What some of us suspected a long time ago has been revealed in a new book about racism in English football, “Pitch Black” by Emy Onuora.
It claims that former England manager Graham Taylor, who was in charge from 1990 to 1993, told Richie Moran, an anti-racism activist and ex player, that two English FA “suits” tried to lean on him to limit the number of black players he picked for the national team.
There is no suggestion that Taylor accepted the request. And there is nothing in Taylor’s career to indicate he had a problem fielding black players. When he managed Watford in the 1980s he helped develop the career of possibly the most talented English player of all time Jamaican-born John Barnes, as well as Luther Blissett.
On a few occasions in the late 1980s, especially under Bobby Robson, England teams had up to five or six black players – Barnes, Blisset, Mark Chamberlain (father of Arsenal’s Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain), Ricky Hill, Brian Stein, and so on. This was pretty much unheard of before then and may have been what prompted the unnamed FA officials to intervene and ask for their England to be kept white.
The first black player to represent England was Viv Anderson in 1978. This was at a time black players were subjected to horrendous racial abuse from the terraces, from fellow players, and even from their teammates during training. Anderson’s debut for England and the trickle of black players that followed into the national team were not accepted without resistance from the racists.
Barnes claimed that after scoring what was seen as the best goal ever by an England player in a 2-1 defeat of Brazil in the Maracana Stadium, on the flight back to England, some English fans kept taunting him with chants suggesting the score was 1-1 because they didn’t recognise a goal for England by a black player.
Terry Venables replaced Taylor as England manager and I do not recall a time when he fielded more than one black player in any England team. It always seemed like if Paul Ince was playing, Ian Wright would be out, if Les Ferdinand was in, Ince would be out and so on. I suspected there was some kind of quota at the time, but didn’t have the evidence to support this suspicion.
This revelation now adds some mileage to my feelings at the time.
The author is the brother of Iffy Onuora, who played for several lower league clubs and coached Ethiopia. He writes: “Moran’s revelation reveals that the FA’s primary concern was to preserve a predominantly white image of the England team, an image that they themselves had constructed and took great steps to preserve.
There is no question of Taylor having acted on those instructions, but the episode raises some important questions as to how many other England managers were given the same instructions and therefore felt pressurised to limit the numbers of black players selected to play for the national side.
During his playing career, Paul Davis had wondered whether some kind of unofficial quota system was in operation, but had never considered it beyond mere speculation. It would raise the question of how many black players had had their chances of playing for England restricted and what impact this might have had on England’s fortunes.”
As England was possibly wrestling with an unofficial quota for black players, other European countries like Holland and France recognised and embraced the talent of their black nationals. Ruud Gullit (as skipper) and Frank Rijkaard inspired Holland to the European Championship in 1988, beating England 3-1 on the way. And a French national team with Marcel Desailly, Lilian Thuram, Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira, won the World Cup in 1998 and the Euros in 2002, to the utter dismay of the racist National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen.
A few months ago, Sol Campbell claimed that he would have been England captain for at least 10 years had he been white. Several commentators, including “useful” blacks like Ian Wright, lined up to deny that Campbell’s race could have been a factor in denying him the armband. But I thought Campbell was right and this revelation adds weight to his claim.
Incidentally, despite the diversity that we now see in the English national team and the Premier League, with about 30% of the players in England being black, we are yet to see a black player captain England on a permanent basis (Ince and Rio Ferdinand have been skipper on isolated occasions). The French have had no such problems with Desailly and Vieira.
It may take another book for us to find out why England can’t seem to produce a black captain.