Howard Gayle recalls racism, discrimination at Liverpool FC

Gayle, first black footballer to sign professionally for Liverpool, shares thoughts on where football stands on racism.

Portrait of Howard Gayle of Blackburn Rovers.  Mandatory Credit: Russell Cheyne/Allsport
'When people ask me how come I don't work at the club, I talk about the wrong things that they don't like' [Russell Cheyne/Allsport/Getty Images]

In football folklore, Howard Gayle is remembered as an important member of Liverpool’s 1981 European Cup-winning side.

Born in Toxteth, a black community in Liverpool’s inner city, Gayle was also a trailblazer. In 1977, he became the first black player to sign professionally for Liverpool.

Ahead of the Champions League final, where Liverpool take on Tottenham on Saturday, Al Jazeera speaks to Gayle who recalls the prejudice of his club captain Tommy Smith and talks about the combat – or lack thereof – against racism in the modern game.

In April this year, Smith passed away and a tribute was held at Anfield. “I wasn’t clapping,” said Gayle. “I’ve tried to put him to the back of my mind. He was a man I didn’t get on with and it wasn’t through any fault of mine.”

Al Jazeera: Smith was a Liverpool hero. What was it like for you as a young player to meet your hero and realise he was a very different person?

Howard Gayle: I was watching the European Cup final [where Smith scored] on TV and was jumping up and down like Liverpool fans. But when I met him, I realised he was not what you thought he was. He was a part of the institution. When you get to know and work with people and you see the real side, you start wondering who else is like that. It becomes a bit of a downtrodden path: who else has got that sort of mentality? It was an eye-opening experience. There must have been a lot of players in the club he bullied and he wasn’t the icon that maybe people made him out to be. 

Al Jazeera: Did you feel pressure to submit to the club culture?

Gayle: The club culture mirrored society’s attitude. There would be programmes on TV like ‘Love Thy Neighbour’ and growing up it would be ‘Till Death Do Us Part’ with Alf Garnett. We had to endure. There used to be ‘The Black & White Minstrel Show’. I’d hate going to school the next day because there would be kids singing all kinds. Again, that was the culture. They didn’t respect us. They laughed at us. 

Al Jazeera: Contemporary Liverpool is portrayed as a benign city. What was it like growing up there in the 1960s and 70s?

Gayle: I was brought up in the predominantly white north end of the city. It was my mum, brothers and I. Some days were traumatic. I hadn’t realised I was the first black player to sign professionally for Liverpool until the newspapers reported it. I was simply proud to come from Liverpool and to break new ground by becoming part of an institution that was opening its doors to colour. I had to deal with a lot. If I had been allowed to develop like the other players, I would have been a better player and would have played more for Liverpool. But I was joining a culture that didn’t understand my culture.

Al Jazeera: So the idea of you being a sporting role model didn’t exist?

Gayle: No, it didn’t. It wasn’t until people started to make reference to what I had achieved and where I came from. 

Al Jazeera: But John Barnes [former Liverpool and England footballer] argues that the idea of a black sporting model itself is racist.

Gayle: Well, it is. We are always judged in a different way to white culture, but that is part of the divide and rule. It is about equality.

As black players, we were always adjudged to be able to only play in certain positions. We had speed, but we didn’t have the craft or the knowledge to play in the middle of the pitch. They fielded us on the wing. There was the stereotype that we couldn’t function in the cold months or in the winter. These were the white culture views inside the walls of the game, even inside the administration.

The number of black people in football administration is again very slim. Diversity and opportunity have to be across the board.

The Liverpool team has three first-team players that are white. You go back to the significance of where we are and how good a season Liverpool has had, because blacks dominate in sports. In the future – think about the NBA and NFL – football will be predominantly black. We are born with speed and agility.

Al Jazeera: As a player, Raheem Sterling [former Liverpool footballer] has been confronted with racism. He has spoken out quite strongly.

Gayle: Sterling is a crying wolf because it has happened to him. Racism takes place every day. He must have seen it. He has been subjected to it before. I’m an ambassador for ‘Show racism the red card’ and ‘Kick It Out’ and when we have events around football clubs, we try to get modern-day players to come and show their faces. But they won’t come. They will have an excuse or get the manager to make an excuse. They don’t want to be seen to be the troublemaker. They don’t speak out about the things going on around them.

I’m a prime example. When people ask me how come I don’t work at the club, I talk about the wrong things that they don’t like. I have been a Liverpool fan for most of my life, but at the same time, I’m black before I’m a Liverpool fan and my colour and culture come first.

Al Jazeera: Why do so few players speak out against racism?

Gayle: All footballers work in a white industry. Football officials, club officials and the vast majority of coaches are predominantly white. There are not a lot of white players coming out in support of black players. They will show some support in backing friends and team-mates, but we haven’t heard a white player take a stand, put his neck on the block.

The world of football doesn’t want to talk about racism or deal with the issue. That would imply significant questions asked about the administrators: How do they combat racism and how diverse are they within their own institutions? The answer is simple and always points back to a lack of equality and diversity within sport particularly, but also in the world we live in.

Football can be used as a way of making things better, more cohesive and bringing different cultures together. But football hasn’t got the lead on it.

Al Jazeera: So the football clubs, the English FA and FIFA do just window dressing?

Gayle: Yes, they do what they have to and nothing more. Racism is a problem for society. Football is a small component of society. A lot of people don’t want to talk about racism, especially in football. That’s both black and white players. 

Al Jazeera: So what should referees and players do when there is on-field racism?

Gayle: The worst thing to do is to walk off. Your team could be 3-0 up and someone decides to shout racist chants. The referee takes players off the pitch and the game is abandoned. We won’t get anywhere with that. The worst thing black footballers could do is walking off.

With modern technology, you can beam into the crowd and see the people who would be chanting these things. The fans who are anti-Muslim have to go into the stadium and take that cap off and put on the Liverpool cap to support the people they have been abusing. When Mo Salah and Sadio Mane have given you so much pleasure, you then want to go back to your old ways?

Education is so important with this issue. A lot of people are miseducated when it comes to race and culture. 

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Source: Al Jazeera