Black History Month

Benjamin Zephaniah on the Premier League and the legacy of Windrush

17 Oct 2023

The late poet and author on how the Windrush generation have had a historical impact on football

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"When I think about the Windrush Generation and the work they did to help build our nation, I do what most people do. I think about the doctors, the nurses, the train and bus drivers, the builders, the musicians, and even the coal miners, but it wasn’t until recently that I’ve started to think about the footballers."

"Football? What’s all the fuss about?

"'It’s just 22 men kicking a bag of wind around.' That’s what some people used to say about football when I was young. Some probably still say that now.

"But football for me would work in many formats. We used to mix boys and girls. Sometimes it was five-a-side, sometimes four, sometimes three. It depended on who was allowed out to play by their parents. Sometimes we put school blazers down to mark the goals, or sometimes we just chalked the goal posts on a neighbour’s wall.

"Yes, I was young, and it was a long time ago, but those were the days. We could even play a game down the length of the street, where maybe we would have to stop every 15 minutes or so to let a car go past. My dad wanted me to play cricket, but cricket had colonial connections. It was slow, it went on for days, and was played by well-dressed and well-connected people."

'Our team was Aston Villa'

"My dad wouldn’t take my brother or me to watch football matches, but our Uncle Simpson would. Uncle Simpson was a factory worker and union rep. He was born in Jamaica but came to Britain in the mid-Sixties. That made him a member of the Windrush Generation, but it wasn’t called that then. Then he was just a Jamaican-born British citizen who had a keen sense of justice – and a love of football.

Wes Morgan-NRFR
Wes Morgan, with the Premier League Trophy in 2016, chose to represent Jamaica at international level, as his parents and grandparents were born there and came over to the UK

"I was born in north Birmingham, so our team was Aston Villa. For us young kids, there was nothing more special then when Uncle Simpson took us to watch the Villa. But the journey to Villa Park could be arduous and dangerous. Often, as we walked to the ground holding uncle’s hand, we would be verbally assaulted with racist comments.

"When we were in the ground supporting the team we loved, the comments increased in number, and amplified in volume, and this was from people supporting the same team as us. I used to get very scared, but Uncle Simpson would have none of it. He always told us, “We are Villa till we die, no matter what anyone else says”.

'Clyde Best was my hero'

"One day we were watching Aston Villa play West Ham, and I was mesmerised by one player. Clyde Best. A black man. I had seen him on TV but seeing him play in front of me made me wonder-full, and I mean full of wonder.

"He was the only black footballer I had seen playing in England.

One of England's first black footballers, Clyde Best played for West Ham from 1968 to 1976

"Pele was really big at this time, and I remember the great Portuguese player Eusebio making headlines, but they came from far away. Clyde Best was one of us. I felt a bit like a traitor. Aston Villa was my team, and I wanted them to win, but I wanted Clyde Best to shine.

"He was my hero. I just thought if he could do it for West Ham, then I could do it for Aston Villa."

'Cricket fans can’t sing like football fans'

"I never got to play for my club – they missed such a great opportunity. As I got older I still followed football, but other teenage pursuits occupied my time.

"I began to see more and more black people playing at the top level, but I also heard stories of the racism they were experiencing. All this as I was learning more about the nature of British multiculturalism, and how we all got here.

"There were black players here before Clyde Best, and even before 1948, but something special happened in 1948 when the ship, the Empire Windrush, arrived from the Caribbean and docked in Tilbury.

"Although no Caribbeans stepped off the Empire Windrush and went straight into a career in football, people like my Uncle Simpson watched football.

"In fact, these people, (my foreparents), were called West Indians because someone made a mistake and thought the Caribbean islands were west of India. To make things worse, they were encouraged to play cricket!

"Come on, cricket! I have nothing against cricket. Some of my best friends play cricket. But cricket fans can’t sing like football fans.

"People like my Uncle Simpson encouraged their children, and their children’s children, to play football. The result is now clear.

"The result is a thriving Premier League."

Making history

"We attract players from all over the world. But if you simply look at the home-grown black players, or players of Caribbean heritage that we have, then it is clear we have come a long way.

"I don’t imagine that when our current players run out to play a game, they are thinking of Clyde Best or the Windrush Generation – I’m sure they are thinking about the future, of winning the game.

"But just by being who they are, and doing what they do, they are making history.

