An understated icon: Howard Gayle, Liverpool’s first black player

An understated icon: Howard Gayle, Liverpool’s first black player

I DON’T USUALLY ACCOST the footballing heroes of my 1980s childhood. At Anfield, you see plenty of them drifting past on a match-day. Many of them are afforded a degree of anonymity, as they stroll through the throngs of modern-day supporters, who simply don’t notice them, or perhaps don’t even know who they are.

Exiting the ground after the final day victory over Middlesbrough in May, I made an exception to my usual rule of not approaching my heroes. Walking out of the gates of the new Main Stand, I swept past a familiar looking face, but one I initially couldn’t place.

I do this quite often. A head injury I sustained almost a quarter of a century ago still has the power to jumble my mind at times. Occasionally I’ll see a familiar face, and automatically think I’m familiar to them. I can remember bewildering Brian Barwick upon one such occasion, greeting him like an old friend and asking how everything was.

Completely taken in, Barwick, the former Chief Executive of the FA, and controller of both BBC and ITV Sport, stood and chatted amiably for a while before we parted company. It was only much later in the day that it finally dawned on me who I’d accosted. He possibly still ponders to this day just who that over-friendly individual was.

Walking away from the Middlesbrough game, my defective sense of recall kicked in a little more swiftly. As I strolled out of that shiny new Main Stand, a snapshot image of a familiar face impacted on my mind. Walking on five yards or so, I then double-check over my shoulder. Yes, I recognise that person, but who is it? A few seconds to calibrate, then I turn and head back to the exit gates I’d just breezed through. I introduce myself to Howard Gayle.

Statistically, one goal and a handful of games was all Howard Gayle’s Liverpool career amounted to. On the brink of potential greatness, he was deflected, by circumstance, away from the team he’d supported since childhood.

Sixty-one iconoclastic minutes in Munich was Gayle’s legacy to Liverpool Football Club, played in the second leg of the 1981 European Cup semi-final, at the Olympiastadion, a game where Liverpool didn’t read the script on one of the greatest nights in the history of the club.

Liverpool headed to Munich with everything to do. A goalless first leg had left Bob Paisley’s side vulnerable. Without the services of Phil Thompson and Alan Kennedy, Paisley was forced to field the less experienced Colin Irwin and Richard Money.

Read  |  Kenny Dalglish: a king among men

At Anfield two weeks earlier, the legendary Paul Breitner had all-but written Liverpool’s hopes off during a confident post-match interview with West German television. At the Olympiastadion prior to kick off, leaflets fluttered around, giving travel advice to Bayern Munich fans on how best to reach Paris for the final. 

After just six minutes of the game, Kenny Dalglish went down under a clearly tactical and badly timed challenge from behind by Karl Del’Haye. Already struggling with a persistent ankle injury, Liverpool’s talismanic figure was unable to continue. At this point, Breitner’s confidence, and the pre-planning of the Bayern travel committee, seemed perfectly reasonable actions.

Warming up around the curve of the running track, Jimmy Case offered the most obvious option to enter the antagonistic fray in place of Dalglish. Instead, however, it was Gayle who was being whistled over to the bench by Ronnie Moran.

Two weeks earlier, Gayle had stood amongst the Liverpool supporters on the Kop to watch the first leg of the game, eventually drifting away into the spring evening, as disappointed with the outcome as anyone else who had clicked through the turnstiles.

Gayle was on the pitch just three minutes after Dalglish had gone down injured, a complete unknown as far as the Bayern coaching staff was concerned, and only vaguely registering on the consciousness of the British media. Barry Davies, on duty for the BBC, told a watching nation that Gayle was a 19-year-old, when in fact he was fast approaching his 23rd birthday.

Gayle’s first major contribution to the game was to skip past both Klaus Augenthaler and Wolfgang Dremmler, leaving them for dust. Unknown he may have been, but the Bayern defence were afforded a painful and breathless tutorial. With Gayle asked to operate down the left-hand-side, allowing Ray Kennedy to push forward into his old role up front, the speed and width that Gayle brought to the pitch was priceless. Bayern were stretched in a manner that they hadn’t expected.

With Sammy Lee effectively blotting Breitner out of the game with a peerless man-to-man marking job, it created acres of space for Liverpool to thrust forward. Gayle was denied a potential goal and certainly a clear penalty when a frustrated Dremmler brought him down in the 18-yard box. The Portuguese referee, Antonio José da Silva Garrido, giving the visitors precious little in the way of even handed decisions, proved as difficult an opponent for Gayle as the world-class Bayern defenders he was facing.

When Gayle was harshly booked in the second half, Bob Paisley, with one eye on a possible period of extra time, made the equally harsh decision to take his most potent weapon out of the game. Fearing that Gayle would respond in kind to further rough treatment, Paisley, who often questioned his temperament, ultimately wasn’t willing to place his complete trust in the one man who was consistently putting the West German champions on the back-foot.

