20 June 2023

Why football must play its part in the Windrush 75th anniversary

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Paul Elliott – former footballer, co-founder of the Kick it Out anti-racism charity and FA Special adviser – discusses how football has been transformed by Britain's growing diversity and why it must be a key part of efforts to push for further change.

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Steve Ballinger
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Football must play its full part in this Windrush 75 anniversary year. The simple truth is that our grassroots, domestic and national game would be unrecognisable and so much poorer without the legacies of the Windrush.

This feels personal to me. My grandparents and my parents were part of that first Windrush generation. Their abiding message to me was that we would need to try twice as hard and be twice as good, just to have an equitable opportunity. Growing up in Lewisham, south London in the ‘sixties’, dreaming of becoming a professional player as I kicked a ball outside the Council flats next to Charlton Athletic, there were not many role models I could look to when I was at primary school.

English football had found little space for the Windrush generation in the first quarter of a century after Windrush, either on the pitch or the terraces. That makes it more important to recognise those few, sometimes overlooked, pioneers of the pre-television era. It was in 1948, the year of the Windrush’s arrival, that Lindy Delapenha became Portsmouth’s first black player and the first Jamaican to play in the top flight in the post-war era. As a member of the Pompey teams that won back-to-back league titles, Delapenha was the first black player in a title-winning squad. It was mainly at Middlesbrough where Delapenha went on to be a legend. His skilful wing play created hatfuls of goals for Brian Clough, while Delapenha scored a hundred goals himself. Lindy Delapenha was more or less the only prominent black footballer in England in the 1950s. This Windrush anniversary is a good year to elevate his name once again in football’s history and memory.

The 1970s saw the breakthrough generation. So how vividly I remember watching Vince Hilaire from Crystal Palace, and Laurie Cunningham and Cyrille Regis, both at West Brom, on The Big Match. Their technical proficiency, elegance and balance on those pitches was a delight to see. The sheer physicality, acceleration and shooting power of Regis was like Roy of the Rovers. They became my early football heroes. Viv Anderson, the first black player at senior level, won an England cap in 1978, when I was fourteen – an important sign that the once-impossible was now possible.

So that second quarter of a century from the seventies to the nineties did see big changes. My generation stood on the shoulders of Cyrille, Vince and Laurie. We needed to inherit their mental resilience too, as it was part of their brilliance. When I broke through to the Charlton team as a 17-year-old in 1982, overt racism was a common experience – from the terraces, from opponents on the pitch and even from teammates in training. It was ignorance but the reality is that my negative football experiences reflected society. That was why I was committed to being an agent of change at the zenith of my career and post-career. I was so proud to co-found Kick It Out, the anti-racism campaign, thirty years ago, led by a great man in Lord Herman Ouseley.

I felt the difference that it made when I moved from Celtic to Chelsea. l was aware of the reputation Chelsea fans historically had to that point. Paul Cannoville was Chelsea’s first black player in the 1980s and ‘’, justifiably now a club legend, had faced terrible abuse from sections of the Chelsea support, where the National Front had sought to infiltrate. The reception I got was more respectful.

Fortuitously, I scored twice in my first two matches at Stamford Bridge (especially since I was a central defender). I was also Chelsea’s and the Premier League’s first black captain– though I only found that out much later after I had stopped playing. It was not the sort of thing that was much celebrated back then.

Before Chelsea, I had a good career that l was very proud of. Despite playing in some very hostile environments I represented some excellent clubs such as Charlton, Luton Town, Aston Villa, Pisa in Italy and Celtic in Scotland. Those experiences as a young man, playing in three different countries, shaped my strength of character as a leader.

Our 1990s generation passed the torch on in our turn. I take great pride in seeing how much the game has changed. Players born in this century, black and white, can have different expectations. The diversity of the crowds in our stadiums – watching the Three Lions and the Lionesses, and across the club game – shows how football is positively evolving. But we now face challenges again in the 21st century, as we saw during and after Euro 2020 with the abuse of the three black players who missed penalties against Italy in the Euros final. We need to challenge, with continued vigour, the online harms of the toxic racist abuse that festers on social media in this era. We should take this just as seriously as we took racism on the terraces in the 1990s. The behaviours of the perpetrators behind the keyboards replicate the same inappropriate language and abuse towards men and women of colour.

We cannot deviate from the fact that every participant in the men’s and women’s games has that fundamental human right to work in a racism-free environment.

And while football is an increasingly level playing field on the pitch, the game has similar challenges off the pitch as other spheres of economic and cultural power. The pace of change has been too slow on diversity in boardrooms, administration, management teams and the media.

Debbie Hewitt MBE was the FA’s first female Chairman in its 160-year history and is leading the way. The diversity and independence of the FA Board are what boards, not just in football but across the corporate sector more broadly, should try to emulate. Essentially it’s good corporate governance.

So football’s Windrush journey has been a complex story – one of contribution but also of exclusion; of racism and discrimination; of resilience and anti-racism; of allyship and solidarity; and of the need to institutionalise leadership and progress. The Windrush 75th anniversary is an important opportunity for the game to educate stakeholders, supporters and players alike about why our journey towards inclusion across the generations has mattered – and inspire them to take it where it needs to go next. Football can do that in three ways.

Windrush 75 is a chance to recognise, honour and celebrate the pioneers of the journey across generations, from the national teams to the club game. It is a moment to reflect on what today’s players have inherited from their commitment and resilience.

Windrush 75 should be a chance to celebrate the present – and consider how far we have come. When I began playing, football was mainly seen as part of the problem: a place where racism was given a voice on a Saturday afternoon. Today, I think we can take pride in how the game, at its best, provides a model of how we make progress. From Cyrille Regis to Gareth Southgate’s young lions, our game has helped to shift the national conversation. The work of recent decades has seen the game develop a serious aspiration to be a pace-setter for inclusion and race equality in our society. Forty per cent of the Premier Leagues players and thirty-eight per cent in the EFL are ethnically diverse but we have just a handful of Black coaches: just under five per cent.

That’s highly disproportionate, notwithstanding all the positive action programmes across the stakeholder bodies to increase the diversity of coaches.

Finally, Windrush 75 is a chance to make a new commitment to complete this journey. We should make football’s involvement with Windrush 75 a catalyst for the changes that are still needed. Three-quarters of a century into this journey of modern, diverse Britain, it is an unfinished story. So I’d like to see football becoming a key player in a ‘Windrush 100’ movement, seizing this opportunity to set out a vision of where we want to be by the 2048 centenary – and the practical steps we need to get there.  If football continues to play its part, in recognising Windrush 75 and setting out where the next generation can take us by the Windrush centenary, then I believe that we can make a real difference, both within the game and beyond it too.

Paul Elliott CBE is the special adviser to the FA’s Chair and Chief Executive. This article is an extracted from a report by British Future, ‘Why Windrush matters today.

The FA will host a special event at Wembley Stadium on 22 June to mark the 75th anniversary of Windrush and the huge contribution that black footballers have made to the game.

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