Football: Barriers That Had to Be Broken; Some 26 Years after Viv Anderson's Debut for England, What Chance of an All-Black Team? Chief Football Writer Hyder Jawad Reports
Byline: Hyder Jawad
I magine the scene: the England team strolls on to the pitch for the national anthems before a crucial match and each player is black. Pure fiction, some might say, but this scenario is now more likely than that of an all-white England team.
As Cyrille Regis says, the skin colour does not matter so long as the players are the best available to the England head coach, but there is little doubt that we are close to the day when that team will consist solely of black players.
Regis, who made his name as a dynamic striker with West Bromwich Albion in the 1970s, appeared four times for England at a time, in the early-1980s, when it was rare for black players to represent the national team.
He was a revolutionary then - and he has become an eloquent voice for football's growing anti-racism movement. What is most important to him is not that black players take over the England team, but that players of all races and ethnic backgrounds are able to find their rightful place in football without being dogged by cultural stereotypes.
Even as recently as the mid1970s, Clyde Best of West Ham United was regarded as something of a novelty because he was the only black footballer of whom anything was known.
It was a terrible time. I recall, as a six-year-old in Liverpool in 1975, swapping football cards with school friends and being told that Clyde Best cards were less desirable because he was black.
A season later (1975-76), in the Topps-Bazooka bubblegum card collection of 220 top British footballers, there were no black players.
A generation on and we find that most of the best players in the Premiership - Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira, Rio Ferdinand, Sol Campbell - are black and appropriately celebrated throughout the world.
So what price an all-black England team? How about these 11 international players in a 4-4-2 formation: David James; Ledley King, Rio Ferdinand, Sol Campbell, Ashley Cole; Shaun Wright-Phillips, Jermaine Jenas, Kieron Dyer, Emile Heskey; Jermain Defoe, Darius Vassell.
As one proclaims Black History Month, it is interesting to note that we can have such a debate just 26 years after Viv Anderson, then of Nottingham Forest, became the first black player to represent England.
Regis accepts that an all-black team will occur one day but it is not something about which he ponders. And why should he? Black players have cast aside the prejudices and, for the most part, are able to be assessed for their playing ability rather than their ability to fall within unrealistic constraints.
It matters not how many black players are in the England team, only that those who are good enough are given the opportunity the play.
'An all-black England team is always a possibility, absolutely,' Regis said. 'I look at the international Under-16 team and there is a lot of talent out there and, of course, people are rated because of their ability.
'It could hardly have been different when I was at the start of my career. Bob Hazell was the first black professional to play for England at any level and then Viv Anderson became the first black player to play for the full England team.
'But that was all in 1978, when things were much different. But now it is not about that. It is about players maximising their ability.
'An all-black England team is not a pipe-dream, though; not something I really think about. If it happens, it happens. It might well do. If it does, all well and good.
'If the best 15 players in England are black, then they should form the England squad. If not, then it will not happen until the players are good enough.
'I do not dream about it because I do not look at it that way. If you look at it, it is hard enough for black players to get into the England team because there are so many foreign players in the Premiership now, which means that it is harder and harder to play for your club. …