The Three Degrees West Bromwich Albion

Len Cantello’s Testimonial: Tuesday, May 15th, 1979

When people look back over some of the pivotal moments in football, Len Cantello’s testimonial hardly registered until relatively recently. On 27 November 2016, the BBC aired a documentary that resurrected the game and its intriguing story. ‘Whites v Blacks: How football changed a nation’ showed prominent West Bromwich Albion supporter Adrian Chiles delving deeper into the whole tapestry of the match. The subject of racism remains high on the football agenda following concerns about this year’s World Cup in Russia. Added to that, concerns about the lack of opportunity for black managers and recent allegations of racism towards Raheem Sterling are ongoing. I revisit a time when attitudes were somewhat different.

Background

Len Cantello was signed from Manchester United as a youth and spent 11 years in West Bromwich Albion’s first-team. In the 1970s, players moved clubs a lot less frequently than they do now, with many more staying at a club for the whole of their careers and subsequently received a testimonial match. Most testimonials involved the player’s own team, usually pitted against a local rival or an ‘all-star’ team of sorts.

So how did the unique testimonial come about? One day Cantello was talking to Cyrille Regis, and the pair agreed to each come up with a team. Regis came up with an XI of black players and the format was set. During training, players would often come up with different ways of selecting teams, such as ‘Jocks & Blacks v English.’ The idea appeared to spring from that. It’s hard to comprehend the atmosphere around at the time that would lead to acceptance of such ideas. I’m not here to judge and condemn those from the past. This is not an attempt to ridicule or treat with disdain. Rather, these words are an attempt just to appreciate those groundbreakers who paved the way for the players of today.

The climate in the 1970s

Few black professional players made the top level in the 1970s. The atmosphere at grounds was hostile, to say the least. Culturally, England had an uneasy acceptance of the few black players that came through. Probably the most well known in the early ’70s was West Ham United’s Clyde Best. Scoring 58 goals in 218 games between 1969 and 1976 he became a Hammers fan favourite.

Being one of the first black players he was targeted with racial abuse throughout his playing days. My own club Everton had Cliff Marshall, who had long been considered Everton’s first black player. However, it’s now accepted to be Mike Trebilcock who, in scoring twice in 1966, became the first black footballer to score in an FA Cup final.

Despite chanting and verbal abuse targeted at black players, referees, managers and the football authorities appeared unwilling to do anything about it. Viv Anderson, who was the first black player to play for England at senior level, complained to his international manager Ron Greenwood about bananas and other fruit being thrown at him from the terraces. The story goes that he was told to get back out onto the pitch and “bring me an apple and a pear.”

The Three Degrees

West Bromwich Albion had a superb team at the time. Attacking, full of flair, a pleasure to watch. They had finished 6th in 1978, also losing in the FA Cup semi-final. They peaked with a 3rd place finish in 1979. The main focus was on their three black players, Laurie Cunningham, Cyrille Regis and Brendon Batson. They were called ‘The Three Degrees’ by their then manager, Ron Atkinson. This broke new ground – West Brom became the first British club to field three black players in the same team.

To give perspective, there were very few black players in all four divisions of the football league. The label stuck and the three players even posed with the real Three Degrees, who were decked in Albion shirts for the photo shoot. Their 5-3 victory over a good Manchester United side in December 1978 is well worth watching again. The last goal scored by Cyrille Regis is quite something.

Society’s Conflicting Attitudes to Racism

Times were changing, albeit slowly. British TV culture was still hanging on to TV programmes such as ‘The Black & White Minstrel Show’ and established sit-coms such as ‘Love Thy Neighbour’ and ‘Till Death Us Do Part.’ Popular at the time was comedian Jim Davidson who had a character ‘Chalky Whitely’ as part of his act. His pale white man doing faux Jamaican patois act was mainstream enough to give Davidson his own show in 1979. Times and attitudes were indeed different, sometimes painfully so.

The National Front was gaining votes within parts of the UK. It was well known that they formed a strong part of the England national team following. Leaflets were given out at matches and football grounds, which were seen as recruiting grounds. On the other hand, various anti-racism initiatives had sprung up and awareness of racism was increasing. There were anti-racism demonstrations in general society and ‘Rock against Racism’ was formed in 1976. Football fans led into the 1980s with Charlton Athletic’s ‘Red, White & Black at the Valley’ and ‘Leeds Fans Against Racism.’

Awareness of Racism in Football

If you ask most fans these days, they will accept racism in football was widespread in the 1970s. Many, however – including myself – weren’t aware of it being an issue at that time. In my case, this was purely down to ignorance. You go to a game, support your team, shout abuse at the opposition and go home. I swear, hand on heart that I didn’t join in any racist abuse but that is so easy to say some 40 years on.

Interviews with black players of the time say it was pretty much incessant at every ground. I don’t think it registers when you are not the victim. Besides, there weren’t many black players around then. As a music fan, the problem was highlighted to me when there was a feature on the rise of the National Front and particularly one of its leaders, Martin Webster in the music paper ‘Sounds.’ The article frightened me; I’d never read in such depth the frightening rise of far-right politics.

