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 second of a series of extracts on The Anfield Wrap from the book published by deCoubertin Books, Howard talks about his early days in Norris Green and his first experiences of Anfield.
I TRIED to make friends with some of the other kids on the council estate. I’d be OK playing on the street with them, but if a gang of us tried to pile into a house, the other kids’ parents would often stop me from going in. They didn’t want a black kid in the house. I didn’t understand it and the rejection hurt me. I’d speak to my mum and she’d tell me to hang in there: that people would learn to accept us. But I didn’t bother disclosing this information to my dad. He’d have probably found a way to blame me: that I wasn’t trying hard enough to fit in.
Being on the outside became normal and, as a child, I didn’t realise the severity of the effect that it must have had on me. I could hear the parents saying, “Don’t be bringing that lazy nigger to the door.”
If you are told you’re something often enough, you begin to believe it. Eventually, you become it. Racism can institutionalise not only the person being racist but the person on the receiving end if it happens often enough. Racism imprisons you and it’s incredibly difficult to escape.
After progressing from St Teresa’s infants’ school on Utting Avenue, my mum enrolled me at the junior school over on Storrington Avenue.
It took me a long time to begin to integrate properly. The kids would encourage one another to make jibes at me and I’d constantly be fighting because of it.
I was scrapping with boys that were older and bigger.
My brothers always told me to never give in to them and if I had to pick up a brick or a glass bottle to protect myself, then I should. “Just make sure you get your hit in first,” they said. Abdul told me that if I had to make an example of one of them then that was what I was going to have to do.
That attitude has followed me throughout life. Quite easily, I could have killed somebody because I was acting on a basis of self-defence. If someone attacked me, I’d make sure that they knew they’d been in a fight and, sometimes, I didn’t know when to stop because I was constantly being challenged.
I look back at one fight at 11 or 12 years old as one of the defining moments of my schooldays.
During a sports day at the Scargreen playing fields, just around the corner from the Gayle house on Stalisfield Avenue, a boy came to me for no reason at all and called me a nigger, laughing at my hair. The insults were indiscriminate.
There was no messing around, so I started punching him in the head. Eventually, after kicking him to the floor, I pinned him down, grabbed his hands either side of his body, and head-butted him as hard as I could. It knocked him out. That prompted another boy to come over. “What have you done, you fucking nigger?” He got hurt as well.
News of the fight spread quickly and parents of the other boys were already at school by the time I returned there. I knew it was serious. The headmaster grabbed me by my hair and hauled me into his office. No questions were asked about what happened or what had provoked the fight. All the fingers were pointed at me. My parents weren’t asked to be there and I was cast as the instigator without listening to any of the facts.
The result was a suspension from school. Before I was escorted from the gates, they used corporal punishment to enforce their message and the strap was applied to my hands 12 times, an unprecedented penalty. Most kids got three straps.
The pain didn’t bother me a great deal. Neither did the suspension. I was more concerned about my dad’s reaction. I’d take the cane, strap or slipper all day long rather than explain to my dad how I’d been chucked out of school. Getting into trouble and missing education or bringing the police to our door was the worst thing you could do.
Frustratingly, though, the only way to survive in Norris Green was to confront the aggression towards me. It meant that I was damned if I went along with the racism and damned if I confronted it. If I fought racism, I’d at least maintain a level of integrity among some of the kids, and if I let it slide, I figured that it might allow everyone to come on top of me.
I was not without friends in Norris Green, though many of those friendships were founded on my behaviour of acting tough or being outspoken. I gave others the impression that I didn’t care how big someone was; over time, I gained a reputation for my fearlessness. In Norris Green, being like that won you a few mates. Inwardly, I have always been a private person and I enjoy my own space and company. In Norris Green, though, I had to be different to find friends.
The Boys’ Pen – A Rite Of Passage For Kopites
THE boys’ pen was a steel cage in the top corner of the famous Kop stand. It could hold hundreds of kids, acting as a supposedly safe area away from the heaving masses in the Kop.
I was in my early teens when I started going to Anfield with lads from Norris Green. I quickly appreciated how easy it was to bunk in for free, especially when there were so many thousands of other people in the stand hiding you.
