When Black Was The New Red

By Devon Gordon

Arsenal 1 Racism 0

Ed’s note – Although the term ‘nigger’ is obviously deeply offensive and not one we would normally print, in the context of the article, on this occasion we will run it as the author intended.

Arsenal Legends, regardless of colour

I’m a second generation Jamaican, 52 years old and a season ticket holder at the Emirates (shut it Gary Neville, you idiot. Wenger out).

I grew up in a predominately white town, Northampton. I had a cousin who was a winger for the Cobblers in the mid to late Seventies when they were in the lower reaches of the Football League.

His nickname among the home supporters was ‘The Electric Nigger’. That hurt, and not just because he was my cousin. Shocking.

The stupid thing was that the Northampton Town fans loved him, chanted for him, absolutely adored him, yet they still called him that. I just couldn’t get my head round it.

Looking back, he should have been playing at a higher level, he was brilliant. Pacey, tricky and deadly. He gave me and my brother season tickets when we were in our early teens in the mid to late Seventies but the abusive language put us off and we didn’t go as often as I would have liked because of that.

I was born in London and a Gooner from a young age (Charlie George’s 1971 FA Cup final winner sealed the deal) but growing up in Northampton, I didn’t get myself to an Arsenal game until the mid Eighties.

The first black player to pull on an Arsenal shirt was Brendan Batson in 1971. But when I started going, Viv Anderson was playing for us at right back and he was good, bloody good. In fact, he was the first black player to win a senior cap for England back in 1978 when he was at Forest.

In the mid Eighties, a succession of promising, young black players started to make it through the ranks to the Arsenal first team. Notably, south Londoners Paul Davis, Michael Thomas and, most talented of all, David Rocastle.

In my opinion, that trio would have won far more England caps if they were white. I also think Viv is one of the ones who lost out at international level. But Rocastle is top of that list. Seriously, was Trevor Steven better than him? No. Rocky had the lot. He was fast, a wonderful dribbler, great passer, hard as nails and consistently excellent. He was up there with Gazza.

I think that, back then, black players had to be extraordinarily good to make it. The exception that proves the rule is Gus Caesar, he made me cringe with his obligatory mistake in every game. As well as always wanting Arsenal to win, I also wanted our black contingent to do the best they could and would pray that they weren’t the ones to make an error which cost us a game.

Caesar (Caesar!) couldn’t help what he was though, a bad footballer. That he was black wasn’t the issue. But when black players made a mistake then race became an issue in a way that it never would for a white player. The terraces became toxic with racist expletives when Caesar screwed up.

A few other of many memorable lows from that period:

* Everton fans chanting “shoot that nigger” every time a black Arsenal player touched the ball at Goodison Park in the late Eighties (The Toffees were all white at that time).

* Centre back and emergency forward Chris Whyte being dubbed ‘Chalky White’ by our own fans in reference to the racist portrayal of West Indians by Jim Davidson in the early Eighties, when the majority of our fans weren’t exactly progressive.

Whyte, as some of you will recall, went on to win a First Division winner’s medal with Leeds United.

You might be surprised to know that I actually have to rate Ron Atkinson. Obviously, he disgraced himself when he described (the world class) Marcel Desailly as “a big, lazy nigger”. That’s such a shame for a manager who consistently applied a racial meritocracy.

He once put out a team at Villa with something like ten black players when he was in charge there. And he was the one who famously and consistently picked three top black players at WBA in the late Seventies/early Eighties: Cyril Regis, Brendon Batson and Laurie Cunningham.

They were dubbed The Three Degrees and, although it was meant to be endearing, I wasn’t comfortable with it. Thomas, Davis and Rocastle were also dubbed The Three Degrees some years later and that pissed me off, too. It somehow detracted from their standing as accomplished footballers.

One of the things that I found hard to fathom is how fans were so selective when it came to racism. For instance, everyone loved Michael Jackson in the Seventies yet some of his fans would go to games and abuse black players, sheer hatred. I think that’s crazy.

But thankfully, things have moved forward, a lot. The development of black players in the British game has been a wonderful thing over the last four decades, on many different levels. Arsenal have really benefitted from that particular talent pool, perhaps more than any other British club. Think of world class talents such as, in no particular order, Vieira, Henry, Cashley and Campbell, as well as the likes of Wrighty, Kanu, Lauren, Toure, Wiltord and Gilberto.

