IN APRIL 1981, Howard Gayle was summoned from the substitutes’ bench to play for Liverpool in the second leg of a European Cup semi-final at German Champions Bayern Munich. The previous October, by filling the same role against Manchester City, he became the first black footballer in Liverpool’s 88-year history to play at first-team level. The Toxteth-born player pulled on a first-team shirt only five times in total, scoring once. But he also notched up 62 goals in 156 games for Liverpool’s successful reserves side. In 61 Minutes In Munich, Howard tells Simon Hughes of his childhood growing up in the Toxteth and Norris Green areas of Liverpool, life on the streets, progressing from a teenage football hooligan to a Liverpool first teamer. Here, in the last of a series of extracts on The Anfield Wrap from the book published by deCoubertin Books, Howard talks about the strength of Liverpool’s squad during his time at the club and the difficulties in progressing from the reserves to the first team.
ENTER Melwood now and there are famous quotes plastered over the walls. Enter the academy in Kirkby and there is a photograph of me, displayed as one of the club’s home-grown graduates, even though I wasn’t really. I signed for Liverpool at 19 and although I started with the B team initially, I was training with the first team. I wasn’t an apprentice. I was not educated the Liverpool way from an early age. This meant I had further to travel in less time than the rest: so much to learn.
As a professional in the 1970s, Melwood was very basic. No slogans appeared on walls as inspiration. Players were expected to be savvy enough to figure out what was expected. Liverpool was a humble club. Liverpool never spoke about who they were going to beat; they just beat them. Liverpool never spoke about winning the league; they just won it.
The challenge for every player was to prove himself on a daily basis. An underlying feeling existed that there was always somebody waiting to take your place. For the first team, there were lads in the reserves gasping for an opportunity. But for the lads in the reserves, players in the A team and the B team had similar aspirations.
The level of competition was geared against complacency. I was never complacent. Deep inside me, there was a feeling that something would go wrong — paranoia almost — because everything in my life had gone wrong before. Despite earning a contract, I constantly thought something would happen to set me back. I was waiting for someone to say that I wasn’t good enough – or, ‘Sorry, Howard; you’re not quite what we were looking for.’
It had happened before. Tom Saunders, for example, was a face I recognised, although I’m not sure whether he recognised me. He was the manager of Liverpool Schoolboys when I was at St Teresa’s. I attended trials and didn’t get selected. When I saw him at Melwood, his presence brought back some unhappy memories. If he didn’t rate me as a player just a few years before, would he rate me now?
After three or four sessions with the schoolboys, there was a big match between the better ones and the ones considered not so good. Tom judged that I should be on the latter. Even though I played well and had the measure of the right-back marking me, when it came to selection for a game against London Schoolboys at Anfield, I was left out of his plans and asked to act as a ballboy in the old Kemlyn Road stand. It was humiliating, chasing after stray passes from players chosen ahead of me.
I saw Tom at Melwood most days. His presence didn’t fill me with confidence. Although I was in the reserves and he was in charge of a younger age group, I always wondered what was coming: whether he’d say something to put the other coaches off me. I associated his face with disappointment.
Fortunately, there were other faces that made me feel more comfortable. I wasn’t the only black player in the system at Liverpool. Lawrence Iro was there, along with Stevie Cole. We were linked by the colour of our skin but were made different by our previous experiences.
Lawrence came from a lower-middle-class family and later became a partner in an insurance company. Stevie, meanwhile, was the same age as me but was released before making the biggest step into the first team. He eventually became a well-known bouncer at a number of Liverpool pubs and clubs. Stevie got involved in a feud over the control of doors and in 1996 was murdered in Kirkby: hacked to death in front of his wife by a mob of twenty men. Sometimes, I wonder whether I might have met the same end.
While Lawrence and Stevie played for the reserves at different points over the next few years, I was the only regular starter. The standard was incredibly high.
Bill Shankly’s comment about Liverpool and Liverpool reserves being the only two good teams in Merseyside was perceived as being a dig about the poverty of Everton’s team. It wasn’t. It was a statement that said Liverpool had a team that would rival anybody but Liverpool also had backup for it. Shankly wanted to manifest an idea that Liverpool were an unforgiving force with a squad of players that potentially could keep the club at the top for generations.
The reserve side I played in was outstanding, winning the Central League four out of five years. Although I often played on the wing, my goal-scoring record was consistent: in the 1977-78 season, I scored six times; in 1978-79, I got 17; 13 followed the year after that, then 16 and eight during my last full campaign spent at Liverpool in 1981-82.
