Howard Gayle and ‘Digger’ Barnes: When Liverpool FC rejected racism
Howard Gayle was the first black footballer to play for Liverpool. The State wanted to reward Toxteth-born Gayle for footballing whilst black and working with the anti-racism charity Kick It Out with an MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire). But Gayle, 58, was unimpressed.
He explains why he rejected the gong:
If they want to be inclusive and accepting of black people around the UK and the Commonwealth, then they need to change the title of it – as it’s an exclusive club being an MBE or OBE or one of those gongs.
A lot of people around the world contacted me to say they accepted my decision and that the title of MBE did rankle.
In his book 61 Minutes In Munich, Gaytle talks about the racism that was rife in football and society. In the 1970s and 1980s, English football was infected by racism.
Gayle recalls an episode with Liverpool enforcer Tommy ‘Anfield Iron’ Smith.
Tommy tried to distract me by making nasty comments related to the colour of my skin. For a while, I somehow managed to restrain myself…
I received the ball, controlled it, and lashed a shot towards goal. Tommy Smith was on the other team and it hit him on the leg. It clearly stung and some of the other players started laughing. I had a smile on my face as well. I saw it as karma. Tommy responded with a tirade of abuse. It was ‘black this, black that’.
The place went quiet. Everybody could hear it, including the staff. He was a legend. I was a nothing. Nobody said a word.
I’d had enough of him (Smith): this bitter old man. So I went over and squared up: nose to nose. I looked at him dead in the eye.
“You know what, Tommy; one night you’ll be taking a piss at home and I’ll be there waiting for you with a baseball bat,” I said, calmly. “And then we’ll see what you’ve got to say.”
I wanted to start a fight with him. And then he walked away…
Graeme Souness was the only one that came over in the immediate aftermath. “Well done, Howard,” he said. “Tommy deserved that”. Graeme was a true leader.
Other might have just lamped Smith.
After I left, John Barnes became the first black player to be signed by Liverpool from another club. He quickly earned the nickname of ‘Digger’, after Digger Barnes in the Dallas television series. Personally, I wouldn’t have accepted that because of its closeness to the ‘N’ word.
Hyper-sensitive? Seeing racial undertones in a nickname given to player who would be idolised at Anfield?
Things have changed. Now professional football might well be the lest colour conscious occupation in Britain – one in four of professional footballers is black.