Few fans today have heard of Howard Gayle. Ask most who was the first black player to wear the red of Liverpool and the glorious artistry of John Barnes springs to mind. Of course, they would be wrong….
At 19 years of age, Gayle thought a professional career had passed him by. Added to the age factor, football in his era was still the preserve of generally white working class players, mirrored by the fans that stood and swayed in the stadiums. Issues around race and racism in Britain in the late 70’s were about to come to the fore and the saps of multiculturalism that were to blossom through the 80’s and 90’s could be seen in the sparse sprinkling of black players in the game at the time.
Trials had come and gone to no avail and Gayle had settled for playing in the Bedford Sunday League inLiverpool. His Manager’s promises that he had a contact at Liverpool FC did little to assure him that he’d have another shot at the big-time. However, the promises were not empty. A trial lead to impressed coaching staff and before long, he was part of an institution that was establishing itself as one of the top club sides in European football. A task Gayle was to play a small but significant part in.
From playing park football, all of a sudden Gayle shared the changing rooms and training fields with players from the dominant club in English football at the time.
‘The old pro’s were helpful in helping me to settle in. (Emlyn) Hughes, Sammy Lee and the reserve team coach and future boss, Roy Evans, made me feel welcome’ recalls Gayle. ‘Opportunities were rare as in those days there was no ‘rotation’ system and only one sub’. Despite the limited opportunities his early days at Liverpool bring back some fond memories: ‘It was a joy to go training and the banter was great. You always had to be on your toes. Ian Rush used to get so much stick about his clobber he nearly left the club’.
A wide player with blistering pace, quick feet and an eye for goal, Gayle possessed all the attributes that eroded the confidence of even the most adept defenders.
Playing in the clubs ‘A’ and ‘B’ teams then into the reserves, teammates included the ill attired goal machine, Rush, future club captain and heartbeat, Ronnie Whelan and the legendary super-sub, David Fairclough. It was for Fairclough that Gayle came on to make his debut Liverpool appearance at Maine Road, Man City’s former ground in October 1980.
A wide player with blistering pace, quick feet and an eye for goal, Gayle possessed all the attributes that eroded the confidence of even the most adept defenders. He was tough too and could mix the flair with a steely determination to engage with the more physical sides of the game. Traits that reflected his personality.
Despite his obvious ability, he was overlooked by Bob Paisely, arguably Liverpool’s most successful Manager. It was a full six months before Gayle played again in Liverpool’s first team. That came on April 21st 1981 in Munich.
‘I remember that despite having only ten thousand of the seventy thousand fans in attendance, the Liverpool fans made so much noise’ recalls Gayle. Ravaged by injury and with the two subs being allowed in Europe, Gayle had made the bench along with Jimmy Case. It was a surprise inclusion for Gayle. After the unfortunate Dalglish limped off, Gayle quickly caught the tempo of the game and asked questions of the experienced German defence they could provide no answers to.
‘I was kicked to death by the Germans, but managed to keep my composure’ but as the fouls continued, it was inevitable that there would be a reaction, ‘I committed one foul and was subbed. I think maybe Paisley thought I would eventually get sent off such was the treatment I was receiving. The Liverpool mentality at the time was all about the team not the individual. Maybe he [Paisley] thought going down to 10 men could prove fatal for our hopes of reaching the final so made the decision’.
‘I remember that despite having only ten thousand of the seventy thousand fans in attendance, the Liverpool fans made so much noise’ recalls Gayle.
Gayle had lasted an hour in the white heat of that European Semi-final. It had been delicately balanced after a 0 – 0 first leg two weeks earlier. With injuries and the prospect of a trip to the mighty Bayern, the odds were against them reaching a 3rd European Cup final in 5 years.Liverpool however had been confident.
An 83rd minute goal from the late Ray Kennedy put Liverpool in the box seat. Despite a late Munich equalizer from German legend Karl-Hinze Rummenigge, Liverpool, against expectations had made it through to the Final in Paris, to face Real Madrid. A game they would win handing them their 3rd European Cup and cementing the club as one of the continents greats.
However, the elation of the changing rooms at the final whistle in Munich was not shared by Gayle: ‘I was absolutely gutted! Everyone was celebrating except me’. Despite the glowing plaudits that his performance would receive by the nations press, the fact that Gayle had become the first Liverpool sub to be substituted and the manor in which it had happened had taken away from his enjoyment of the occasion.
It appeared that the Munich performance would be the first of many highs and great success as a Liverpool player. ‘I knew I could survive at that level. I knew I was a good player’ says Gayle, almost as if he’s drifting back to the beginning of his professional career and is geeing himself up ahead of a game.
Rather than six months, Gayle had only days to wait before his next game, an away trip to Tottenham that brought his first goal. There was another appearance in Liverpool’s next game, a home defeat to Sunderland. Then, just like that, it finished how it started, a game against Manchester City….and that was that for appearances for Liverpool. A mere five games.