And we probably have the biggest black fanbase of any Premier League club. I suspect part of that is linked to us having so many successful black players in recent decades.

Seeing black players flourish makes life better for black people in the wider community. It makes us stronger, more integrated and gives us a sense of pride. I know that sounds cliched but it’s true.

And, for me, it wasn’t just about Arsenal’s black players but Britain’s black players in general. I want them to do well for themselves and for black people. For instance, I was a great admirer of John Barnes, even though he played for Liverpool in his prime.

So, seeing black players being cheered on by people of all colours makes me feel good. And, more importantly, it makes a nonsense of racism…

13th March 2017 10:05:23


Comments and Reaction

User comments on this article are now closed. If you want to continue the debate, why not do so on the Gooner Forum.

Yes its Ron  10:42am 13th Mar 2017

That WBA team 1978- 80 ish was the best footballing team ive seen since becoming a footie fan. Brilliant and exhilarating to watch. Power, pace and poise and free scoring. Should have won the title at least once i thought back then. - Post No. 105216

Cheltenham Gunner  10:48am 13th Mar 2017

Excellent article Devon, I am mixed race and the same age as you. The racism in football in the seventies and eighties was a contributing factor in me losing respect for the sport and I switched to cricket from the early 80's. It took the mid 90's for me to get back into football and recognise the massive improvement that had taken place within the game. Arsenal have had many wonderful black and mixed race players down the years. I just wonder how long it will be before there is a black manager at the club, or indeed any top club in England? - Post No. 105218

bradyorbergkamp  10:59am 13th Mar 2017

Sorry Devon but Gus was not that bad.he does not even make my top ten list of worst players.Gus tried his best and was an honest pro unlike some of our more recent shirt wearers.What would we do to have Rocky and Davis now? I think Thomas got one cap.They were league winners should of been given chance. - Post No. 105220

TonyEvans  12:53pm 13th Mar 2017

A very good article, Devon. Stoked up some good memories and some not so good! Not sure Chris Whyte was ever an 'emergency' striker; from memory I think dear old Don Howe thought he had played a master stroke by using Chris up front rather than as a central defender. Not one of his better decisions though, although, as you say, Chris did go on and win a title winners medal with Leeds - can't remember where he played for them though but assume as a defender. - Post No. 105223

jeff wright  13:00pm 13th Mar 2017

Things have improved a lot in football and in society as a whole since the 70s but racism is still around, even in football ,as was proven by the Millwall supporters yesterday at the lane of shame. Except on that occasion it was an Asian receiving the taunts from the Millwall supporters.Of course the spuds have more than their fair share of racists and homophobes. lee k fc would feel at home among them... especially when they chant Wenger must stay ... Speaking of which Cech is leading the latest Wenger must stay campaign by the players with the usual, it is our fault and not his malarkey .It's funny then how Wengo laps up the accolades for any success in the past or present and yet is blameless for the constant humiliating new record setting results that happen under his watch . Such as the 10-2 ag against BM suffered during the usual first KO round departure from Europe that has occurred for the past 7 seasons. Wengo of course is not responsible for us being 16 points behind league leaders Chelsea it's everyone elses fault.Yet were we 16 points ahead of them top of the league you can bet Syrupy Stan's bottom dollar that this would all be down to Wengo's genius. You couldn't make it up. - Post No. 105225

Redshirtwhitesleeves  13:14pm 13th Mar 2017

Great article bringing back some terrific memories from the 80's. Paul Davis was a favourite of mine, a wonderful left foot, very underrated in my opinion. I met him once outside Highbury, he was getting into a blue jaguar I seem to remember, but he had time for a chat and an autograph for me and my pal. Seemed a really nice, genuine guy. We must have been about 15 at the time and it made our day! Raphael Meade was around during the early 80's too wasn't he, don't remember too much about him other than him scoring twice against the spuds away! Makes him alright in my book! - Post No. 105226

Cyril  13:24pm 13th Mar 2017

Great article Devon! I was at an Arsenal do many moons ago and the theme was 89. Micky Thomas was there and had a photo with him. He put his arm around and he just had kindness in his eyes. True Legend and deserves the accolade of being the man that scored that goal! - Post No. 105227

TonyEvans  13:36pm 13th Mar 2017

What great empathy we fans used to have with the players, right from when I first started supporting in 1970 and probably peaking during GGs stint as manager. How different it is today! - Post No. 105228

