was an all white team against an all black one. Just think about that.
“Imagine if next week, we announced there was going to be a game with a white Premier League XI against a black Premier League XI – I think you would encounter some problems wouldn’t you?!
“When you tell people today that that game happened they look horrified, there’s a lot of outrage, they talk about how it must have been a sign of terrible times and so on. And of course, they were very difficult times, but this game wasn’t a reflection of that side of things, this was about bringing people together. The intentions, along with helping bringing supporters to Cantello’s game, were to celebrate that first big explosion of black talent that we saw in the game.
“In the past, you’d seen isolated incidences of black players coming through – Albert Johanneson, Clyde Best – but by 1979, there were 50 black players in the league. It sounds like nothing now when black players represent around 25 per cent of all players in this country, but back then, that was starting to reach critical mass if you like.
“At the pinnacle of that were the Albion because they had three black players, and not just any old players, but top class ones – Cyrille Regis, Laurie Cunningham and Brendon Batson.
“That team had a really significant social impact and so the programme that we are looking to make is the untold story if you like. If you were a white teenager, for the first time, you had black heroes. What impact did that have on those kids, how did that project into race relations and into attitudes away from just football?
“They were a very interesting collection of players because you had those three right at the peak of the game, Remi Moses too, you had Garth Crooks, Bob Hazell and George Berry who were First Division players and then there were a couple of guys from Hereford I’d never heard of and so on, which kind of reflects what an early stage it was with black footballers and how few were at the top at that point. It’s a really great snapshot of a turning point moment in time, in all kinds of ways”.
Development of the programme that Caj and Adrian want to make is in its infancy at present and that’s where you come in, as Caj explains.
“We want to hear from people who were at that game – there were around 7,000 people there - what they remember of it, the atmosphere and the debate around it, or just what it represented, what those players meant to you at that time.
“But even if you didn’t go, you might have something to contribute if you were around in those days and have some thoughts about it because it was a fascinating time. Lots of things were changing in society.
“Thatcher had won the election a couple of weeks before, we’d had the winter of discontent, inflation was 17 per cent or something, right wing politics were at their highest since the days of Mosley, and amid all this, the black population of Britain was having more of a profile than ever before, not just in football but music too.
“Again, this region is interesting there because you had UB40 in Dudley, a multiracial band, then down the road was the Two Tone thing in Coventry, this region was very much at the forefront of it all. It felt like a time of change, of hope, but at the same time it was one of complete despair! We want to hear from people who lived through that. If you were a kid and had a poster of Cyrille Regis on your wall, what was the reaction of your family?
“Racial politics of that time are so interesting. The stories we traditionally hear are the experiences of the black players and how terrible it was and it is absolutely right that we hear that. Then you maybe hear about the way the extreme right responded.
“What you don’t hear about is the people who were changed by it, who maybe felt uncomfortable to start with, but questioned why and moved on from there. It’s hopefully going to be a warm programme, we are not looking at casting aspersions or saying what a terrible thing that testimonial game was, we’re looking at it as something very positive that played a part in a big social change in this country. We aren’t looking to give an editorial judgement on it, we want to actually hear from the people who were there.
“We also want to ask if things have really changed since 1979 in terms of our perceptions and the ways in which we interact with each other? In some ways, it seems an age ago, but it’s a comparatively short time, 36 years. But it was another world, a black and white world to use a cliché."
If you’d like to help Caj and Adrian on their quest, you can email them at email@example.com - they’d be delighted to hear from you.
For more, listen below...