The Blind Hammer Column
Blind Hammer looks at how West Ham should actively repudiate Henry by celebrating its history of Black Players.
Like many West Ham supporters I was appalled by Tony Henry’s email. ”. Of course its toxic nature was made infinitely worse by the infamous inclusive “we” with whom Henry prefaced his obnoxious comments. He was obviously supremely confident that these bigoted, ignorant stereotypical remarks would find wide support amongst the club hierarchy.
The rapid dismissal of Henry was an inevitable first step but the club must do much more if they are to reduce lingering suspicions. Henry’s confidence that his views would find backing at the highest levels is a potential smoking gun which should worry senior managers. We urgently need further action.
As a first step we should acknowledge far more prominently the culture and tradition of West Ham promoting Black footballers. A tradition that is diametrically opposed to the Alf Garnett Racist stereotyping of our club and its supporters.
This alternative tradition is far older than many supposed. Regular readers of my column will remember how last year I celebrated the career of Fred Corbett. A trail blazer who was the first ever black footballer to play for our club. Corbett was one of the tiny numbers of black players in his era He was there at the birth of our club. He actually made his debut for Thames Ironworks before transferring into the inaugural West Ham United. Of mixed race, Corbett was a product of the East end, and a prolific scorer at youth team level playing for St Luke’s, the local side who produced many players for West Ham. Corbett made his debut during the 1888-1899 seasons as an 18 year old right wing forward for the Ironworks. He made his debut as a West Ham player in the 0-1 away defeat to Reading on the 16th September 1899. He provided his first goal and the winner in his fifth game for the club on the 6th October 1900 in a 0-1 away win at Swindon. His finest moment in a West Ham shirt came on the 30th September 1901 when he scored a hat trick in the 4-2 win against Wellingborough Town, then a much bigger game.
In total Fred Corbett played 35 times for West Ham and scored a respectable 15 goals before moving on to have a long professional career with Bristol rovers. Despite the fact that West Ham had produced a black professional footballer, and provided an opportunity for him to flourish the WHUFC website is bizarrely silent on this. Corbett was brought through in an era of sometimes savage Empire racism. Negative attitudes to other races, in addition to notion of a “white Man’s Burden” abounded. The story about Corbett is about an extraordinary individual, and an extraordinary club both of whom defied this prevailing racism to allow Corbett a platform to display his talents.
We should be proudly shouting this remarkable history from the rooftops. However if you consult the club website this is a story which is invisible. All they say about Corbett is a terse comment that the then manager Syd King Often played George Radcliffe and
Fergus Hunt ahead of him.
This is a massive wasted opportunity. We should celebrate this tradition rather than hide it. And it is a tradition. West Ham has throughout my life provided opportunities for black players when it was unheard of elsewhere. We rightly celebrated the life of Cyrille regis but West Ham were providing trail blazing black players an opportunity a whole generation earlier.
At my first game at Upton Park in 1968 I was thrilled by a stupendous goal by Martin Peters which won the ITV Big Match award for goal of the season. A critical assist in the build-up was provided by our black left back John Charles. Charles provided the instant defence splitting pass to allow Sissons to race on to feed Peter’s memorable volley past Leicester’s startled Shilton. So in my first ever game I saw John Charles, a black footballer playing for West Ham. I grew up thinking it was normal, unaware of how unusual it was at the time.
This unacknowledged tradition is a point which Clyde Best is particularly puzzled by. In his autobiography he argues west ham has never done enough to celebrate their positive trail blazing role. He points out how West Ham were the first team to field 3 black players in a team a full decade before West Brom’s more famous “Three Degrees” of Regis Cunningham and Batson. Clyde Best, Ade Coker and Clive Charles did not achieve similar heights to West Brom’s “Three Degrees” but, as Best points out, if West Ham had not paved the way the West Brom trio would have found it more difficult. Regis personally told best that it was when, as a teenager, he watched him on TV, that Regis had crucially developed his belief that he also could make it as a black centre forward. Best’s Autobiography is littered with statements from players such as Garth Crooks who all took inspiration from West Ham playing of Clyde Best.
Best describes the warmth and support of players like Bobby Moore; harry Redknapp, Geoff Hurst and above all Ron Greenwood. He complains at the unfair lack of recognition and acknowledgement to Greenwood’s revolutionary approach. He argues that it was Greenwood who was determined to allow black players to succeed at the top level. It was Ron Greenwood and not Ron Atkinson who was the true trail blazer.
This is a tradition we should make more of. I remember standing on the then grass turf at the end of crystal Palace’s old ground watching Ade Coker score with a stupendous goal on his debut. Sadly Coker did not make it through to become a first team regular but the point is that we celebrated it at the time.
If you read Liam Rosenior’s biography West Ham is the only club he truly celebrates and feels at home with. It is the only club with which he does not recall complaints of racism. He recalls fondly and with humour how even the hooligans of the ICF assured him of their undying support.
I am never one to deny that racists have been amongst supporters and probably players and staff at West Ham over the years. Yet we have a finer counter tradition. A tradition we should be prouder of and celebrate more. Now more than ever this is the tradition we should celebrate.