With Roy Evans in charge, Liverpool’s reserves were unstoppable in the Central League. We beat Newcastle United’s first team on a few occasions. I honestly believe we’d have finished in the top five of the English First Division given the chance. Yet we were also probably the unluckiest group of players in history.
The first team’s domination of English football meant that many of us were never given a chance to progress. It is a myth that Liverpool promoted from within, because the statistics proved they did not. Between the start of the 1970s and the middle of the 1980s, only three players emerged from the youth set-up to become regulars. They were Phil Thompson, Sammy Lee and Jimmy Case – who, like me, was spotted playing locally, albeit a bit higher with South Liverpool in the Northern Premier League. He was playing park football at the same time for Garston Woodcutters. His trajectory towards Liverpool’s first team and European Cup finals was just as rapid as mine, although he enjoyed a more successful and longer career, playing into his late thirties.
Bill Shankly had said that the first result he looked for outside the first team was that of the reserves. He’d long departed the club by the time I came along but I’m not sure his mantra on this side had passed on to the next manager.
I became a Liverpool reserve when the first team was winning European Cups — dominating the game at home as well as abroad. The reserve team won title after title but only a few of us were rewarded with opportunities at senior level. The attitude at Liverpool regarding team selection was that if it wasn’t broken then it didn’t need fixing. Yet quite often, the first team would win and any reserve-team player in for an injured regular was given the hook the following week without reason.
Liverpool didn’t need to explain to someone like me why they made their decisions but I always felt if I was given 10 to 15 games on the run, I’d establish myself. I felt the same for Colin Irwin. He was an outstanding player but his path was blocked by Alan Hansen, who’d get selected even if he was 50 per cent fit.
I’m not saying Alan shouldn’t have been playing because he was one of the best in the world. Quite possibly, a 50 per cent fit Alan Hansen or a 50 per cent fit David Johnson was better than a 100 per cent fit Colin Irwin or a 100 per cent fit me. But Alan has trouble with his knees now – and it is likely the condition wasn’t helped by the number of games he played, or the number of injections he had to take to get on the pitch.
Supporters often overlook the human cost of success. Ultimately though, Liverpool won most things around that time, so who can argue with selection policy?
The management were reluctant to make changes at any cost. Change was feared at every level the club operated. Who cares about Anfield’s regeneration or an expansion, when results on the pitch are good? I’m not so sure Liverpool had a visionary in charge after Shankly. Shankly didn’t just build a team, he built a club and a stadium. By the time Paisley took over, the foundations were there. Sure, he got even better results on the pitch than Shankly, but it was during his reign that other clubs began to catch up off the pitch.
This approach impacted on the progress of players in one of the best reserve teams this country has ever seen. We’d be taken on end-of-season tours for nothing games and, every single time, Bob would start with the strongest eleven available. He’d make sure the game was won before substituting anyone.
It was all devised to create this aura of an invincible Liverpool. It also helped to foster the winning mentality. From day one, I was told that winning was a mentality that was hard to get into. But losing was a mentality that’s even harder to get out of. No matter which game Liverpool were playing in, they went out to win it. There was no time to blood a young lad; it was a case of sinking or swimming.
I became far from happy with the lack of opportunities; but I wasn’t the only one.
Kevin Sheedy was brought in from Hereford for a decent fee and could play in the same position as me. He was a brilliant player and went on to become an Everton legend. But because of the standard at Liverpool he never got a genuine chance at Anfield. Part of his problem was his perceived injury record.
When he first came to Liverpool he bought a new Audi to celebrate but, because the steering wheel was slightly off centre, it affected his back. After matches he was in agony and nobody could figure what was wrong with him. Eventually they figured out it was the Audi. Unfortunately for Kevin, by then Liverpool had him down as a player that was injury-prone – and Liverpool did not take kindly to injured players, who’d get ignored by the staff until they returned to the fold.
Kevin and I would often discuss our frustrations on the bus en route from Anfield to Melwood. You quickly realised it was pointless trying to force the issue with staff. The same line would get spun all of the time. “Keep going, Howard. Your chance will come.” I didn’t believe they were telling the truth because nobody’s chance was coming. The only way to vent frustration was to talk about it among your team-mates. In a weird way, I think it helped foster a team spirit. Everyone was united because we could relate to one another about the slim chances of progression.
– 61 Minutes In Munich: The Story Of Liverpool FC’s First Black Footballer by Howard Gayle in collaboration with Simon Hughes is out now. You can buy it here. A FREE launch event is being held at Liverpool’s The Black-E on October 28. More details here.
– Listen to a special edition of And Could He Play where Howard Gayle discusses three Liverpool players he shared the pitch with here.