At the start of Black History Month, we recall three men who changed the world
It's a longer read than usual today, but bear with us, there's a good reason for it...
The Albion side that flared incandescent for 16 months in 1978 and into 1979 has become a byword for the most extraordinary football, some of the very best the Throstles have ever produced and a yardstick for all the poor unfortunates who have followed in their wake.
But it was far more than that. That side which embraced the wildly flowering talents of Laurie Cunningham, Cyrille Regis and Brendon Batson was not simply a footballing phenomenon. In its way, and wholly inadvertently perhaps, it was the most ferocious political statement ever thrown down by any football club in this country.
It was a declaration of equality, a proclamation that colour, creed, race, religion, none of it mattered in the broad church that was West Bromwich Albion Football Club. All we were interested in was your ability. If you could play, if you gave yourself to our cause, you were in.
Those three men, empowered by our football club changed Britain. It remains the greatest single achievement of our 137 years of existence and in all honesty, I can’t imagine that it will ever be supplanted as such.
It is not a simple story though, for while our football club enabled the talents of Cunningham, Regis and Batson full freedom of expression, and should be forever lauded for so doing, those three gave us every bit as much – more, far more – than we could ever bestow upon them. They gave us, our area, redemption.
To understand the wider context of their tale, we must go back to 1964, to that year’s General Election, a year when a Labour government came to power, sweeping away Conservative MPs across the land. Except in Smethwick, where a Labour seat was taken by the departing government. Ordinarily you would dismiss it as a simple anomaly, but this was different and rather darker.
Through the campaign, a poster appeared with a racist slogan so vile and, thankfully, utterly unacceptable today that we can’t repeat it here, but the gist was that a vote for Labour was a vote for being swamped by immigrants. Whilst the Tory candidate, Peter Griffiths, insisted it was not the work of his campaigners, he did say, “I would not condemn that”.
Following his election, for the two years he remained MP until being ousted by Labour at the 1966 General Election, Griffiths was treated as a “Parliamentary leper” and thus, by extension, so was Smethwick, its reputation dragged through the dirt.
When, in April 1968, Wolverhampton MP and Shadow Defence Secretary Enoch Powell made his infamous “Rivers of Blood” speech to the Conservative Political Centre in Birmingham, a speech for which he was sacked from the Shadow Cabinet by Edward Heath, it made the West Midlands look like a seething hotbed of racist unrest. Such an impression continued through the 1907s when the National Front polled twice as well in the West Midlands as across the country as a whole in the 1974 General Election.
Racist groups and agitation were a part of the Black Country backdrop at that stage and there was regular leafleting outside our games from far right groups. On the face of it – and surface is rarely a good indicator of truth – we were gripped by an evil ideology. Of course, the truth was far, far different, but as is so often the case, was struggling for a means of expression against forces trying to suppress it.
And then, March 1977, came a shaft of light, a beacon of hope, hope that fuel of progress. It came in the shape of a slight, yet supremely athletic looking young man, brought to West Bromwich from the capital. He played with his socks rolled down to his ankles, not a shin pad in sight. He danced across a pitch that hadn’t seen a blade of grass on it in five months, shimmered over the mud while others felt it cloy around their feet.
He brought a balletic grace, twinned with a sublime mastery of the football the like of which we’d rarely seen. It moved as though a mere extension of him, not something to be fought and struggled with. It was his, belonged to him, loved him as much as he loved it, it was the perfect union.
He became the footballer that the Throstletariat clasped instantly to their bosom, the kind of footballer who today – yesterday too – could only play for Real Madrid or Barcelona, so extravagant were his gifts, so easily did they overwhelm the domestic game.
Within weeks he had become a towering presence, so laughably gifted that the great and the good fell over one another to acclaim him as among the very best they’d ever seen in an Albion shirt, a shirt with that broad slash of stripe down the front that seemed to have been made for him. Every Albion fan adored him, every boy in the playground wanted to be him.
He was Laurie Cunningham and he was a black man.