The pen was meant to be a satellite community of Shankly’s vision: day care for the offspring of seasoned Kopites — a place where sons deemed too diminutive for the genuine thing would spend their Saturday afternoons cheering on the Reds and learning what it meant to be a Liverpool supporter. That was the theory anyway.
The reality was quite different. The Kop seemed like an all-welcoming society. The pen was a holding ground for frustrated juveniles wanting to progress into the mainstream of the Kop to experience its vibrant atmosphere. It also had its dangers for young boys. One of the hardest-working groups of people on a match day at Anfield were the workers at the St John Ambulance, who had to deal with cases of fans passing out or injuring limbs following crushes in the standing areas of the ground. Supporters were forced into viewing crushing as part of the match-day experience.
The boys’ pen could also be a lonely place for newcomers outside the clique. Those that weren’t inside the clique didn’t hang around for long. Kids who stood in the pen were tough. Regulars in the Main Stand, just across from the pen, would witness and be the recipients of our wrath. The sound in the boys’ pen was very different to the sound in the main body of the Kop. The boys’ voices would be drowned out by the men because many of our voices hadn’t even broken yet. It was like a choir being quelled by an adult chant.
Fighting and swearing were commonplace. There were gangs from all different areas of the city. I went with lads from Norris Green: Peter McNamara, Anthony Hannah, Micky Baldwin and Karl Yoward. Then there were other gangs from Dingle, Halewood, Speke, Scotland Road and Kirkby. Although the obvious enemy was whomever Liverpool were playing on any given Saturday afternoon, there were times inside the pen when lads would have a scrap to claim their own territory. Once the game started, all of our energies were directed at supporting the team, but beforehand it was an intimidating environment and I had to be streetwise to survive, especially being the only black boy in there.
Most of the lads inside the pen were frustrated by the fact they were too small to get into the Kop. The Kop was the place to be — being there proved you were a proper Liverpool supporter. The atmosphere the other side of the fence was unbelievable. It was electric. The noise — that roar when Liverpool scored — it gave you the feeling of togetherness; a feeling of togetherness that I craved, which was absent from other areas in my life.
Though thrilling, it was an arduous task attempting to make it over the fences and into the Kop. There was a little gap in the pen big enough for the smallest lads to get through but taller ones had to be more inventive. A typical escape attempt would involve one kid climbing over and deliberately getting caught by a steward manning the fence. The steward would throw the sacrificial lamb out of the ground and while that was happening, 20 lads would jump over and merge into the Kop without being spotted.
The most adventurous attempt to flee was via the Kop toilets. They were directly below the pen so you’d get some terrible smells wafting through. Hot air rises, so there would be a pong. The sanitary conditions in the Kop were horrendous: worse than a Turkish prison.
I probably missed some great moments on the pitch because I was so busy trying to get out of the pen. There were many routes — some of them more precarious than others. I think we sometimes annoyed the older fellas on the Kop but they must have been impressed by our determination.
It was a great way to learn about football matches. It was where I started supporting Liverpool. You get a lot of people younger than me saying they started watching Liverpool in the Kop when the pen was finally closed. I think that generation has missed out. The pen was a rite of passage.
Read: Howard Gayle’s 61 Minutes In Munich – “First It Was Sweet, Then It Was Bitter”
There was a sense of community inside Anfield but that only developed, in my opinion, because of the success of the team in front of us.
Bill Shankly’s sides had many qualities but, above everything else, it was the ability to recover from apparently impossible situations that set them apart.
Regularly, it seemed as though Liverpool were two goals down and somehow end up winning. I think that factor ground opponents down, made them weary; arriving at Anfield already half-beaten, thinking they had to score four goals to be truly secure. This never happened, of course.
The powers of recovery created a fear factor that nobody could really quantify.
Liverpool would always come good just when everyone else started to doubt them. Even though Liverpool were one of the best teams in the country, it conversely felt like we were the underdogs. Shankly had created a unique mentality and reputation for Liverpool.
That identity suited me because I felt the same way personally. I was determined to prove people wrong, to prove I was capable of rising above the challenges in my life and prove I was capable of excelling.
– 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.
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