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Fascinating Anecdote – The First Black Man To Represent England

Viv Anderson: First Black Man to Play For EnglandOn Wednesday 23rd February, a ceremony at the People’s Museum in Manchester saw ex-England international Viv Anderson present his England shirt for exhibition.

The shirt, worn by Viv on his debut for a match against Czechoslovakia in 1979, was perhaps one of the most important in the history of British football. Because Viv Anderson, was the first black man to represent England at full international level.

The Nottingham born former right-back seemed to be a little overwhelmed at the fuss made about the shirt, given the fact that it had spent most of it’s lifetime sat in a box in Anderson’s garage. When asked by members of the press what he remembered about the game he replied, ‘For me it was all about focusing on playing well in a football match.’

It seemed to be a pretty disappointing anecdote. Anderson couldn’t even remember that much about the game itself. (England won 1-0 by the way!)

‘They tell me I had a hand in the goal. I think that means I passed to someone who ran 50 yards and crossed it for someone else to score!’

But what his story lacked in detail, it made up for in significance. Anderson’s friend, Mark Bushell, who was instrumental in getting the shirt to the museum, said that the shirt itself was more than just a piece of footballing memorabilia. He said,

‘it actually tells a story of how people in general were starting to react to black workers and footballers succeeding right across the community at a time of a big cultural shift.’

Viv Anderson started his career at his hometown club of Nottingham Forest, under the great Brian Clough. He made his first appearance when he was just 17 years old and went on to win the League Championships, 2 League Cups and the European Cup in 1980.

He then moved to Arsenal, where he won the League Cup again and missed only 3 matches in the 3 years he spent with the Gunners. Following that he moved North, to join Manchester United and was actually Sir Alex Ferguson’s first signing for the Red Devils. He went on to win the FA Cup with United in 1990.

Anderson had a pretty good career at club level, and even managed a decade of performances for England. His first cap came when he was 22, and he collected 30 altogether. Strangely, Anderson remains one of the few English players to attend 2 World Cups and 2 European Championships and not play in any of the actual tournament. Despite this fact, he is still considered one of the most significant figures in English footballer, and he was considered to be in the side on merit rather than ‘tokenism’.

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When Anderson pulled on the England shirt as the first black man to represent this country, he may not have realised the significance of what he was about to do, but it would prove to be a key moment in the history of British society. Throughout the 60s and 70s, black footballers had been a rare sight on the pitch in England.

Black fans were even rarer. Despite large West Indian and African communities in major towns across the country, few black players made it to league level. As crazy as it sounds to us today, they were considered to be skillful but lazy players who didn’t have the talent to make it at the top level.

When black players did make it through, they were subjected to some of the worst racial abuse they had ever encountered. Safe in their masses, individual fans could hoot, throw bananna skins and make vile remarks at black players.

Anderson was not the first, but he was one of a few black players who had to put up with terrible racism as they struggled to make their mark. Laurie Cunningham and Cyrille Regis at WBA, John Barnes at Watford and later at Liverpool and Garth Crooks at Stoke then Tottenham, all recall moments on the pitch were their colour mattered more than their talent.

But it was players like Anderson, that began to break down the barriers. Black fans began to come to matches to see their own heroes. Few had dared to enter into a largely white crowd before. White people began to become more accepting of black players, as they realised that they weren’t lazy and were capable of great feats of footballing skill. See John Barnes’ goal against Brazil here.

Of course, there were other factors. Black people in general began to have more of a voice in Britain, but it would still be many years before a lot of young British born blacks felt that they had the same rights as white British youths. Viv Anderson, was at the start of the struggle.

I hate cliche’s like, ‘pioneer’ or ‘blazed a trail’ but sometimes there’s no other phrase to use. Viv Anderson, and the black footballers who went before him or played with him, really were pioneers. Anyone interested in football, whatever their colour or creed, should take the opportunity to pay them homage.

And if you’re in Manchester, head down to the People’s Museum! I’m sure it’s a great day out!

Follow Peter Turner on Twitter @petermagpie




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