Blind Hammer finds cause to cautiously celebrate West Ham’s traditions of inclusion of Black Footballers.
I have spent much of the last week reading 3 books, all of which include considerations of the problem of historic and current racism in football. These books are Clyde Best’s “The Acid Test”, Leroy Rosenior “Its Only Banter” and Paul Connonville’s “Black and Blue”.
We all like to think there is something special and honourable about the club we love and support, even us if we do tend to look at things through Claret and Blue spectacles. I am increasingly convinced that there is a definite case for highlighting some little commented on historic positives for West Ham.
SJ Chandos has already posted an excellent review of Clyde Best’s autobiography but what I want to do is compare the 3 books. reading the 3 books together in one week is particularly striking and powerful. I would never be naïve enough to say West Ham has been historically free of all racism but I think there is a tradition we should cautiously celebrate.
Paul Cannonville’s account of his time at Chelsea is painful to read. His description of the twisted and malevolent, hate fuelled vitriol which poured off the terraces towards him is distressing. Cannonville describes how shocked he was to be the brunt of this hatred, simply for the colour of his skin, from people who were supposed to be supporting him. He describes how this abused poured of the terraces before he even kicked a ball for Chelsea. Whilst he was warming up to come on for his debut as a substitute for Chelsea the abuse roared off the terraces with the chant “We don’t need no F*****king n**gg*r”. He describes his amazement that it is his own so called supporters with blue scarves who are leading this vile abuse. He describes how the walk from the tube to Stamford Bridge on match days was a tense affair with him likely to receive fresh abuse. He describes how in 2006, when Chelsea invited him back to be interviewed on the pitch at half time this caused him sleepless nights. He dragged himself back to the ground, dreading going back to the scene of his nightmare abuse, but steels himself to do it.
All of this is in sharp and striking contrast to the accounts Best and Rosenior describe of their time at Upton Park. For Best and Rosenior their time at West Ham provided the fulcrum of the positive height of their footballing careers. . Neither man is blind to problems at West Ham. Best describes how he was frightened by the threat of an Acid attack referred to in his book title, and Rosenior is particularly critical of the macari regime in the way his injury is treated. Both men had their initially promising West Ham careers terminated early, Rosenior by career ending injury, and Best probably because expectations were too high for a still very young player, and support too limited after his promising early performances.
What unites Rosenior and Best’s account however is their description of how they are embraced by the “West Ham Family”. In Best case literally so with his virtual adoption into the Charles’ family. Both men developed lifelong affection for the club and became Hammers for life. Rosenior describes how he stood along with all the other West Ham supporters singing “Billy Bonds Claret and Blue Army” after Webb’s disgraceful sending off of tony Gale in the infamous FA Cup Semi Final against Nottingham Forest. Both Best and Rosenior buy into the “West Ham Way” in concept and belief. They both feel that there is something warm and unique about West Ham.
Rosenior describes the level of abuse he received in other settings at other clubs, racial abuse to such an extent that his family found it too upsetting to go and watch him play. He describes how his family told him it was his own supporters who were abusing him because of his race.
Rosenior does not describe any of this at West Ham. Instead he describes the highlight of his life as standing in the centre circle at Upton Park receiving the adulation of the crowd. He is not unaware of unsavoury elements. He describes nervously awaiting the approach of hulking skinheads looking ready for trouble whilst he is standing in a hotel lobby. They surround him and say, in the Hotel lobby, “Are you Leroy Rosenior?” When he confirms this lead skinhead pulls out an ICF calling card and says – “You are one of us- you need any help – you get in any trouble- you just call us and we’ll sort it out for you”.
Whilst it is probably stretching it to describe any moral compass to the ICF the reaction and acceptance of even West Ham hooligans to a Black player is strikingly different to Cannonville’s Chelsea experience.
Clyde Best in particular feels West ham have not 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. Best, Coker and Charles did not achieve the same fame as West Brom’s “Three Degrees” but as Best points out if West Ham had not done this it was less likely that the West Brom trio would have made it. Best describes how Regis had personally told him that it was the fact that Best had played as a centre forward in the top league that provided belief and inspiration it could be done. The end of Clyde Best Autobiography is littered with statements from other black players such as Garth Crooks who all took inspiration from the fact that West Ham were playing black players.
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 above all Ron 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.
Karen Brady’s infamous and incorrect depiction of Best receiving “bananas” racist abuse at West Ham is denied by Best himself. Best describe how it is at the away games he gets abuse, in particular at Leeds and Everton. It is only at the very end of his West Ham career when performances dip that he receives stick. He describes his love and mutual affection for West Ham as being so great he could not emotionally contemplate playing for another club in England, potentially against West Ham. Wolves and other clubs were apparently ready to sign him but he opted to go to the USA instead.
Rosenior has similar feelings of warmth, a degree of warmth not felt towards other clubs he played for . I cannot help feeling we should make more of this. This is a facet of our club that we should truly celebrate.
I know there were racist West Ham supporters and even now racism can rear its ugly head. I am disgusted by the antic of those who at the London Stadium now think they are somehow sharing in a racist tradition of West Ham. They personally appall me and I wish that they would take their bitter twisted hatred elsewhere. I am also not naïve enough to believe that this racism has never appeared behind the scenes at the club.
In the meantime I think there is a better, nuanced, and more honest truth about West Ham. Warts and all they have reason for pride as well as shame. We can condemn historic and present racism but let’s celebrate where our club has done well.
All 3 books are available from Amazon on Kindle.
“Black and Blue: How Racism, Drugs and Cancer Almost Destroyed Me” by Paul Canoville: £6.99.
“The Acid Test – The Autobiography of Clyde Best” by Clyde Best £8.99
“Its Only Banter” by Leroy Rosenior £9.99.