Three Degrees of Separation: The Men Who Changed the Face of English Football 40 Years Ago

Three Degrees of Separation: The Men Who Changed the Face of English Football 40 Years Ago
11:44, 13 Feb 2018

In 1978, West Bromwich Albion became the first British club to field three black players in one game. Such news wouldn’t even raise an eyebrow these days but back then it was a huge leap and something which would change the face of English football forever.

Of course, black footballers were not unheard of at the time and after Arthur Wharton, who was generally regarded as the first black footballer in the world who plied his trade in the late 1800s, several teams fielded players from ethnic backgrounds; including Clyde Best at West Ham and Albert Johanneson at Leeds. But this was very much the exception rather than the rule.

The landscape in Britain during the late 1970s was an ever-evolving one while still being something of a cultural wilderness. Industrial action had led to mass walkouts throughout 1978 and unemployment was rife, while throughout towns and cities across the country a new generation of immigrants were about to transform the make-up of society indefinitely.

Just three factors which, when combined, created something of a perfect storm and ultimately resulted in a huge surge in far right extremism; nowhere more so than the terraces of English football grounds.

But in an era when TV shows like “Love Thy Neighbour” and “Rising Damp” were prime time staples, relying on casual racism and stereotypes to get a laugh such views were often seen as “normal banter.”

So it was no real surprise that when three young black lads took to the field for the Albion in 1978 the welcome they received from large sections of the crowd, both at home and away was often far from friendly to say the least.

Laurie Cunningham who was born to Jamaican immigrant parents and brought up in North London joined The Baggies from Leyton Orient in 1977; a brilliantly talented footballer with natural flair and ability he would go on to become the first black footballer to represent England at under-21 level and grace the game at the highest level.

Cyrille Regis, of French-Guianan descent was a big, strong and fearsome forward who had come to The Hawthorns through non-league football and would go on to become one of the most recognised strikers in the game, while Brendan Batson, a tall, stylish defender born in Grenada oozed composure and was the final piece in the jigsaw when he joined Albion from Cambridge in 1978.

And when all three found themselves playing for the Albion during the 1977/78 season under manager Ron Atkinson it wasn’t just something of a footballing watershed it was a seismic cultural shift too.

Perhaps a sign of less politically correct times the trio were immediately dubbed the “Three Degrees” after the American female group who were popular at the time and also consisted of three black stars.

Even so, if Atkinson thought they would be accepted purely because of their ability he would be sadly mistaken, as Regis, Cunningham and Batson were regularly subjected to a torrent of monkey noises, chants of “get back on your jam jar” and various other vulgar insults that cascaded down from the terraces.

But their presence alone would eventually help to break the habit of racism being a mass participation sport by confronting the abuse head-on with their own exceptional talent. “Nothing hurt the racist cowards in the crowd more than seeing black guys like me scoring goals against their team,” Regis later wrote in his autobiography.

And while doing their best to silence their critics, thanks to a combination of strength of character, desire and ability, they also helped to pave the way for other black youngsters to break into professional football in far greater numbers than they probably would have done as the 1980s dawned.

As a result, the more black players that turned out for teams up and down the country meant the idea that you could denigrate an opponent purely because of the colour of his skin became as banal as it was ridiculous especially as more and more teams now had a black hero of their own in their ranks.

That’s not saying that things changed overnight, far from it. In fact the black players who followed in their footsteps faced similar problems; players like Luther Blissett, Viv Anderson, Mark Walters, and John Barnes would all represent England with pride but also faced dreadful racist abuse along the way.

But no doubt inspired by that first wave of black players who had experienced such vile abuse before them their ability and refusal to rise to the constant baiting would make them more friends than enemies.  

Thankfully football and society are very different today. A black player turning out in the Premier League is not even worthy of discussion now, let alone three, four or even five, while those watching the game are becoming more diverse as the years go by too.

And that is in no small part down to the contribution that Cyrille Regis, Brendan Batson and Laurie Cunningham made to football and to British society as a whole which means they will always be regarded, not merely as pioneers, but revolutionaries as well as very special men.

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