It’s too pat to suggest that like some avenging angel Cunningham simply banished racism from the lands and carried us on into a land of milk, honey and tolerance. He didn’t, you can see that to this day if you look at our game hard enough, the evidence of hatred, of bigotry, of moronic prejudice still there.
But in an era when it was there in front of you, day after day, in a time where it had almost become mainstream, when “Love Thy Neighbour” and “The Black & White Minstrel Show” ruled the airwaves, Cunningham’s arrival on the scene was radical. Essential even.
Did the scales fall from people’s eyes? In some cases, they surely did. These were days when the few black players that there were were routinely greeted with monkey noises and bananas, by chants far worse than any election slogan. It is surely not fanciful to argue that some of those who might have been making such noises, singing such chants about opposition players suddenly stopped short and thought that it was no longer appropriate to bait the opposition black players any longer. Even for those who might still want to express such views, suddenly, almost overnight, it was thoroughly unacceptable.
Real, lasting change often takes a long, long time to come and it was there that Cunningham perhaps had his greatest impact, not on the adults, many of whose minds were already made up, but on the kids growing up in Albion areas. They saw not a black man, not difference. They saw a great footballer. They saw a hero. And once you have one black hero, why not two, or three? And once you have three black heroes, why would you ever imagine that skin colour makes any difference to the value of a man?
It was Cunningham’s great good fortune that before long, just five months on, he was joined in the Albion side by another black footballer. And again, like Cunningham, this chap was no ordinary footballer. Like Laurie, he was destined to be one of the finest dozen footballers that we have ever fielded.
This bloke came to The Hawthorns, walked into a phone box, changed into his Superman gear and terrorised any defender that you could find from any side you cared to name. Wearing a shirt a size too small, all rippling muscles, primeval power, ferocious pace, if ever a man had been born to wear a number nine shirt at the Albion, it was Cyrille Regis.
He scored goals that came out of cartoon strips, running 50 yards with defenders bouncing off him, desperately trying to grab hold of him, dragging two and three of them up the field with him before smashing the ball past hapless goalkeepers from 20 yards.
And while Laurie had an insolent defiance about him, wholly understandable given the age in which he lived, Cyrille had a beaming persona, he radiated good humour and charm such that fans loved him yet more than they admired his mate. In short, they were the perfect double act.
Both though were young, vulnerable, unused to the limelight and the political importance being cast upon them. Enter the third of our Holy Trinity, Brendon Batson, that bit older, that bit wiser, that bit more statesmanlike. A fine player, gifted and composed, who perhaps deserved to join the other two in the England side too, Brendon was to be the steadying influence upon the others, keeping them focused and in line amid all the hoopla of the Three Degrees circus and the more outlandish media demands such as being dressed as Santa and “dreaming of a white Christmas”. If Brendon didn’t capture the headlines in quite the same way or with the same pyrotechnics of the other two, their impact, Albion’s impact, would not have been the same without him, on the pitch or off it.
Ultimately, it was one of those moments when fate took a hand, when the Gods looked down and smiled, like the moment when Lennon met McCartney, when Scorsese bumped into De Niro. The right people came together at the right time to do the right work.
It was perfect symbiosis. Albion faced down intolerance, they dismantled the lie that black players could “only do it with the sun on their backs”. We gave them the platform. They were the locomotive of change.
We recaptured the essential truth of decent, accepting, honest Black Country values. They gave us something to cling on to even as our Black Country heritage was being torn down around us. Just as we had 200 years earlier, we changed the face of the nation, from industrial revolution to social revolution.
But still it echoes down the ages, an eternal truth that can be employed for our good 40 years on. In Marshal McLuhan’s global village, when a child can pick any team in the country, the world, to support and follow to the nth degree, supporting a small club in a small Black Country town is, you have to concede, illogical. It only makes sense if they choose that side to have a sense of belonging, of being part of something bigger, greater than yourself, of being in touch with a sense of place, a culture, a community, with real moral values too.
It’s why any local youngster, when faced with choosing a club, should pick West Bromwich Albion.
Because we achieved this.