Yes its Ron  13:59pm 13th Mar 2017

redshirts - great player Davis. Loved it when he decked Glen Cockerill. Oh for the days when we had guys who didnt take any sh-t in the team! - Post No. 105229

Guernsey gunner  14:24pm 13th Mar 2017

Nice post Devon, good memories and some great players...however you missed Sanogo from your list!!! Not sure if you guys have seen this but worth a look to keep the pressure on especially if you are overseas like me. I'm sure I saw the Eds name on the list of donations..top man. https://www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/chris-butler - Post No. 105230

Up For Grabs Now  14:38pm 13th Mar 2017

I vividly remember the extremely racist 1970/80’s when I first regularly attended Arsenal games both home and away, often hearing the monkey chants or bananas being thrown onto the pitch etc. Thankfully today that is no longer the case, but you only need to look at some of the Eastern European countries today or even in Italy (Lazio), to realize that racism has not been eradicated. I think you are right Devon, that black players of that era had to be extra talented to get a look in, because they had to be, as they were singled out for severe racist abuse whenever they made an error, and even when they didn’t, John Barnes being a very good example. - Post No. 105232

Redshirtwhitesleeves  14:39pm 13th Mar 2017

Ron- one of the best right hooks Highbury ever saw wasn't it?! No one took liberties with the Arsenal back in those days. Wenger, wally, Ozil et al would have run a mile faced with some of those teams back then! - Post No. 105233

shu  17:14pm 13th Mar 2017

I always found the diversification in the north bank uplifting. We were all together as one !!!!!! Not like that now for other reasons , wenger out - Post No. 105236

RobG  18:58pm 13th Mar 2017

I can remember standing on the old North Bank when West Brom had that great team in the mid seventies. I am not exact in my memory on this but I suspect we were getting the runaround from Cyril Regis and Laurie Cunningham. The former cannoned one against the post before it was scuffed away for a corner. The bloke next to me boomed - 'Bugger off to Bognor.' For some reason this has stayed with me ever since. - Post No. 105238

nozzer  19:28pm 13th Mar 2017

Great article. A trip down memory lane and important that we never forget what black players went through and sadly in some parts of the world still go through. Rocky played in 6 of the 8 qualifiers for Italia 90 but didn't make the squad. How both arsenal and england could do with a man like Rocky now. - Post No. 105240

Seven Kings Gooner1  19:34pm 13th Mar 2017

Great piece Devon, I used to play in the Brentwood Sunday league with Brendan Batson's brother Godfrey and through Godfrey we got to meet Brendan and if any of you want a good after dinner speaker he is your man. Some years back he gave a talk at a football dinner and spoke of his time at Arsenal under Bertie Mee, he gave a great insight to how Arsenal was run, lovely man. I always thought Paul Davis was the player who should have won more England caps, lovely passer of the ball and so many assists during his seasons at Arsenal and pretty tough with it. Rocky's goal at Old Trafford will be my memory of what a great player he was, would love to know why the club sold him to leeds - surely not for the 2 million quid! - Post No. 105241

John F  19:49pm 13th Mar 2017

I am a similar age to you Devon I was always proud that the Arsenal terrace was not infiltrated by the NF then as it had done at different clubs. Rumour has it that Denton and his crew made sure they were not welcome.Other clubs like Chelsea and Millwall was a different story but the worst fans I experienced for being racist was the Geordies.Paul Davis right hook got him a nine match ban if i remember.I knew one of the Southampton players the now sadly departed Kevin Moore,he did not go into details but he told me that GC was known as a right wind up merchant.Davis was a great player but i do remember him getting some stick in the early part of his career from the North bank . - Post No. 105243

BigDaveTheGooner  20:03pm 13th Mar 2017

The answer to your question Sevenkings about why Rocastle went to Leeds was because his knees were on the verge going,hence the reason he never continued to show the form he showed at Arsenal. As you know he went to Chelsea and virtually disappeared from the English game and ended up playing in the Far East.Basically Arsenal cashed in on him while they could. - Post No. 105244

