The story behind the Whites v Blacks West Brom game

Birmingham | News | Published:

In 1979, an innocently novel football match was played at The Hawthorns that would now never be allowed.

In order to encourage more fans to attend the testimonial of Albion midfielder Len Cantello, an all-White team captained by Cantello played an all-Black team captained by Baggies legend Cyrille Regis.

It was proposed as a light-hearted friendly designed to give Cantello a well-earned pay packet.In hindsight though, the match meant a lot more to one team than the other.

Lifelong Albion fan and broadcaster Adrian Chiles has made an hour-long documentary about the game for the BBC's Black and British season to be aired later this month.

At a screening at Mac Birmingham this week, former Albion centre-back John Wile admits he can't remember much about the match as a spectacle.

Perhaps it's unsurprising considering he made a club-record 75 appearances for the Baggies that season. "It was just another a game," admitted Wile, who is white.

Not so for the opposition. At the end of the 1970s it was a struggle to get together a squad of 13 black players.


Albion's famous Three Degrees - Regis, Brendon Batson, and Laurie Cunningham - were joined by Wolves' no-nonsense 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 timid 19-year-old Albion trialist named Vernon Hodgson.

The fabled Fourth Degree, Hodgson's career was cut short by a knee injury and he's spent the past 30 years working as a bin man.

Regis, Cunningham, and Batson had bananas thrown at them, Berry was told by the FA that he couldn't have dreadlocks and he once fought a supporter in the crowd who was racially abusing him, 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.

It's now part of the club's identity, a badge of honour, and one of the reasons Chiles made the film in the first place.

Its title is 'How football changed a nation', which shows just how influential those players for Albion and Wolves were in an age when the far-right National Front party was at its peak and recruiting members at games.

But how far has football really come? Around 30 per cent of professional English footballers are now black, impressive compared to plenty of other well-paid professions.

But not since Jesse Owens ridiculed Adolf Hitler at the 1936 Berlin Olympics has the athletic prowess of the black man been under question.

What pioneers like Cunningham, Regis, and Batson proved to the prejudiced is there was artistry to match.

There's no denying though, that there is still a massive battle to be won in both the boardroom and the dug-out.

There are just three black managers currently employed across the 92 clubs of the Premier League and Football League, and black directors are even rarer.

In football at least, black men and women are still absent, excluded perhaps, from positions of power.

Les Ferdinand, who is director of football at QPR, gives Chiles a bleak prediction.

"Nothing will change for years," he says. "Doesn't matter how many documentaries you make."

In his playing days Regis had thighs like tree trunks and biceps to rival Popeye's.

Now a football agent, the 58-year-old is still in eye-watering shape, but it his candid, measured and astute reponses to questions after the screening that are far more impressive.

"Football mirrors society," he says. "How many black faces are there in board rooms up and down the country?"

We appear to have taken a step backwards this year. Victories for Brexit and Donald Trump which preyed on people's basest insecurities have - inadvertantly or not - legitimised an intolerance towards those who are different.

Ethnic minorities are scared on both sides of the pond; a sad state of affairs in 2016.

But perhaps football can be the catalyst for change once more.

Pioneers like Ferdinand and Chris Hughton - a manager making waves on the south coast with Brighton - may be the Regis's and Cunningham's of their time.

There are so many more black players in today's game that by sheer probability more of them will want to stay in football when they retire, and we already have pundits like Stan Collymore, Dion Dublin, and Ian Wright flying the flag in the media.

Not only that, but foreign owners are increasingly swooping in - particularly in the West Midlands where all four clubs are now owned by Chinese investment groups. Football board rooms are becoming a multi-cultural place. There is hope.

'Whites Vs Blacks - How football changed a nation' is being aired on BBC Two at 9pm, Sunday, November 27.


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