SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 183 November 2014

Tackling racism in football

The Three Degrees: the men who changed British football forever

By Paul Rees

Published by Constable, 2014, £20

Reviewed by Bob Severn

Available from Socialist Books – just add £2.50 p&p

The Three Degrees tells the story of three black footballers who, according to author Paul Rees, were "lightning conductors" for changing the almost all-white make-up and racist attitudes of British football. But this book is not just for football fans. It can be read by anyone interested in the history of immigration and anti-racism in Britain. Laurie Cunningham, Cyrille Regis and Brendon Batson were by no means the first professional black footballers. On 16 October this year, a statue of Arthur Wharton, the first black pro in 1889, was erected at the Football Association’s national centre. But from then until the 1960s, there were barely any non-white footballers.

The 1960s and 70s saw an increase of black players in Britain – mainly, like Cunningham, Regis and Batson, children of post-war immigrants. However, the involvement of black players, coaches, directors and supporters was made very difficult in an almost all-white game. Racist attitudes were prevalent, with examples quoted by Cyrille Regis: "They lacked bottle or couldn’t stand the cold", although some managers and coaches did not follow this stance. Moreover, Cunningham, Regis and Batson made such a big impact as they were some of the best footballers in a team, West Bromwich Albion, known for exciting attacking football.

The book shows the rise of racism during the 1970s as the post-war boom unravelled and immigrant communities were targeted for blame. In the 1940s and 50s the British government pushed workers from its colonies, especially the Caribbean, to come to Britain and solve the labour shortage following the slaughter of the second world war. But the new workers were given lower pay and often denied union recognition. Their families were grouped together in rundown, inner-city housing. The British empire had a record of brutal treatment towards workers in the colonies. Rees gives an example from the 1930s, when the British army killed 46 protesters in Kingston, Jamaica, suppressing one of many uprisings over pay and conditions for subsidiaries of the sugar firm Tate and Lyle.

The heavily industrialised West Midlands had the highest post-war arrival of immigrants in Britain after London. Within the region, West Bromwich made up part of the Black Country, an area that was given its name in the 19th century due to the thick factory chimney smoke.

All of the ‘Three Degrees’ – a label of racist ridicule, named after the famous US black female soul group – were brought up and first played in London before signing for West Brom. The Black Country was not a place of racial harmony. First council housing and later jobs were in short supply. There were race riots in Dudley in 1962. In the 1964 general election, Conservative Peter Griffiths won the Smethwick seat after posters with the slogan, "If you want a n***** for a neighbour, vote Labour", appeared across the town – a matter dealt with on the first front page of the Militant newspaper. Griffiths’ election also resulted in Malcolm X visiting Smethwick – nine days before he was assassinated in February 1965.

In 1968, Wolverhampton MP Enoch Powell gave his infamous ‘rivers of blood’ speech, saying to a Birmingham Tory party meeting that "in 15 or 20 years’ time the black man will have the whip hand over the white man". A Birmingham Post poll the next day gave 80% agreement with Powell. While Powell was sacked as shadow defence secretary following the meeting, this year Tory MP Gerald Howarth defended the speech.

In May 1973, the far-right National Front received a record 16% vote in a West Bromwich parliamentary by-election. The NF candidate claimed to have the support of Powell after he had refused to endorse the Tory candidate. The NF was also increasing its presence at football matches, looking to recruit from working-class supporters. Unemployment reached 1.5 million before the end of the decade, following the near full employment of the post-war boom years.

The players who broke through the game’s unofficial colour bar would be attacked, including through racist chanting, fruit being thrown during games and hate mail. The racism would also come from players and officials, even within footballers’ own clubs, as was experienced by Laurie Cunningham when he became West Brom’s first black player in 1977. Cunningham is likened in the book to better known stars George Best, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. He was the first black player for England under-21s, and the second to play for the first team.

The striker Cyrille Regis became Albion’s second black player, and defender Brendon Batson then completed the trio. West Brom was the first top-flight side to regularly play three black players. It was becoming one of the best teams in English football. Manager Ron Atkinson wanted to make his name with the club, and he did play an important, positive role with black players. But a mixture of his own ego, naivety and bad luck also resulted in the club not winning any trophy.

In the 1978-79 season, Albion became title challengers, playing fast, bold football with the pace of Cunningham and Regis who "rewrote the rules of being a forward". But January blizzards meant Albion played two games in seven weeks, followed by a heavy, rearranged fixture schedule. Rees sets out this season against the winter of discontent strikes in 1979 and what he calls the "beginning of the end of Black Country industry". That year also saw the election of Margaret Thatcher’s government, which promised to ‘stop immigration’. The Tories’ victory saw the NF’s vote crushed.

It was not only West Brom that failed to reach its full potential, neither did the three players. Cunningham’s tale is the saddest. He became Real Madrid’s record-fee signing at £950,000, and he won trophies including the Spanish league and the Copa del Rey (twice). But it was a dream signing that became a nightmare with career-ruining injuries. He missed the 1982 World Cup and only gained six England appearances. In 1989 he was killed in a road accident.

Atkinson in 2004, when commentating for ITV, called Chelsea player Marcel Desailly a "f***ing lazy, thick n*****" when he thought he was off-mic. Atkinson said he made "a stupid mistake for which I am very sorry", adding that he was "quoting somebody that I knew". Batson, however, pointed out: "Even if that were true, you wouldn’t repeat it verbatim, would you?" In 1977 there were around 50 black professional football players in England. Today over one quarter of players are black or from an ethnic minority. Nonetheless, there have been recent high-profile cases of on-pitch racism. There are few black managers or administrators in the game, and racism persists in football worldwide. Racism is still a tool used to divide the working class, especially at times of capitalist crisis.

The book also shows that football was far more a working-class game in the 1970s than today. A West Brom season ticket then cost as little as £10 – some Premier League clubs now charge over £1,000! Footballers were better paid than most workers, but nothing compared to today. Cunningham was on £100 a week when he left Albion.

Rees spoke to Regis, Batson, Cunningham’s family and friends, many players, coaches and journalists. To a West Brom supporter who was born two years before the club was relegated in 1986 to spend 16 years outside top division football, this book is an exciting read. The club is unlikely to reach such heights as the 1978-79 season in today’s age of big-business football. The black community saw the ‘Three Degrees’ label as a racist insult and such a label could not be used today. But the tag now identifies three excellent football players who helped, as Paul Rees says, to change British football forever.

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