Paul Ince, John Barnes, Andy Cole and Troy Townsend sat down with Sky Sports’ Patrick Davison for a candid discussion about the history of black footballers in English football, and why there is still work to be done

Watch Paul Ince, John Barnes, Andy Cole and Troy Townsend speak candidly about tackling abuse, smashing through barriers, managerial opportunities and more…

As part of Black History Month, Patrick Davison speaks with three pioneers of English football to discuss the past, present and future of race relations within the game.

They were stars, among the best players in what was fast becoming the world’s greatest league.

John Barnes, Paul Ince and Andy Cole grew up in a country that could be hostile, but inspired by the trailblazers who showed it could be done – the likes of Cyrille Regis, Viv Anderson, Luther Blissett, Barnes himself, and many, many more.

Together they laid a path for those that followed.

“The way they excelled showed that no amount of adversity was going to stop them from becoming the best in the business,” Troy Townsend, head of development at Kick It Out, tells Sky Sports. “They didn’t tip-toe, they exploded onto the scene, the mould had been broken. There’s so much those guys would have had to overcome.”

He’s not wrong.

Barnes scored 142 top-flight goals for Watford, Liverpool and Newcastle.

Andy Cole scored 187 Premier League goals, and still sits as third all-time top scorer.

Paul Ince clocked up 467 top-flight appearances, and was England’s first appointed black captain in 1993.

Those black players before them had made it easier, but not easy.

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Ince: “There has always been fight, there has always been this never-say-die attitude. I go back to my childhood, and I used to hang around with all these lads on the corner of the street. There was a gang called Becontree boys, a bit older than us, and they used to drive by in their cars and shout racial abuse at us, every night.

“Every single night for about two years. That’s when I was 13 or 14, so I had experienced that. I married a white girl, I was with my wife Claire since I was 17, when I was at West Ham. It wasn’t known in the 80s to see a white person with a black person.

Being black in football: The past struggles, the present state and the future hope

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Paul Ince: "I always had this issue: if they said anything about your colour, or about your wife, it's going off in the tunnel"

“I experienced racism in my early times at West Ham. I remember we went away to some team and we were 4-0 down, and I was just warming up down the sidelines, and they were hurling abuse, coins, bananas. For an 18, 19-year-old kid, that’s pretty harrowing. To experience it, was frightening.”

Cole: “Do I believe I’d become a role model? Not at all. I’ll always take my hat off to those who went before me. I know how much hard work they’ve put in for people like me. What they went through, I know, hand on heart, I couldn’t have done it.

Being black in football: The past struggles, the present state and the future hope

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Andy Cole was also the first black player to break the British transfer record in 1995

“I remember when a certain individual tried to name me Chalky. To this day, I think he’s still waiting for me to answer him. I don’t answer to Chalky. I don’t accept nonsense like that.”

Barnes: “When the team is not playing well, the fans would start to boo me. That was a difficult time for me. Regardless of whether bananas came on the field with me, or racial abuse, or whatever, I felt much stronger looking into the crowd seeing black fans who were racially abused. That I felt was wrong, and that we had to deal with, and still now we have to deal with that situation.”

Being black in football: The past struggles, the present state and the future hope

When the team is not playing well, the fans would start to boo me.

John Barnes

Townsend: “Back in the 70s and 80s, the abuse was horrendous. They would have faced the worst of language, stadiums full of people that hated them, bananas, which became synonymous with black people: ‘You’re a monkey, there’s a banana’.”

Read more Black History Month content on Sky Sports, including exclusive interviews and features, here

A whole new ball game?

Being black in football: The past struggles, the present state and the future hope

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The 90s brought fresh hope, and the birth of the Premier League, but did racism still exist?

Then came the Premier League. In 1992/93, the excitement of the new English top-flight took over. But did it eradicate racism?

Townsend: “People talk about the 90s as glory years, the Premier League being born, and this whole new era of exciting products, it meant: did we have to talk about racism anymore? Is it really a thing? If you want me to be honest, racism was swept under the carpet. If you want to talk to those players, they would say they were still having those experiences. Things were still happening.”

Ince: “It seemed everything was great and everything was perfect. It wasn’t perfect for the black players in their teams. We were still experiencing racial stuff. It’s not an issue for me to deal with it from the stands. But when a white professional player says it, then it would annoy me.

“I always had this issue: if they said anything about your colour, or about your wife, it’s going off in the tunnel. That was it! They were the only two things that riled me, and there were plenty of times that did happen in the early 90s.”

Smashing through barriers

Despite the odds and the abuse, black players continued to smash through barriers. Starting with Barnes, who became the first black player to establish himself at Liverpool, the club who had become England’s dominant force.

Barnes: “I was thrusted into the limelight, so all eyes were going to be on me, but I trusted my ability, my footballing ability, my team-mates and the environment Liverpool gave me, to show what I could do.”