Read  |  Bob Paisley: the gentle genius who couldn’t stop winning

Gayle was replaced by Case. Disappointed to be withdrawn but still living every kick of the game while sat on the bench, he was joyous when Kennedy broke the deadlock with just seven minutes to go. At the final whistle he was back on the pitch, celebrating with his delirious teammates.

Three days later, Gayle was in the starting line-up at White Hart Lane against Tottenham Hotspur, scoring Liverpool’s only goal in a 1-1 draw. The possibilities seemed endless for Gayle, yet unbeknown to anyone, his time at Anfield had reached its peak within those four heady days in late April 1981.

A European Cup winners medal collected at the Parc des Princes, as an unused substitute against Real Madrid, was a silver-lined end to a remarkable seven-week span, which took Gayle from the terraced steps of the Kop during the semi-final first leg to lifting the European Cup before the swathes of Liverpool fans that had made the pilgrimage to Paris.

Gayle had to fight for every foothold he’d gained on his way into the Liverpool first team picture, but the abrasive outer layer he’d been forced to cultivate in order to clear the hurdles put before him was as much the reason why he didn’t cement himself a long-term future at the club. An unnecessary contract dispute ensued and Gayle had unwittingly played his last game for the club.

Not just surviving the testing environment of Toxteth and the predominantly white area of Norris Green, but also making progress as the first black man to play first team football for Liverpool, a time during which he had to overcome the animosity of some of his own teammates – inclusive of individuals he’d grown up idolising – combined to a hard upbringing under the roof of a disciplinarian father, where he lost his loving mother at a difficult and impressionable age. Trouble with the police and time spent incarcerated put Gayle on the front foot when it came to confrontation.

Not a man to back down when he felt wronged, Gayle was unfairly viewed as volatile to an extent. It wasn’t that he didn’t have allies in the dressing room, it was that he felt he had to prove himself above and beyond everyone else to stand a chance of making the grade.

Roy Evans, Gayle’s coach in the reserves, regularly championed his cause to Paisley. Gayle wasn’t alone in feeling barred from making a substantial breakthrough into the first team, however; in a side blessed with an array of significant names who would go on to great things elsewhere, Gayle’s frustration were shared by the likes of Kevin Sheedy, Dave Watson, Alan Harper and Steve Ogrizovic.

While Gayle had spent almost a quarter of a century fighting for opportunities amidst overtones of inherent racism, he had found comfort and solace within the closely-knit black community in Liverpool 8. The concept of leaving his home city was one that didn’t appeal.

Read  |  The triumph and tragedy of Ray Kennedy

A spell on loan at Fulham prior to his debut for Liverpool had gone better than he expected, and although it was with a degree of reluctance, Gayle enjoyed another loan spell, this time at Newcastle United during the early exchanges of the 1982/83 season, enabling him to play alongside one of his boyhood heroes, Kevin Keegan, but also Terry McDermott, who Gayle had shared the Olympiastadion pitch with in Munich.

While a success at St James’ Park in his short time there, transfer funds were all but non-existent and it came as a disappointment to Gayle that Newcastle couldn’t make the move a permanent one. New interest came from Birmingham City, and despite his loan period not having run its course, Newcastle’s manager, Arthur Cox, advised Gayle to take the chance being presented to him at St Andrew’s.

Gayle thrived under Ron Saunders, and for the first time in his professional career, he found himself surrounded by other black players. Gayle embraced a new lease of life in the second city, offering the flair element to what was otherwise a tough and physical side. Bottom of the First Division when he arrived, and undertaking a quick return to Anfield in strange new colours, he helped pull his new club to safety in a tense and dramatic relegation battle which eventually saw Manchester City go down on the final afternoon of the campaign.

The hero when scoring the winning goal against bitter rivals Aston Villa, Birmingham then suffered a complete reversal of fortunes at the end of 1983/84. From a position of relative safety, Birmingham hit the self-destruct button as they slid to relegation, drifting from 12th at the end of March to dropping into the relegation zone on the final day, failing to win another game beyond their derby day win against their cross-city rivals.

Despite a strong will to stay and fight to help return Birmingham to the top flight at the first time of asking, Saunders accepted an offer for Gayle’s services from Sunderland. Len Ashurst took him back to the north-east. Within a year, Sunderland and Birmingham had swapped places, as Sunderland plummeted through the relegation trapdoor, going into freefall after losing to Norwich in the 1985 League Cup final. Ashurst, essentially caretaker manager at Roker Park when Gayle arrived, changed his approach to his relationship with his players after getting the job on a permanent basis.

The deterioration in team moral cast a shadow over Sunderland’s trip to Wembley, with Colin West, the scorer of three of their semi-final goals against Chelsea, being dropped from the cup final squad. Gayle, who himself had to make do with a place on the bench, was thrown on to try and turn the game around.

In the Second Division, matters failed to improve. The arrival of Lawrie McMenemey as the highest paid manager in English football history proved to be a disastrous decision. Gayle, who had erupted during a touchline altercation with McMenemey, when his future boss was still in charge at Southampton, once again felt like he had to prove himself high and above his teammates to stand a chance.