Raheem Sterling NRFR
Raheem Sterling was born in Kingston, Jamaica and move to England at the age of five

"I’m a proud multiculturalist. And I’m not just talking about the multiculturalism as we see it today. I’m talking about the Angles, the Saxons, the Celts, the Normans, the Huguenots, who all made Britain multicultural long before Windrush.

"For centuries Britain has been absorbing people from all over the world, and it doesn’t take long for them to identify as British, even if they tag another identity on. We all came here from somewhere, regardless of the colour of our skin.

"So this is not just a black thing. It’s an Anglo-Saxon thing. It's a Celts thing. It’s a Romany thing.

"It’s all of us here. We all have an antecedence with roots elsewhere. I just happen to be connected to the Windrush Generation.

"If we didn’t have the Windrush Generation we would still have the Premier League – it just wouldn’t be the league we have today. The league that attracts players from all over the world. The league that week after week produces some of the best football played in the world, and so is watched all over the world.

"Indigenous players of Caribbean descent who have made their marks in football owe a debt of gratitude to those who went before them. And we, the fans, who enjoy watching the beautiful game – we too should appreciate the story of us. We really are making history.

"It would be careless not to acknowledge that the Windrush Generation have had problems, and there are still problems ongoing. So much so that when some people hear the word Windrush, they automatically think of the Windrush Scandal and that in itself is a scandal.

Viv Anderson Man Utd
Former Nott’m Forest, Arsenal, Man Utd, Middlesbrough and England player Viv Anderson’s father was one of the Windrush generation

"But that has very little to do with the way we eat together, or the way we make music together, the way we learn together – or the way we play football together."

'Shout loud about the progress we have made'

"Individual professional players still suffer from imbecilic fans and careless media reporting, but it is our job to drow them out. We must shout loud about the progress we have made. We must celebrate the progressive football firmament that we have created.

"I never made it as a footballer, but even when I walk to games as a fan these days, I notice a completely different atmosphere.

"Sadly, Uncle Simpson left Britain – he felt that there would be more opportunities for him in the USA, and went on to become the head of a major trade union in the USA. But he never stopped supporting his team, and British football.

"He would go out of his way to watch matches when he was in New York, long before the digital age. He collected VHS tapes that we would send him, and he even flew back to attend big games.

"He recently passed away, but before he left us he witnessed the great changes that British football has gone through. So while he held the citizenship of another country, it was British football, and British footballers, that he celebrated."

'I’m black 12 months of the year'

"As I write these words I feel the heavy weight of Black History Month upon me, and that bothers me. Don’t worry. I’m still black. I still love history. And I know a month when I’m in one. But that’s it.

"Personally, I’m in a black history month all the time. I’m black 12 months of the year. Celebrating Black History Month and celebrating the legacy of the Windrush Generation are both things that I think we should be doing, until we as a people – wherever our foreparents came from – have a deeper understanding of our history and our antecedence.

"Ideally, we should reach a time when we don’t need to set aside allocated days of the year.

"I believe, that when it comes to football, most of the time, most of the people, are celebrating the culturally mixed, ethnically rich multitude of players that we now have. We can’t gloss over the negative. We must deal with it.

"But we must also pay tribute to the Windrush Generation, and the great players they gifted us, who relentlessly pioneer – every game of the year."

Benjamin Zephaniah (credit Adrian Pope)

Benjamin Zephaniah was a poet and author who passed away in December 2023

Also in this series

Part 1: How the Premier League is fighting racism
Part 2: How Sarr's family prepared him for success
Part 3: West Ham achieve Premier League equality standard
Part 4: How clubs and players supported No Room For Racism campaign
Part 5: Ogbene: It's important to teach younger generation about diversity
Part 6: Danjuma: My greatness comes from going through hardship
Part 7: How Wolves are educating young people about inclusion
Part 8: 'It's everyone's responsibility to do something about discrimination'
Part 9: Caicedo: Learning through diversity helped me reach the top
Part 10: Darren Bent on the men and women who've inspired him
Part 12: Desailly: I looked far for my black sporting heroes
Part 13: Jimenez: Family support helped me become great
Part 14: Pittman: Sharing my knowledge will help the next generation
Part 15: Szoboszlai: My father helped me achieve the impossible
Part 16: Amadou Onana on the people who've inspired him
Part 17: Why family support is so important for Mbeumo and Wissa
Part 18: Gomez: Positive black role models are so important

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