Football’s Black Pioneers: How Racism Has Changed From The 70s

Author Bill Hearn (Credit: Daniel McCallum)

In the mid-70s, Roly Gregoire took to the field as Sunderland’s first ever black player. Roly is one of the 92 players detailed in Bill Hearn’s book, Football’s Black Pioneers, which looks at the first black player to play for each football league club.


As author Hearn says, the striker “wasn’t just the only black player in the club, he was probably the only black person in the town”. Gregoire is a particularly interesting player for Bill, who is a Sunderland fan himself.


When writing the book, Bill attempted to contact each player featured in the book who was still living. He was pretty successful and even managed to get Viv Anderson to do the foreword. However, Gregoire was one of the few players who would never reply to Bill’s correspondence. Bill has it on good authority that the trailblazing striker is bitter about his time at Sunderland and wants nothing to do with football.

Sunderland’s First Ever Black Player, Roly Gregoire (Credit: Bill Hearn)

That’s understandable, given the shocking way black players were treated at the time. Bill remembers one game in particular against Blackburn. A young Gregoire had spent some time in the reserves but scored two hat tricks in the space of a week. Blackburn were bottom of the league so the striker was trusted with starting the league game. It is remembered for all the wrong reasons, with Gregoire famously having a poor match.


“The thing about Roly is, the manager decided he wanted more pace in the team for that game against Blackburn so he picked Roly and another young lad called Alan Brown. Both had stinkers, neither of them scored but Roly is the one remembered for the bad game.”


That infamous Blackburn match has, sadly and rather harshly, led to Roly being named as one of Sunderland’s worst ever strikers. Bill believes it’s purely down to skin colour: “Until Paul Stewart came along he was regarded as the worst striker Sunderland have ever had. There’s no way anyone should have remembered Roly other than the colour of his skin. We’ve had a lot of very poor forwards so to list a young kid who cost £5,000 was harsh.”


So, it’s somewhat ironic that not long after Gregoire’s departure, Sunderland had a cult hero in Gary Bennett – fans were able to look past his skin colour and worshipped the defender who went on to become club captain, and the first ever black player to captain a side at Wembley.

Credit: Chloe Kirton – A Love Supreme Fanzine

Bill said: “I think that’s credit to Sunderland because another stereotype is that black people are not leaders. You get that in management, there are virtually no black managers and there’s this idea that they aren’t good leaders. That probably goes back to Walter Tull’s day when black people weren’t allowed to be officers in the army. The club recognised Gary was a leader, made him captain and that was a real rarity.”


At the time, the club captain was affectionately known as ‘midnight’. Looking back, Bill explains that while it is shocking now, it was simply the done thing. It wasn’t intended with malice, but a term of endearment. In fact, it actually helped his research when looking back at old match reports: “I know it’s a bit odd to call people nicknames by the colour of their skin but in a strange way, thank goodness they did because it helped us identify when looking back. The first player to ever score a goal in the First Division, his real name was Willie Clarke but he was universally known as “Darkie Clarke.”


To white men like Hearn, it seemed from the outside looking in that racism was less prominent. However, the Black Lives Matter movement happened to take place while he was doing the bulk of his research. This shone a light on the situation and helped Bill understand that it had never gone away. He thought it had “gotten better and now was getting worse again” but the reality was that it never went away. It was just taking place in different forms.


21-year-old Will Brown, of Liberian descent, grew up with social media and agrees that while racism takes different forms, it is still very prominent in society: “Social media is the easiest way to target minorities due to the anonymity of it. A fan could quite easily spam racist discourse and messages to an athlete of colour and the British authorities would struggle to bring that person to justice. Social media organisations need to implement identification strategies to find people who racially abuse footballers or anyone online to remove the power of anonymity.”


He adds: “If I went to a match for example, Arsenal and Birmingham City come from diverse cities so they tend to have very diverse fans in the stadium. If I were to go to a lower league team or a team from a very white-dominated city where the number of black fans was next to nothing then I wouldn’t feel very safe.”

Credit – Daniel McCallum

Bill adds: “You still don’t really see that many black people in the crowd…  I didn’t want the book to be this way, but almost without fail everyone said Millwall was the worst place. It was everybody – the children, the grandparents. The N word was just commonly used.”


Credit – Daniel McCallum

Ultimately it is obvious that racism is far from being totally eradicated and perhaps it never will be. What happened to Roly Gregoire 46 years ago is shocking but Hearn knows that there is a whole lot of work still to be done in society. Black people are still being marginalised, whether that be on the pitch, in the stands or even in the boardroom: “The answer is that until we have black directors and black owners, it’s not going to happen. In America there are quite a few more black owners and that does seem to have helped a lot. They’ve got this Rooney Rule where you’ve got to have a black person on the shortlist but let’s be honest – anybody could get around that.”