Tollgoon  21:46pm 13th Mar 2017

Paul Davis Glen Cockerill nuff said, definitely my favourite player of that period. Silky player but tough with it - Post No. 105245

mbg  22:16pm 13th Mar 2017

Lovely Article Devon it might do us good and help to take our minds off that complete useless waste of space and fresh air of a manager we have now, even if it is for a short period. I have a prize possession in my house it used to be framed on my wall until my younggun son knocked it down with an Arsenal ball and broke the glass, it's an Arsenal shirt signed by the Arsenal team with out in front the signature of David Rocastle i'm not going to go into detail of the how I came by it but it was the actual shirt worn by my favourite player of all time Tony Adams at a match at Highbury many years ago, who big tone got to sign in the dressing room after the game, as I said how I came about it is another story but the signature sticking out in front along with all the others and still plain to be seen is David Rocastle, but what I will say is it was the same shirt as the lads (proper lads) in the caption are wearing i'm not saying it was that night, but it was that shirt. wenger out. - Post No. 105246

Cyril  22:17pm 13th Mar 2017

Laurie Cunningham was a top player. Had flair, pace and an engine. As far as I understand was from the Holloway. Ouch! - Post No. 105247

KC38  22:20pm 13th Mar 2017

Great article, some great players, Rocky was superb and Davis had incredible ball retention ability. Caesar was shocking though, up there with Stepanovs. It was not much different though with the fan base, we had a midweek game when Terry Neil was the manager, the north bank was split in two one section pro him and one anti and there were scuffles, funny how many people remember the past for the good times and erase the bad. - Post No. 105248

Siddy  1:20am 14th Mar 2017

John F, I remember as a teen in the mid Eighties when I used to stand in the heart of the North Bank there was some horrific anti-Semitic chanting whenever we played Spurs. I won't repeat those but even as a very young man, I found it quite sickening. The thing was that the people behind it, who got one particular song going, were not to be seen the rest of the season (maybe they were NF infiltrators). Shamefully, a lot of Arsenal fans joined in. I nearly, as a mixed race lad (13) from Brixton, nearly got arrested for singing the song. The cops were just pulling out people at random and I suppose I resisted arrest! For the first time. - Post No. 105249

Arseneknewbest  7:45am 14th Mar 2017

Thanks Devon - Good to read your perspective. I idolised Davis and Rocky. I was never an In-ger-land fan though so the fewer times that any of our players risked injury by playing internationals, the better in my view. Add Ian Wright to that list of players who should have been selected more often than was actually the case. And Alan Smith because his face never seemed to fit either for probably different reasons. It'd be good to see a new generation of young players coming through but the likes of Chuba, Willock and even younger Umari Hutchinson may not get a look in as our manager looks for cheapo options from elsewhere. One final comment about the FAC - you'd think after drawing the mighty Sutton and Lincoln in earlier rounds the numbered ball gods would have given us a favourable draw this time? All joking apart, and given what most sensible gooners are expecting to happen, City seems like the least worse option. - Post No. 105250

John F  8:23am 14th Mar 2017

SIddy i know which song you refer to .I grew up in a Kingston council estate where most supported Chelsea and I heard that terrible song from Chelsea fans long before i heard it at highbury .I think it was just copied as i heard it many times on my travels perhaps my earlier post was looking at things with rose tinted glasses. - Post No. 105251

TonyEvans  8:44am 14th Mar 2017

AKB - with you on the England front, I always hated Arsenal players being selected in case they got injured playing for their country; it was very much Arsenal first with me, with 'Ingerland' a very poor second. Likewise the cup draw was just about the best possible for me - ideally Wenger will announce he is off by the end of March (I know - is that a pig flying overhead) so we can all unite behind the team, and not be distracted by thoughts of Wenger saving his skin again with the FA Cup. - Post No. 105252

jjetplane  11:30am 14th Mar 2017

Remembering well standing at the back of the north bank with some famous punk celeb watching WBA destroy Arsenal. Sure it was a boxing day and surrounded as I was by hard core I loved that performance on the quiet. With the incredible influx of players from Africa things have changed some of the minds of people who are drawn into racism. Another memory was that second half at the Chavs when Kanu hit three. What a day that was. As for Kante at the Chavs - say no more. - Post No. 105258

