Paul Rees on 1979 'Blacks v Whites' testimonial
Ahead of Sunday’s (27 November) documentary on BBC Two, which will focus on the ‘Blacks v Whites’ testimonial match that took place in 1979, Kick It Out has been given access to an excerpt of Paul Rees’s book entitled ‘The Three Degrees’, which focuses on the match.
The final week of West Bromwich Albion’s season began with a lacklustre defeat at Spurs. This had been preceded by four straight victories that kept Liverpool in sight, but still tantalisingly out of reach. Their remaining League game against Nottingham Forest would determine which team finished second best to the champions. It was scheduled for a Friday evening, 18 May. Two nights beforehand, Len Cantello had his testimonial game at the Hawthorns.
These fixtures were regular dates on the football calendar. The vast majority of players were still making no more than modest earnings out of their short careers in the game. In granting their most loyal servants the gift of a testimonial, clubs allowed some of them to fortify themselves against a long and looming retirement. There was a standard format to the games and in the normal course of things they passed without incident or making a ripple. The host club invited a guest team to participate in a friendly match in honour of the player being recognised and this went ahead in a convivial atmosphere.
In contrast, the very idea of Cantello’s testimonial stirred up waves. The conception of it pitched an all-white West Bromwich team against an ‘all-blacks’ side made up of Regis, Cunningham, Batson and other black footballers then playing in the English game. It prompted an outcry from various anti-racism groups. Their fear was that the separatist nature of the two teams would bring an equally divided crowd to the match and encourage widespread abuse to be directed at its black participants.
‘The lads on the organising committee had just wanted to do something completely different,’ says Cantello. ‘Don’t forget, our five-a-side games in training were always the English lads versus the rest, or old ‘uns against young ‘uns. So we got together with Cyrille and asked him if he thought he could pick a team to beat us. He said that he could and without a shadow of doubt.
‘There was never a thought that it would be a problem or an issue. We were all on the same side. We didn’t look at each other as black, Irish or whatever, that didn’t come into it in that particular dressing room.’
In the event, the match was a success. It took place on a shirt-sleeves evening and before a good-natured crowd of 7,000. Speaking to the Daily Mail in 2012, Batson recalled looking around the Hawthorns terraces before kick-off and seeing ‘more black and Asian faces than we would normally get for a League game. It was anything but divisive. None of us had felt uneasy about the idea or hesitated for a second.’
Batson and his team took to the field in brilliant all-white strips. Among the others in the side were two central defenders from Wolves, Bob Hazell and George Berry, Stoke City’s upcoming striker, Garth Crooks, Ian Benjamin from Sheffield United and a couple of lads from Hereford United, Winston White and Valmore Thomas. There were also two youngsters drawn from Albion’s youth ranks, Remi Moses and Vernon Hodgson. The 18-year-old Moses was the most highly rated of the club’s new batch of recruits. Short but stocky and with a crown of afro hair, he was a Manchester lad and a nippy, tough-tackling midfielder. He hurried and harried, snapped and bit. Cantello’s game was his official coming out and after it he was soon enough saddled with a sobriquet as predictable as it was unwelcome: ‘The Fourth Degree.’
The stories this group could tell, then and thereafter. Bob Hazell might have reflected on the abject poverty he’d hauled himself out of in Handsworth. No one from his home patch ever told Hazell he was the best footballer in the area, but he was doubtless the most committed. Within weeks of the next season starting, Garth Crooks would be able to recount how he’d scored a hat-trick for the England U21 team at Leicester City’s Filbert Street ground and still got booed by a vociferous section of the home support.
These were the things that each of them shared and which ran to their core. The battles fought and the vicious slights that had been absorbed and that they were still expected to endure. Perhaps it was this that put steel behind their smiles in the team line-up photograph taken that night. One thing is for certain, they went out determined to win the game. And win it they did, 3-2.
‘Oh, we were up for it, big time,’ says Regis. ‘Not just because it was black versus white. All of us just had that winning mentality. And looking back at that team now, those were the guys that were at the vanguard of black football.’
No-one knew it just then, but this was also the last time Laurie Cunningham would grace the Hawthorns.
Purchase your copy of ‘The Three Degrees’ via Amazon by clicking here.