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Viv Anderson’s England debut – 40 years on

This week 40 years ago marked Viv Anderson’s first England cap. It would be more than just any England debut, as Anderson became the first black player to be capped by England at senior level (under the widely accepted definitions of the time)…

(There are suggestions that Paul Reaney should be classed as the first black player to have appeared for England, having won three caps a few years prior to Anderson’s debut. Any references to Anderson as the first black England player are based upon how matters were reported at the time and not as a dismissal of Reaney. However, Reaney himself told The Times earlier this month: “As far as I’m aware, Viv was the first black player.” It should also be noted that ‘coloured’ was still widely used as a description of black people in the late 1970s, hence its appearance in newspaper reports we will reference in this article)

Viv Anderson’s England career proved a mixed bag. His value to the squad was made clear by him being regularly involved for 10 years and going to four major tournaments. But that’s the glass half full take on events. His tally of 30 caps – while the envy of thousands of professional footballers – would represent an average of just three matches per year, while he was to feature in a mere one game at those four tournaments. Phil Neal, Mick Mills, Mike Duxbury and Gary Stevens would all have spells as the chosen right-back between 1978 and 1988, leaving Anderson watching on from the sidelines. Anderson must have been somewhat bemused when Bobby Robson picked him as the best right-back from his England reign in the 1990 version of his autobiography.

But while Anderson’s England career may not have been without its frustrations, it was certainly historic. In November 1978 he made his debut as a 22-year-old against Czechoslovakia in a Wembley friendly. Under the widely accepted definitions of the time, Anderson was the first black player to win a full cap for England. Ron Greenwood’s men would beat the European champions on a freezing night at Wembley, but the match would forever be remembered for Anderson’s debut.

In from the cold

It may have officially been autumn, but the last week of November in 1978 was more reminiscent of the depths of winter. Those heading to Wembley to see England play Czechoslovakia knew they would have to brave the intense cold and the Daily Express ran a cartoon – that it’s fair to assume would never have made it into print in these more politically correct times – that showed a fan saying that the weather was such that England would be playing with one black player and 10 blue ones.

Anderson’s debut was certainly attracting interest. But what it most definitely was not was some token gesture. The tall 22-year-old had already won the First Division title with Nottingham Forest and was helping them make progress in the European Cup. Anderson was established in the England B ranks and had earned praise for both his ability to get forward and his defensive discipline. It was little surprise that Greenwood had taken note and was giving him his chance in the senior ranks.

David Miller in the Express gave Anderson’s call-up his approval, writing: “He can, I believe, develop into an attacking full-back comparable to the memorable Djalma Santos of Brazil’s 1958 World Cup-winning team. And he can become a folk hero as socially significant to Britain’s coloured population as champion athlete Daley Thompson.”

But the ever-modest Anderson, while full of pride over his call-up, was not seeing himself as sort of hero figure. “I’m just another fellow doing a job,” was his philosophical take on things. He added: “I don’t regard myself as a standard-bearer for young black footballers, although I suppose that my selection will inevitably have this effect.”

Greenwood would also play down the significance of the call-up – as he declared “yellow, purple or black – if they’re good enough, I’ll pick them” – but he added: “If somebody was going to be the first coloured England player, the honour couldn’t have fallen on a better pair of shoulders.” Football seemed to be full of respect for Anderson, with his fellow black professionals particularly supportive.

They included Laurie Cunningham, who like Anderson was young, gifted and black. The West Bromwich Albion winger – part of a celebrated black trio at the Baggies with Brendon Batson and Cyrille Regis – had seemed set to lead the way among black English players when it came to earning a full cap. But the step up from the under-21s to senior level was one he had yet to make and he would have to make do with playing for England B away to the Czechs the night before. But he was certainly offering no resentment towards Anderson. “Viv’s a friend of mine and I’m really pleased for him. He’s a great lad and I hope he does well,” declared Cunningham.

Anderson wasn’t the only Nottingham Forest player for whom this would be a big night. Tony Woodcock was collecting only his third cap up front, while Peter Shilton was making his 26th England appearance – but it was only his sixth since May 1974. This night would perhaps mark the start of him properly sharing goalkeeping duties with Ray Clemence, after playing second fiddle in recent years.

Shilton impressed, Anderson did well and England had a mixed evening. Czechoslovakia earned more plaudits for how they coped with the elements and kept possession. “The Nureyev-like agility of Peter Shilton gave struggling England the security to snatch an improbable win last night,” wrote Miller, who would describe Anderson’s debut as “encouraging”.

Anderson would be involved in the game’s only goal midway through the second half, joining the attack and laying the ball off to Tony Currie. His centre would be spilt by Czech goalkeeper Pavol Michalik, with Steve Coppell prodding the ball over the line. It wasn’t the prettiest of goals, but it earned England victory over the European champions and completed an encouraging 1978 that had included a rousing 4-1 friendly win over Hungary and a 100% record in the Home International Championship.

Paving the way

A month later there would be another seminal event in the progression of black footballers in English football, as West Brom’s famous 5-3 win at Manchester United saw Batson, Cunningham and Regis all feature prominently in a match remembered fondly beyond just the West Midlands. But it was a sad indictment of the time that racism was evident, Granada TV commentator Gerald Sinstadt making reference to the booing of the black players from a section of the crowd.

It would have been nice if Anderson’s England debut had marked a big step forward in silencing the racist fraternity. But during the 1980s there would be unsavoury incidents when black England players were subjected to racist abuse, including from supposed fans of the side. Regis received a bullet through the post when he was first called up to the senior squad, while an unsavoury group of individuals would declare after England beat Brazil 2-0 in 1984 that it was only 1-0 because a goal by a black man should not count – totally dismissing the famous solo goal John Barnes scored. “How sick can you be?” pondered manager Bobby Robson. These weren’t the only such unfortunate incidents.

But while Anderson’s arrival did not seem to deter the racists, it helped pave the way for other black players to join the England set-up. Cunningham’s first cap would duly arrive later in the season, while in the next six years there would be debuts handed out to the likes of Regis, Ricky Hill, Mark Chamberlain, Luther Blissett, John Barnes, Danny Thomas and Brian Stein. Not every England career would pan out as hoped – some were extremely brief – but the players would forever feel lasting pride at having represented England at the top level. Others, such as Garth Crooks and Vince Hilaire, would be among the most unlucky players not to earn a full cap.

Many more players from black and ethnic minorities have been given their chance in recent decades, culminating in England’s racially diverse side reaching the World Cup semi-finals this year. Anderson has modestly played down the significance of his first cap over the years. But there is no question it represented a breakthrough. He may not view himself as a hero, but many others think of him that way.

englandmemories View All

Blogging about the history of the England national football team, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s.

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