LFC's First Black Player - Howard Gayle #BlackHistoryMonth

Updated: Oct 6, 2021

Today, Liverpool Football Club boasts players from all around the world and celebrates its players from many different backgrounds and cultures, as well as local lads. But, it wasn't always like this. As October is Black History Month, I hope that I can give you a glimpse of Gayle’s career, as well as commenting on racist attitudes in football today. 

Playing for Liverpool FC from 1977-1981, Howard Gayle was the club’s first black footballer.  Throughout his career at Liverpool, and at various other clubs, Gayle experienced both celebrations and challenges.  Despite hardships, Gayle clocked up a 15-year football career, starting in the Liverpool reserves and finishing at Shayman in Halifax. 

“Our house was pulled down” …

Gayle was born in Toxteth in 1958.  His father had emigrated to England from Sierra Leone, and his mother’s family had come from Ghana.  However, his time at Toxteth was short-lived.  The council moved his family up to Norris Green because, according to Gayle in an interview, they were going to “refurbish our house”.  Instead, they ‘pulled our house down without our permission”.  So, Gayle had to settle into a new life in Norris Green.  

His time there was difficult. Norris Green was mainly an all-white area.  Racism became “the norm... the routine”, recalls Gayle.  By the time he was 17, Gayle was committing robberies, and ended up in a detention centre.  All was not lost though.  After being released, he began playing football with Bedford, a pub league team based in his birthplace Toxteth.  By 1977, Howie had been signed up to the Liverpool reserves, going from amateur to pro in just two years.

Success with the Reds

By the end of the 1980/81 season, Gayle had scored over 40 goals for the reserves. One of his most successful matches was scoring a hat-trick against Blackpool during that season.  There was more to come.  Not only was he a substitute in the 1981 European Cup semi-final, he also played as part of the club’s first team, when Liverpool faced off against Tottenham.  One of the goals in that match was Gayle’s, scored within the first 30 minutes.  Despite his talents, there was trouble and tension behind the scenes.  

The ‘Black’ issue...

Whilst with Liverpool, Gayle experienced racism not only from the stands, but also from teammates: “unacceptable phrases were used” by other players who didn’t realise Gayle could hear them.  He recalls it happened “in the canteen... on the bus... When it comes from the people you work with, it hurts”.  Even though the abuse was claimed as ‘banter’, Gayle “wasn’t laughing”.  

Eventually, all the insults being thrown around became too much.  He found himself confronting another Liverpool player Tommy Smith.  Smith had been particularly bad over the previous few months, “chipping away” at Gayle with abuse.  After shooting a ball during training which hit Smith on the leg (which Gayle said felt like “karma”), the former Liverpool captain retaliated.  He released ‘a tirade of abuse.  It was ‘black this, black that’.  Gayle responded by threatening Smith that one day he would be “taking a s***” at home and find Gayle waiting for him with a “baseball bat”.  Although Gayle was attempting to start a fight, Smith just “walked away” and “never spoke to me using racist language again”.

Gayle remembers that this as “a real low point” because whilst he had “grown up loving Tommy Smith...you only see the player, the legend... You don’t know the person.  From then on, he was no hero of mine”.  

Branching out...

Once Gayle left Liverpool in the early 80s, he began to fly between different clubs, spending time with Newcastle, Birmingham City, and even the Dallas Sidekicks in the USA from 1986-87.  His career during this time was a mixed bag of success.  Whilst he scored 16 goals in 33 matches at Birmingham, Gayle would later have a high-profile departure from Sunderland FC in 1986.  Whilst he performed strongly for Blackburn Rovers in the late 80s, he ended up sitting on the side-lines whilst Blackburn ascended into the Premier League in 1992.  A final stint with Halifax Town brought his playing career to an end.  Sadly, racism within football would continue.

What’s the situation now?

Attitudes towards racism in English football have improved from Gayle’s era, (just look at some of Liverpool's top players, Mo Salah and Sadio Mane both born in Africa). As well as this, there are now sanctions in place.  For example, the West Ham fan who abused Salah in January 2019 has been banned from football for 3 years.  In September 2019, Hartlepool United were fined £7,500 for the racist abuse of Dover Athletics' Inih Effiong.  

On the other hand, prejudice and racism still bubble under the surface.  There was a 66% rise in reported hate crimes in the 2018/19 season.  Almost ¾ of those were related to racist abuse. Some players still think that the FA is not doing enough to address the issue.  Effiong has said he feels that Hartlepool’s fine was “just a kick in the teeth...nothing substantial is happening”. Imrul Gazi, manager of the Sporting Bengal team, argues that you can’t have “white middle class” officials making all the decisions.  They “don’t know what it’s like” to be “called a monkey” and being told to “go home”.

Where is Gayle today?

Gayle still plays on in the world of football – as an ambassador for the charity ‘Show Racism the Red Card’ for over 25 years, he has not backed down from the battle against racist culture.  Outside this issue, Gayle has also shown support for a variety of organisations and charities helping young people, such as supporting them in careers. He has not walked ‘off-side’ just yet.  


Written by Ykids Intern 2020/21, Matthew Hayes


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