Black History Month: Brendon Batson's story


Black History Month: Brendon Batson's story

This year we’re commemorating Black History Month by telling the story of the figures who have shaped or are connected with our unique history with our Black community.

Over the course of the month, we’ll profile key voices from the Arsenal family and beyond – including iconic men’s and women’s players, supporters, employees, academics and many more.

Next to feature is Brendon Batson, who became our first Black player when making his debut away at Newcastle United in March 1972.

Brendon Batson

I came to England as a nine-year old in 1962 - and, after initially living in Tilbury and Chadwell, moved to Markhouse Road in Walthamstow when my mum came over a couple of years later.

I’d never seen a football by the time I left the Caribbean. I was born in Grenada but my family were Trinidadians. When my mum was having me, she went back because she was born in Grenada. Looking back, I can remember often running up and down Grand Anse Beach. I moved to Trinidad when I was six and lived in one of the suburbs of Port of Spain. The only sports I really saw taking place were cricket and hockey.

I’d heard about football but never saw it until I came to England. My mum re-married and my step-dad didn’t really have a clue about it either. Looking back, it was Arsenal that really guided me through the process of becoming a young pro.

I got introduced to the sport by a school friend called Dennis Sheridan. I had a trial for the school team - and to be honest, it was a disaster! But I carried on, went back the following week and eventually got into the team.

From there, I seemed to progress very quickly. When we moved to Walthamstow, I was playing for Waltham Forest Boys and I got picked up as a 13-year-old by Arsenal. I was invited to train on a Monday and Thursday after school. And that’s how it started really.

When I arrived in England I’d never previously experienced racism but, within the first few days of me going to junior school, I was called a chocolate drop. I didn’t have a clue what it meant. Once I did, I would fight back - and that was something I did until I was about 14 or 15.

You see, you had to have a certain amount of toughness. But speaking personally, I also had to have people who believed in me. Having that knowledge that you were being treated as an equal was really important. But Black players then absolutely had to have something in them that said ‘I don’t care’.

Cyrille Regis used to say that he wasn’t bothered, that he’d get on the ball and bang it into the back of the net, take the points and go home.

The way I dealt with it was to say ‘I’ll see you next week, next month and next year’. If those abusing me thought they were going to drag me away from the pitch, they had another thing coming.

What I do remember were the monkey chants. I could hear all the racial taunts. I had to overcome that and show a lot of resilience.

The real challenge for aspiring Black players back then was that there was no visibility. There were these negative connotations from clubs, from coaches, from scouts. People would say things like ‘Black players have no discipline, they’re lazy, have no heart and aren’t brave’. Those were the barriers you had to overcome back then.

I knew that Black players were in the minority. It took until I was about 14 before I even played against a Black opponent. Throughout my schoolboy days, I only played with one other Black lad. Around that time, Black parents were discouraging their sons from joining football clubs because there were no Black professionals.

I played with a lad in my Sunday football Regent’s Park league who was a centre forward and was on Tottenham’s books, yet I knew that his parents told him not to join them. He ended up becoming an electrician.

People would say Black players were lazy, that they had no bottle or discipline, that they didn’t like the cold. That fed into Black parents dissuading their kids from becoming footballers and encouraging them to find a trade.

At that time, being subjected to racial abuse wasn’t new. What changed when you got into the professional ranks was the volume - and that was something you had to deal with. When I went to West Brom and joined Laurie Cunningham and Cyrille Regis, there were three of us Black players and my naivety led me to believe that that would make things better. But it seemed to make it worse.

An image of a sculpture of Brendon Batson, Laurie Cunningham and Cyrille Regis

The abuse wasn’t really something I talked about. I’m often asked about Laurie and Cyrille - I don’t remember us really speaking about what was going on. We just got on with it. We knew we had a common bond because we had a shared background and a shared history. We knew the barriers we had to overcome. Cyrille came off a building site. The abuse he was getting during his time as an electrician made him say that football was a lot easier. I’ve always said that football was very kind to me. I didn’t have to put up with some of the rubbish that my Black friends did in wider society.

It’s great credit to the Black players of my era that, despite the negative comments, which were born out of total ignorance, they kept coming forward in increasing numbers. I’ve got a lot of respect for them.

I’ve said before that my time at Arsenal was really positive - the club was fantastic to me and it was a great place to grow up at in my formative years, where I was taking my first steps into the professional ranks.

When Arsenal did the double in 1971, I was in the youth team - we actually won the FA Youth Cup that same year. I was great friends with Terry Burton and Jim de Garis, our skipper at the time. The three of us formed a real friendship and I knew that they were there for me and that they would always support me.

I wasn’t in the first-team set up to begin with but I was being called to join the squad during training sometimes, when Don Howe was the coach and Bertie Mee was manager.

Which brings me to my debut. In truth, it came as a bit of a shock and I didn’t really have enough time to think about it. It was a really miserable day up at Newcastle. I remember we got to half-time and Charlie George was pretty unwell. All of a sudden I was on the pitch. I remember there being some nervous excitement but it was only really afterwards when I tried to reflect on the performance and whether it was good enough that I realised I’d played for Arsenal. My name wasn’t even on the teamsheet as, back then, substitutes weren’t always listed.

Becoming Arsenal’s first Black player wasn’t something that I really gave much significance to at the time. In fact, I didn’t even know I was until I was introduced at an anti-racism event at Stamford Bridge many years later. When I found out, it was a bit of a surprise. Looking back on it, there’s a significance because there had to be a first.

What’s more important is how Black players were coming to the fore around that time. At the time, West Ham had Clyde Best, Ade Coker and the Charles brothers - John and Clive, so there were a few Black players around. Laurie Cunningham was coming through at Leyton Orient. That explosion of Black players came in the early 1970s.

A really seminal moment was Viv Anderson being capped for England in 1978 and becoming the first Black player to represent the Three Lions.

Viv Anderson representing England

At that point, there were a lot of Black lads playing schoolboy football. Arsenal fielded that triumvirate of players in Paul Davis, Rocky Rocastle and Michael Thomas and you could suddenly see Black players coming to the fore. I really enjoyed seeing those players coming through and being successful because around my time, there was this whispering campaign around.

Even now, it’s something Black players have to deal with, particularly on social media. That’s something I never had to put up with. I got letters but, in the social media age, Black players just need to make a mistake and they’ll receive more abuse than their counterparts. That needs to be addressed.

I do think the perception towards Black players has changed - it’s accepted now. In fact, it’s unusual to see a team without Black players in it. But can I just say that it would be nice to get away from that phrase and just reference them as players, without making reference to their skin colour. I’ve never heard anyone refer to Pele as a Black player. He was a Brazilian, much in the same way that Eusebio was Portuguese. It’s no big deal.

Where we have issues is off the pitch, in terms of the lack of coaches and managers. The whole aspect of the game away from the pitch still features a lot of inequality. We’ve got a long way to go - but in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Black players came along - and are here to stay.


Our feature with Dr Clive Nwonka is available to read here

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