Yes its Ron  12:13pm 14th Mar 2017

akb - Yes mate, we have a chance v City i think. Its the best draw as you say. We ll either beat them or lose 4-0, its that type of prospect i feel. RobG - Im pleased to say that i know big Cyrille quite well. Nice fella. If anything, hes lovely disposition maybe stopped him becoming the very best CF there was. He put the P in power but would never use it unfairly. I did once see Cyrille lift and throw Alun Evans (very good CH of Villa s 81 title team) of the Villa away like he was a childs rag rag doll once after Evans had a taken one liberty too many with Cyrille. 59000 in a seething Villa Park one night that was early 80s. Never gets mentioned these days,but thats a hell of an atmospheric derby. Been to a few down the years. Great stadium Villa Park i always think. One of the best Gunners away days. - Post No. 105263

UTU The Arsenal FC  12:38pm 14th Mar 2017

We have only had one of the biggest black fans in England that have followed and watched The Arsenal simply because we were located. Sp*rs, West Ham, Birmingham City, Man City and Man Utd could say the same. I was born in Islington in the 60(s), my parents being Nigerian and Northern Irish. During that time we had a large Irish,Afro Carribean/West Indian, Greek, and African community, especially around Finsbury Park. Later on we have alot more Greek and Turkish fans coming over Highbury. You will find we also a big Irish following north and south of the border. Islington and London in general is one of the most mixed cosmopolitan poluations on the planet, though this is changing because the economic socal cleansing going on. I started going over to Highbury in 1979, stood in the school boys enclosure, supporting an all White Team, didn't bother me cos they were The Arsenal. When Chris Whyte, Paul Davis and later Raphael Meade became regulars the White Arsenal Fans supported them just much as they supported the rest of team and sang their names louldy on the North Bank. Alot of Black Fans were proud to see them playing for The Arsenal. When I started following The Arsenal away all Gooners were targets, being Black or foriegn looking was gonna get attention but the White Lads still got a kickin for being 'Cockneys' who remembers you time mate question ? We all stuck together, build up real friendships and devoloped proper camaraderie. We never really had a problem with racism. The NF tried to inflitrade the club but the hardcore support and Mob rejected them, alot of White Working English Lads listened to Ska, Mod and Soul Music, they knew the score. The concept of race was invented by the powers that be to divide and rule, we were all Human Beings. I was at Everton away in the 80(s) and they would sing 'Everton are White' but look at their support today. I met a young Evertonian in the Boozer after we beat them to win the league in 1998 at Highbury, he was a Black Scouser. Times Change. AS for the 3 Degrees and Chalky Whyte that did not offend the Brothers, we were too busy cheering them and the team on the pitch. I am Proud to Follow The Arsenal because the core fan base have always been a reflection of our Community and London,though the modern corporate club that is Arsene FC can Do ONE ! UTU Be a GOONER ! - Post No. 105264

jjetplane  14:34pm 14th Mar 2017

Good stuff UTU and funny I can see Islington (born and bred) from the barbers who cut my hair. This went from Irish, Greek, Cypriot, West Indian, Kurdish to Algerian. Miles away from London and now it's guys from Istanbul. In the 70s there was a big thing for the afro look whether you were black or white. As you say it was all about soul boy suede heads evolving out of the bluebeat/reggae skin movement. Went through all of that including the afro! and of course this was when Arsenal was The Arsenal. One of my best pals going to games was from Trinidad. He was a Chelsea lad who liked the Arsenal and i used to go over the Bridge with him some times. We had some times. - Post No. 105268

Arseneknewbest  16:16pm 14th Mar 2017

UTU - Another great read. A lot of the stuff that you, Devon and others have put on here were, for me, only unsubstantiated impressions that I had of the club and which made me feel as though we, as a group, were superior to some of the other less cultured teams. Hearing you confirm that though has been really positive and it underlines that we are right to be proud as gooners. Most of my football-going mates were white like me but there was always a strong impression from looking around home and away terraces that we were much more multi-cultural than other posses. Ron - agree wholeheartedly with you about Villa Park. I went there for the 2-0 last year and I almost enjoyed the obligatory walk around the ground as much as the game itself. That red-brick gabled entry to the Holte End and the steps leading up to it make it easy to imagine football a hundred years ago. I subconsciously spent 90 minutes pining for Highbury... - Post No. 105271

John F  20:46pm 14th Mar 2017

Arseblog/the bear article gives a good account of the National Front not being made welcome. - Post No. 105281

Issue #269 - Out Now!

Gooner Editorial

15th January 2018

Being muscled off the ball by Bournemouth is like being mugged by your grandma

Online Ed: Another poor Arsenal display on the road just another signpost as we near the end of the Wenger era