“I don’t think that will ever change”, Brendon Batson says when asked about the number of black fans in UK football stadiums.
We’re speaking to Brendon ahead of the release of BT Sport’s Standing Firm: Football’s Windrush Story, an astonishing new documentary that explores, dissects, and celebrates the influence that the Windrush generation, its descendants, and continued Caribbean migration to the UK has had on English football and the national team. Hosted and narrated exquisitely by Benjamin Zephaniah, and featuring interviews with people like Rio and Anton Ferdinand, Andy Cole, Hope Powell, David Lammy, Tyrone Mings, and Paul Ince—it’s a film that continues the integral discussion of the black experience and its influence on British football.
Brendon was born in Grenada and moved to the UK with his family in 1962 when he was nine years old. Brendon hadn’t played much football before, but started playing at school in the playground, before honing his craft on what the kids in Tilbury, Essex, called the Daisy Field. As soon as school was over, they’d be out there playing 20-a-side until the sun went down.
“I think that football has been very kind to me over the years. Because if you’ve got a bit of talent, you become more acceptable. Particularly if you’re the new kid on the block, which I very much was, then it helps a lot.”
It shouldn’t take being good at football for anyone to be accepted for any reason. Brendon remembers being called a chocolate drop by a kid in the queue for school lunch within his first week of the country. It was confusing for him.
“At the time, I didn't have a clue what that meant, because I’d never experienced anything like that. When I found out when I realized what it meant then you kind of get challenged all the time. I was always looking to defend myself. So, I started to fight. I was always fighting, I think, for the first four or five years. I didn't go and look for it, but I just couldn't seem to back down.”
Brendon reckons he was 13 or 14 before he played with or against another black person. By 17, in March 1972, he was making his Arsenal debut. The club’s first ever black footballer.
Brendon made ten more appearances for Arsenal, before four seasons at Cambridge were followed by four at West Bromwich Albion. It’s here that Brendon is most revered. Teaming up with Cyrille Regis and Laurie Cunningham, in what is widely recognised as West Brom’s greatest ever team. The statue outside of The Hawthorns of the trio solidifies and testifies to the resilience and brilliance these three players showed at the top level at a time when Brendon remembers the noise directed towards him from the crowd intensifying and the numbers of bananas thrown increasing.
“You never get immune to it, you put up with it, but it’s not pleasant,” he says. “It prevented a lot of friends and family from coming to see us. I've always felt, that's why the black community never really supported football in the ground in any numbers bearing in mind how black players there have been, and that explosion was in the seventies. But the authorities did nothing.
“We dealt with the hoolingan problem, but then didn’t deal with the discrimination. A lot of black people just said, “No, we're not going to go to matches because even if we try and wear our own colours, we're going to get attacked by our own supporters. It wasn’t pleasant.
“If you were a black supporter, you were risking life and limb for your team in that atmosphere, because they would just turn their fire on you, whether or not you were supporting their team. I think the authorities, because they did nothing at the time, you just don't see black support in any significant numbers.
“If you're not seeing them in the crowd now, how are they going to influence the next generation? I don't know. In fact, I don't know any of my black friends who have ever taken one of their kids to a game. Well I probably do, but not off the top of my head.”
Standing Firm: Football’s Windrush Story is a film we should all watch and digest. It’s incredibly important and is available on BT Sport from 10.30pm on September 28th.