Even still, I was unaware of the scale of racist behaviour of many at football grounds. The mainstream media neither seemed to care or want to report it. In 1979 we had a new Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher who was no fan of football. Her ‘swamped’ comments about people of different cultures in Britain didn’t help.

It’s when you start to go through examples that brings it home just how bad the problem was. Bob Hazell of Wolves played in the testimonial match. Even though he played with George Berry in the same team, he recounts hearing teammates racially abusing other black players. How they kept their self-control is extraordinary, but on one occasion George Berry retaliated.

Hitting Back

In a cup tie against Watford, he made a mistake that led to Watford scoring. As he was leaving the Molyneux pitch, a Wolves fan started yelling at him. “One of our own fans was calling me a black bastard and a disgrace to the club,” Berry recalled. The abusers screamed “go back to your country,” among other choice turns of phrase.

As Berry walked down the tunnel, he decided he was not taking it anymore and went back up the track to confront the culprit. When some of the abusers mates started laughing, Berry jumped into the crowd and gave his abuser a right hook. He was subsequently arrested. The odd thing about all this that the whole incident was hushed up. Berry was released without charge. If the fans made a complaint, it appeared to go missing as did the TV footage of the incident. I suspect someone, somewhere knew something was wrong about it all.

The Match

The game itself took place on a Tuesday evening. Albion fielded their first-team minus their black teammates. They included their goalkeeper Tony Godden, Derek Statham, Bryan Robson, Johnny Giles, David Mills, Alistair Brown as well as Cantello himself. The ‘Cyrille Regis & Laurie Cunningham XI’ featured Brendan Batson, George Berry, Bob Hazell, Garth Crooks and Remi Moses.

The white players involved remember little about the match. In contrast, the black players remember so much more about the event. To highlight what it meant, Bob Hazell said that he had friends coming along who had never been to a match before. It made it a game he didn’t want to lose. There were so few black people at football grounds where abuse rained down from the stands. It was a hostile place for anyone who wasn’t white.

Both Brendan Batson and Garth Crooks had no hesitation in playing. Crooks added it was “just a game of football played for a fellow professional”. For the record, the Regis/Cunningham XI won 3-2 with goals from Cunningham, Crooks and Stewart Phillips. Bryan Robson and Alistair Brown scored for Albion.

Back to the BBC Documentary

One of the more shocking disclosures made was when Adrian Chiles recounted a time when he interviewed Simon Darby who was then in charge of the British National Party (BNP), West Midlands area. He was also an Albion fan. Chiles asked him who his all-time favourite player was?

“Cyrille Regis” he replied immediately.

Then he added: “Just because I have him as a hero, doesn’t mean I want my grandchildren to be black.”

The effect of this behaviour on the players was varied. Bob Hazell did enjoy his career despite what happened. He says the abuse did leave an impression on him having heard every comment, although insists he wasn’t emotionally scarred. He did admit to getting emotional speaking about the abuse, even though being a footballer was the best thing that ever happened to him. In contrast, Len Cantello states there was no racism within the club at the time. Probably in common with most white players (and no doubt many fans, including myself) of the time, Len Cantello stated he didn’t hear racism coming from the terraces.

In reality, the match itself was not a ‘watershed’ moment as there was little improvement in the immediate aftermath. It was worse in the lower leagues and probably harder to deal with given the lack of TV and media coverage. Although the number of black players increased slowly, it wasn’t until the launch of the ‘Let’s Kick Racism Out of Football’ campaign in 1993 and as an organisation in 1997 that real change started to take place.

Looking back

Both Ian Wright and Dion Dublin look back and admit they would have come across as much angrier had they been on the receiving end of the sort of onslaught Messrs Regis, Cunningham and Batson were subject of.

Ian Wright admitted in the documentary that “we owe them so much – they had to turn the other cheek. They were Martin Luther-King, I was more Malcolm X.”

One of the saddest parts is the thought that there must have been so many budding and talented young black players either put off or squashed by the system who would have made it at the very top. Given the amount of successful black players around today, how many great players have we missed out on because of this behaviour and authorities negligence in dealing with it?

Looking forward

Nowadays, overt racism is relatively rare and will likely be challenged at grounds. This is an area where all-seater stadiums help, as offending individuals find it hard to fade into the background. Instead, a lot of racism has gone underground. On social media, the perpetrator can hide behind a false identity or even just behind a keyboard.

The challenges are still there. Racism around some European countries is not taken as seriously as it should be. The sheer paucity of black managers in the English leagues point at a similar problem to that of 40 years ago but appears more institutional in origin. The incomprehensible criticism of Raheem Sterling has also given rise to concerns of racism being involved.

Many use the excuse that football is a hard game played by hard people who should be able to take a bit of abuse. Those who class racism in the same bracket as giving abuse don’t understand racism and its impact. As someone said to me once, “Just because you have never heard racism, doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. If a black person assures you it’s happened, it’s happened.”

Awareness is everything.