Gayle wasn’t the only player to fall foul of McMenemey’s ire, and the club lurched towards a second successive relegation. In the drop zone with just two games remaining, they somehow pulled off the great escape.

Read  |  The double renaissance – at Liverpool and Southampton – of Jimmy Case

By the summer of 1986, Gayle was one of several high-profile departures. Struggling to find a new club, with many managers unwilling to take on a player they had either written off without meeting or had been led to believe was a divisive influence, he was instead forced to take up an offer from the Dallas Sidekicks to play in the Major Indoor Soccer League.

While the standard of living in Texas was high, Gayle was frustrated in his role as part of the support cast, often watching on from the sidelines rather than given time on the pitch. When he approached the Sidekicks coach, the former QPR manager Gordon Jago, about the possibility of a return to the UK to find regular football, Gayle was given a reluctant blessing.

Turning his back on an easy life in Dallas, and the best-paid contract of his career, Gayle picked up a short-term deal at Stoke City until the end of the 1986/87 season. From a position of strength, Stoke drifted out of the promotion race, and with it any hopes of an extension to his time at the Victoria Ground went too.

Struggling to find a new club and in danger of becoming something of a nomadic footballer, Gayle wrote to club after club in the hope of picking up a trial. Eventually, he began to approach the sort of clubs he’d been reticent in contacting, clubs where he’d been excessively abused by the supporters when visiting with opposing teams.

One such club was Blackburn Rovers. Not yet 30 and with talent in abundance, Gayle was the perfect player for Don Mackay. Working with a concoction of homegrown products, free-transfers and loan signings, Mackay was in danger of taking the pre-Jack Walker Blackburn back into the top-flight. Ambitiously recruiting players of the stature of Osvaldo Ardiles and Steve Archibald, they were comfortably in the automatic promotion places in mid-March but stumbled on the final run-in, eventually making do with a place in the playoffs, where they were well beaten by Chelsea.

Despite the disappointment, Gayle and Blackburn came back strongly once again in 1988/89, this time Mackay pairing Gayle up front alongside club legend Simon Garner. Unfortunate that the Second Division was inhabited by the strength of a resurgent Chelsea and Manchester City, Blackburn once again made the playoffs, overcoming Watford on away goals in the semi-final and pitted against Crystal Palace in the final.

In what was the last season of two legged finals in the playoffs, Blackburn were at home for the first leg, and in imperious form. A 3-1 victory put them in the driving seat, with Gayle scoring twice. A crucial away goal had been conceded, however, and when Crystal Palace led the second leg 2-0 at 90 minutes, it took the final into extra-time. In heartbreaking fashion, Blackburn succumbed to Ian Wright’s goal with just three minutes remaining. It was a cruel way to miss out on promotion.

Read  |  John Barnes: pioneer, genius and still under-appreciated

Despite scoring freely in tandem with Garner, Mackay moved Gayle back to the left-wing during the following season. While Blackburn once again reached the playoffs, their two previous failures hung heavily, and it was with a sense of expectancy that they were beaten in the semi-finals by Swindon.

With that loss, the crest of the Mackay wave began to subside at Ewood Park. Despite the arrival of Walker as the club’s benefactor, Mackay, with the type money now available to him that would have taken Blackburn to promotion between 1988 and 1990, was frustrated in the transfer market. With plentiful funds but no discernible pulling power, Mackay was relieved of his position during the early exchanges of the 1991/92 season, sensationally replaced by Dalglish. By now, fast approaching 34, Gayle was marginalised, watching on from the sidelines as Blackburn clinched promotion to the newly born Premier League.

Dalglish, the man for whom Gayle had taken to the field for Liverpool at the Olympiastadion in Munich over a decade earlier, was now releasing his former teammate into the footballing wilderness.

Still feeling he had something to offer the game, Gayle teamed up with another former teammate, Case, for a short time at Halifax Town, before financial difficulties took hold at The Shay. Beyond playing, he once again encountered the familiar experience of a community of closed doors as he tried to forge a coaching career.

A productive spell on the coaching staff at Tranmere Rovers came to an end when those higher up the chain of command changed, and Gayle eventually launched his own football academy, back within Liverpool 8, the community which gave him so much during his formative years.

An ambassador for Show Racism the Red Card for over two decades, Gayle is an iconic but frustrated figure at times. He is told regularly just how much of a difference he made, but he questions whether that is true or not. Liverpool and Everton are still to produce a local black player of high achievement, despite having been no shortage of talent.

A year ago, Gayle was nominated for an MBE. Asked if he would be willing to accept, he said no. On the grounds of how the British Empire had treated his family and ancestors, who came to this country from Sierra Leone, and himself as a birth-product of a city which uncomfortably prospered on the rise of the slave trade, it was a strong and principled response. Gayle, and the city he comes from, is of the strongest mindset and blessed with an iron will. Whether he believes it or not, he is an iconic figure, and a man I just had to introduce myself to 

By Steven Scragg    @Scraggy_74

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