Despite the glowing plaudits that his performance would receive by the nations press, the fact that Gayle had become the first Liverpool sub to be substituted and the manor in which it had happened had taken away from his enjoyment of the occasion.
Spells at Birmingham City, Sunderland and Stoke followed, along with a taste of Soccer in the states, in the form of the Indoor League.
‘It was brilliant playing in Dallas. I scored loads of goals but eventually I stared to get a bit homesick. I missed the outdoor game too and realised I wanted to get back to it. I had a great lifestyle in the States but wanted to come home. However, as soon as I returned home, I actually realised I had made a mistake coming back’
A career unfulfilled? Maybe. But Howard Gayle was very much of his time where football was concerned. New, maybe a little misunderstood and very much subject to constraints applied on the unknown by the familiar.
Years later it’s not easy to come to conclusions as to why Gayle experienced such a short career with Liverpool despite his undoubted ability. Bob Paisley’s passing means the actual reasons will never be known. He was offered another contract but refused to put pen to paper. ‘I’d been on loan and had plenty of experience but felt I was being overlooked despite crippling injuries at the club. Deep down I knew if I’d stayed at Liverpool it would have meant reserve team football so ultimately I didn’t sign as I felt it would mean a lack of first team appearances.’
Pressed on issues around his race and breaking down barriers on becoming Liverpool’s first black player, Gayle demonstrates a bold and pioneering mindset, admirable and defiant. Arguably one that’s been lost today which many might argue has allowed the integration of black footballers into the national game.
‘I didn’t tolerate racism lightly. I challenged it wherever it reared its head. I didn’t and would never turn a blind eye to racism. I’m black first!’ Gayle remained himself despite the daunting transition from amateur football to the top of the professional English game. He refused to compromise himself or where he was from. ‘Compromise on one thing and before long you have to compromise on everything.’ He remains coy on whether this is one of the reasons why opportunities remained limited for him at Liverpool.
Gayle believes racism in football is different today than it was when he embarked on his career, both on the terraces and in the clubs themselves. He recalls being called a N*gg*r in front of the referee, who simply shrugged his shoulders, ‘it was almost accepted. There was no complaints system then. You become defensive to racism because of abuse you received’.
Gayle believes racism in football is different today than it was when he embarked on his career, both on the terraces and in the clubs themselves. He recalls being called a N*gg*r in front of the referee, who simply shrugged his shoulders, ‘it was almost accepted.
Where the issues of the 70’s and 80’s were overt, Gayle feels that despite some improvements and great strides, racism has simply gone underground. Clubs don’t want to deal with issues of racism even today. He points to his former clubs handling of the whole Luis Suarez issue last season.
‘Some of the clubs comments were bad. Things have improved but not as much as we think. I’ve never felt the improvements have been that great. Look at the abuse Stan Collymore has endured from so-called football fans on Twitter for his views on Suarez/Evera affair. Suarez is a great player but sadly won’t be remembered or judged here for his football.’
Gayle remains resolute around these issues making it easy to see the kind of position he would have adopted as player. ‘Football has done more than any other institution to help combat racism, although there is still work to be done. The level of black players involved in the game away from playing and service roles remains small. There are very few decision makers of colour. There are more black agents than black coaches, and they are effectively self employed and sit outside the games structures’.
With a strong personality and equally strong values and beliefs, Gayle now uses his experiences of life and those learned in the game to help guide the next generations. He set up an organisation called Stanley House inLiverpoolto provide boys with the kind of grounding that they’ll need if they want to succeed in the game. Indeed in Life generally. He’s also set-up home work clubs to assist youngsters in education that may not benefit from the right kind of support at home. He works in Prisons, coaches social inclusion for Show Racism the Red Card and also supports the Reece Jones Foundation, set up after the afore named boy was innocently gunned down in Liverpool, ‘Things are getting worse on the streets for young people’ observes Gayle with an air of authority.
Whether breaking into Liverpool’s most successful team or changing the mindsets of the young men and women he now encounters, Howard Gayle should be acknowledged for his achievement as being Liverpool’s first black player, but equally for the strength of personality and character to not let that change him. A commendable trait to have, whatever that allows you to accomplish or otherwise, wherever life takes you.
Jason Mckoy is a UEFA qualified coach, sports fan, commentator and former player - who now runs Mercurial Sports, providing team wear, sports apparel and equipment to semi-professional football teams, amateur clubs and educational institutions, including colleges and universities.
Jason's career has taken him from playing for professional clubs' youth teams and semi-professionally, through to leading roles in sport development and education programmes for various companies, including FIFA recognised award-winning charities. To contact Jason, or for more information about Mercurial Sports, go to www.mercurialsports.com - you can also follow Jason on Twitter: @MercurialSports
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