When Hope Powell became the first black coach of the England women’s team in 1998, she grew her dreadlocks. It was a statement of pride in who she is. “I was quite militant,” she tells this film’s presenter, poet Benjamin Zephaniah.
At 31, Powell confounded the idea that you can’t be what you can’t see. Growing up, the south London girl of Caribbean ancestry never saw any football role models who looked like her.
Powell worried that her appointment was tokenism, but a friend told her that if she didn’t take the job they would beat her up. So when she did (leading England to the Euro 2009 final), she shouldered a burden of expectations from friends, family and other people of colour, as well as having a target on her back from racists. “The main thing I thought was, I cannot fail.”
I would be fascinating for Zephaniah to challenge Powell on accepting a CBE, given that he turned down an Order of the British Empire in 2003. The word “empire”, he wrote at the time, reminded him of the rape of his foremothers and the brutalising of his forefathers. “Me? I thought, OBE me? Up yours, I thought.” That would have made for a fascinating exchange.
This isn’t that kind of programme. Instead, Standing Firm: Football’s Windrush Story (BT Sport 3) is a 90-minute history lesson as damning and necessary as David Olusoga’s book Black and British, tracing a mazy run through black experience since the Windrush docked at Tilbury in June 1948. Zephaniah’s focus is on the Caribbean impact on British society in general and football in particular. BT Sport should commission sequels on, say, west Africa’s impact on football in England, or south Asia’s on cricket.
Ten years after the Windrush docked, a boy named Benjamin was born to a Jamaican mother in Handsworth, Birmingham. He and his brother Trevor grew up within earshot of the Holte End and, like me, lived lives of futile suffering by following Aston Villa FC. One day, Benjamin and Trevor were watching the Villa get rolled over by West Ham United, who had that rare thing in the early 1970s, a black player. A burly Bermudian called Clyde Best was running Villa’s defence ragged.
The brothers couldn’t help but be pleased. Being Brummies, after all, they knew how Tories had campaigned in the Smethwick byelection of 1964 with a slogan containing the N-word, and they grew up in the shadow of Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” speech at Birmingham’s Midland Hotel in 1968.
Football, Zephaniah suggests, provided respite from English racism. In the 70s, five miles from Villa Park at the Hawthorns, the home of West Brom, three men of Caribbean heritage – Brendon Batson, Laurie Cunningham and Cyrille Regis – became celebrated as the Three Degrees, after the Philly soul trio. In 1978, Viv Anderson became the first black England international. The Zephaniahs found it hard to cheer the England team, whose supporters waved the same flags as the National Front racists they fought on the streets of Birmingham.
Football terraces were recruiting grounds for the National Front, one of whose geniuses told reporters that “coloured” people must be repatriated, even children born here, “because they aren’t British”. Imagine if that policy had been enacted: it’s hard to believe England would have got out of the group stages, still less to the final of Euro 2020, without Sterling, Mings, James, Phillips, Walker, Sancho, Saka, Bellingham or Rashford.
This summer, Zephaniah felt happy supporting England for the first time, delighted at how a new generation of black British footballers were standing up against discrimination. Tyrone Mings, the Villa and England defender, tells Zephaniah that those who booed him and his teammates don’t understand racism: “They don’t want to understand, and they’re not really the people who are going to change things anyway.” Mings also indicted the home secretary Priti Patel’s hypocrisy, tweeting at the time: “You don’t get to stoke the fire at the beginning of the tournament by labelling our anti-racism message as ‘Gesture Politics’ & then pretend to be disgusted when the very thing we’re campaigning against, happens.”
But football still has a big problem. “There’s something wrong when there are so many black footballers but so few transition into roles in coaching,” says Powell. The Jamaica-born England footballing legend John Barnes tells Zephaniah the systemically racist notion that black players can’t be leaders once prevailed, and perhaps still prevails. They’re fine for muscling into the box and stuffing it in the proverbial onion bag, but playmaking, goalkeeping, refereeing, coaching are thought to be beyond the likes of him. The result? So much wasted talent. England is the loser.