Being black in football: The past struggles, the present state and the future hope

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John Barnes won two league titles and two FA Cups with Liverpool

Cole was the first black player to break the British transfer record in 1995, moving from Newcastle to Manchester United for £7m in 1995, while Ince was recognised by the England national side as their main leader, in a time where the likes of Tony Adams, Alan Shearer and David Seaman were heavily involved.

Ince: “For me to have that armband, it was like a little kid again. You’re so excited, your stomach is bubbling, and you just think: ‘Wow, really? Are you sure?’.

Being black in football: The past struggles, the present state and the future hope

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Ince captained England in the 90s, most notably in the infamous draw in Rome against Italy to send Glenn Hoddle's side to the 1998 World Cup

“It probably more so hit home in Rome, captaining them to the draw that got us to the World Cup. I got home to a sack full of letters from all over the world. That hit home to me how much it meant to them that I was a black England captain.”

Abuse comes under spotlight in 1995

Being black in football: The past struggles, the present state and the future hope

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Eric Cantona was banned for eight months for kicking a Crystal Palace fan in 1995

Among that, 1995 brought one of the most infamous moments in the Premier League. Manchester United’s Eric Cantona was banned for eight months for kicking a Crystal Palace fan in the stands at Selhurst Park.

Abuse from fans came properly under the spotlight for the first time, but not in the way that had been anticipated. Was it nevertheless the straw that broke the camel’s back?

Being black in football: The past struggles, the present state and the future hope

I'm probably happy it was a white Frenchman that took the stance, rather than any black player. Why? … I wonder if they'd have still been allowed in the game.

Troy Townsend

Ince: “At the time it was scary and it wasn’t right, but he only did what everyone else wanted to do.”

Cole: “It took someone like Eric to say: ‘Enough is enough, I can’t handle this no more’.”

Townsend: “I’m probably happy it was a white Frenchman that took the stance, rather than any black player. Why? Because I think they would have been dealt with differently, harsher. And I wonder if they’d have still been allowed in the game.”

The managerial void

Being black in football: The past struggles, the present state and the future hope

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Ince is one of only a handful of black British managers to take charge of a Premier League side

Many successful black players have looked to make the move through to management, but still, in 2020, the lack of BAME British managers is startling.

The Premier League is yet to implement the Rooney Rule – requiring clubs to interview at least one BAME candidate – and it is clear there is much work to be done in this area.

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Cole: “I remember when I retired and Sir Alex Ferguson said to me: ‘Right, come on Coley, get yourself into the coaching badges’. I said: ‘No, it’s not for me’. I didn’t think there was going to be an opportunity for black managers to manage at the elite level, and I’m not prepared to jump through hoops for nobody.”

Ince: “We’re not saying we should have the job because we’re black. We’re saying give us the chance to sit in front of you guys, and explain how we look at this club and take it forward. That’s not even happening. We just want to feel that we are equal to everybody else. Hopefully in the next two, three, four years, we’ll be seeing some light at the end of the tunnel.”

Townsend: “The game doesn’t trust them. Why are we not on the merry-go-round of managers? Because there is a merry-go-round.”

Barnes: “We have a perception of different groups’ ability, and the perception for hundreds of years about a black man’s ability to think, a woman’s ability to lead a fortune 500 company, and somebody who is gay’s ability to go to war and fight. It’s because of what we have been wrongly told about them, and that’s what we have to change.”

Players flourishing now

Being black in football: The past struggles, the present state and the future hope

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The likes of Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling are flourishing in modern-day football

And so in football and society, huge challenges remain. But on the pitch, it’s a Premier League where talent flourishes, and that is something a group of pioneers from its early days helped to build.

Cole: “For black players to excel at the highest level, it’s nice to see.”

Ince: “We have a voice now, and that’s the most important thing. I’m thinking about the future, I’m thinking about my son Thomas. It’s definitely in a better place, that’s the great thing, we are pioneers to hopefully pave the way for other black players so they are racially abused less and less when they step onto a football pitch. We have come a long way, but we’ve still got a long, long way to go.”

As part of Black History Month, Japhet Tanganga, Wilfried Zaha and Michail Antonio give a fascinating insight into life as a young black footballer in London, with the help of footballing pioneers from the area

Barnes: “You can look at a League Two team in the middle of nowhere where you wouldn’t find a black man, but you’ve got six black players playing for their side. That is a big difference.”

Townsend: “This generation of your Sterlings, your Rashfords, your Sanchos, I could go on, there’s so many talented figures out there now. Our young players are saying to the world: ‘We’re ready, we want to play, we can see the stage and we want to dance on it’. But the journey now is just as long as how far we’ve come. We have to acknowledge how far we’ve come, but let’s not rest on our laurels.”

Read more Black History Month content on Sky Sports, including exclusive interviews and features, here

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