Chaplain’s Corner: Saturday 26th November 2016 (Harlow Town – FA Trophy)
Tomorrow evening BBC is showing a fascinating football documentary. ‘Whites v Blacks: How football changed a nation’ (BBC2, 9.oopm, Sunday 27th November) tells the story of a remarkable testimonial match that took place in 1979.
In order to encourage more fans to attend the testimonial of West Bromwich Albion midfielder Len Cantello, a team of white players, captained by Cantello played against a team of black players captained by Albion player Cyrille Regis. Looking back from 2016 it seems remarkable and certainly not something that would happen today. Back in 1979 it was seen as a positive step in the struggle for equality. As Regis commented at the press launch of the film last week, it was a radical event.
In the late 1970s West Brom were seen to be progressive in having three black players playing regularly - Regis, Brendon Batson, and Laurie Cunningham. I remember the testimonial happening – I was a regular at The Hawthorns in those days – but I didn’t go; post-season 1979 I was too busy concentrating on my A-levels!
It was a struggle to get together a squad of 13 black players. The three Albion players were joined by Wolves' centre-backs George Berry and Bob Hazell. Stoke City's Garth Crooks featured, but then it got tricky. Stewart Phillips, a striker from Fourth Division Hereford United played, as did a 19-year-old Albion trialist named Vernon Hodgson.
These were the days when black players regularly had bananas thrown at them, Regis received death threats when he was selected for England, and Berry was told by the FA that he couldn't have dreadlocks, but it is Hodgson's recollection of that period that hits home.
As a 15-year-old apprentice at Birmingham City he wasn't just scared of the crowd, or the opponents, he was scared of his team-mates too.
Hodgson briefly found sanctuary in the Albion squad, and the club's impact on race relations in football, and in turn, the whole country, is a huge source of pride for Baggies fans.
The film’s subtitle 'How football changed a nation', shows just how influential those players were, not just in football, but in society as a whole. We live in different times now, which is why a game like this would never happen today. Football and the nation have changed, although racism still keeps on rearing its ugly head. We should not be complacent about this issue.
I shall be watching, remembering with nostalgia the players I used to watch from the terraces, but also with thanks for the progress that has been made since.
In the meantime, enjoy today’s game.