Sunday, 30 October 2011

Black History Month- My contribution- Garth Crooks 1976

In April 1976 the 18-year-old Garth Crooks played his first match as a Stoke City player barely one month from becoming a professional player at the club. Garth’s rise in the club was memorable for a number of reasons. He was one of the first black players at the club although Stoke City had recruited from the ethnic minorities in the past Frankie Soo of Chinese origin- the first ethnic minority to play for England and Roy Brown who played for the club in the past. Garth was one of the first Ladsanddads players a local initiative which meant to foster family and community relations during the 70s. Roy Brown’s brother Doug, himself the first black mayor of Stoke on Trent played a leading role in developing the organisation. Although Stoke lost Garth’s first game 1-0 to Coventry by the end of the season he had established himself in the team. He scored his first goal for the senior squad a few weeks later for the senior squad against Birmingham City.
As a family we have always taken an interest in Garth’s career. In fact it is part of Cawley legend that Garth substituted my brother Andrew when Andrew left the field with an eye injury when they were in Stoke St Peter’s Junior School team in the mid 60s. Later after we moved to Abbey Hulton Garth would often play in impromptu matches on a muddy piece of ground in Eaveswood Rd or on the pitches by the Suburban Club. Even at an early age he showed great talent, a friend of mine at St Teresa’s had the unenviable job of trying to mark him along with another player they failed miserably as Garth scored five goals that day. I was not surprised that Garth along with Russell Pointon, another regular at Eaveswood, went on into professional football clubs.

The preconceptions around black footballers in the mid 70s sounds from the vantage point of 2011 to be absurd. In the view of the Sentinel of April 76

" so many coloured footballers seem to lack the physical aggression in their make up for the English game".
Over the decades many black players have proved their capacity in getting stuck in such as Paul Ince, Patrick Vieira and in the case of Stoke City George Berry or more recently Abdoulaye Faye. I doubt particularly in the last named that he could be described as a " shrinking violet"

As for Garth Crooks, he scored 48 goals in 147 appearances for Stoke City. He became most famous following a high-profile transfer to Spurs in 1980. With Crooks leading the line, Spurs won two FA Cups. Garth is frequently credited as the first black player score in a FA Cup final for his equalising goal in a 3-2 win over Manchester City in the 1981 final.

He is now a very well known television pundit on BBC Sport.

Where Garth led in the 1970s followed others followed, but this was at a price. During his career, racist chants and banners were commonplace in the stands, and sometimes made monkey noises. In one instance at Anfield a spectator ran on to the pitch and handed him a bunch of bananas. By the end of the decade more black players were being introduced in the game including Neville Chamberlain at Port Vale. However the problem of racism in football was not fully eradicated until the 1990s.
A major political dilemma that faced Stoke City in the 70s was their relationship with teams in South Africa. Stanley Matthews had formed strong relationships with teams in the black townships of Cape Town and Johannesburg some years earlier. In 1975 Matthews organised a trip to Brazil for some of his black township team - dubbed Stan's Men.

Most of them had never left their Soweto home, but Matthews took them to train with the top Brazilian teams. They even got the chance to meet Pele. And prior to the 1975-6 season the club had undergone a tour of the apartheid-ravaged country. For many any contact with such a racist regime was beyond the pale.
The region was engaged in a fierce conflict between the supporters of apartheid regimes in South Africa and the then Rhodesia. Two men with Staffordshire connections were caught up in the violence. Andrew McKenzie whose brother was a farmer near Eccleshall was executed by firing squad in July 1976 following a show trial in the Angolan capital Luanda. McKenzie had been part of a group of mercenaries engaged in a particularly vicious civil war in the country. After his death his brother was concerned that the Angolan government demanded £1,900 for the return of the body. Leek born Mr N Tatton was killed in a land mine explosion in November 1976 whilst on duty with the South African security forces near Kanyemba.