Michael Walker: Sterling’s service to football and the wider society

Man City star confrontis the racism which blighted the career of players like Howard Gayle

What he always remembers is the arm across the door. It was the barrier that said he was different, that he was excluded. It was a white arm.

Until those moments, he was part of the gang, one of the lads as they played football outside or roamed the streets looking for something to do.

Then he became, in the words of others, something else: “I could hear the parents saying: ‘Don’t be bringing that lazy nigger to the door.’”

It is a sentence to break hearts.

Imagine being on the end of it. At a moment of reflection on the state of race relations in British football and British life, it is educational and, it must be said, saddening to return to one of the most under-the-radar sports books of the past few years, Howard Gayle's 61 Minutes In Munich.

The title refers to Gayle’s most famous on-pitch episode, his hour as Kenny Dalglish’s replacement from the ninth minute of the 1981 European Cup semi-final second leg against Bayern Munich in what was then West Germany.

Sixty-one minutes later, Gayle was replaced himself, a substitution which shocked and disturbed him.

Shocking and disturbing is a phrase that applies to the life and times around Howard Gayle because, as interesting as his football story is, what lingers is his bleak depiction of a young, black, working class boy growing up on the housing estates of an English city in the 1970s.

In his case the city was Liverpool and the daily scrap for survival was often a literal fight.

Gayle takes us inside his head to show what it did to him. He explains how he was “the only black kid in my school year and I wasn’t allowed to forget it”; how “other kids’ parents would often stop me from going in. They didn’t want a black kid in their house. I didn’t understand it and the rejection hurt me.”

That was when Gayle would hear the N word.

He grew angry – at the world, at institutions and at his father, who did not realise how difficult it was “being me”.

He heard abuse on the street, in school and on the local football pitches he started to shine upon – “especially when you were facing teams from Scotland Road or Warbreck – two of the toughest inner-city areas where attitudes were entrenched and a peculiar Celtic insularity survived”.

Young offenders

And as he concludes: “If you are told you’re something often enough, you begin to believe it. Eventually, you become it. Racism can institutionalize not only the person being racist but the person on the receiving end . . . racism imprisons you and it’s incredibly difficult to escape.”

The reference to prison was more than an analogy to Gayle. He was sent to a young offenders’ centre for four months after being caught shoplifting and biting a policeman while trying to escape. That was his life then.

This was pre-Liverpool FC. This was when Gayle had “resigned myself to being this way: hustling on the streets, in and out of prison, trying to find a way to survive”.

When he eventually did sign amateur forms and make his first-team debut, Gayle was grateful: “No institution had ever told me I was good at anything.”

There are wider points here – about how children are spoken to, about how boys in the football system are addressed. Reassurance is a gift to be given.

Grateful as he was to be at Anfield, Gayle quickly became aware that, as the book's sub-title says, he was Liverpool FC's First Black Footballer. In training, if not every day, his colour was referred to most days. It was not complimentary and Gayle was relieved when Graeme Souness stepped in on his behalf.

Gayle remembers they flew to the match in Munich on Aer Lingus – "Liverpool always flew with Aer Lingus" – but when he lined up to replace Dalglish, the next detail is the sheer volume of the monkey chanting coming from Bayern's fans. It was at a level so awful that even a reticent man like Bob Paisley mentioned it afterwards.

When Gayle played for England U-21s in Spain, he heard the same. He heard it at Turf Moor, Stamford Bridge and plenty of other grounds around England. He has a phrase for it: “White noise”.

Gayle was no angel, he admits that. There are differing explanations as to why he did not play more than five times for Liverpool, why Munich was not the breakthrough it might have appeared. He regrets turning down a Paisley contract offer.

But there were reasons behind that decision, too. This was a young man who felt isolated. Some reassurance would have helped him.

“Lots of people – team-mates included – said that I had a chip on my shoulder. It wasn’t a chip; it was a resilience not to accept racism of any kind. No black person has ever told me that I had a chip on my shoulder. Strange that, isn’t it?”

We all make mistakes. Gayle would like his human flaws to be included alongside his human qualities, to be judged on the content of his character.

To some extent his story is a tale of the times. But there are enough recent examples to show that racism does not belong to some bygone era.

The Empire

Gayle has campaigned for Show Racism the Red Card and was to be given an MBE for his services. He declined. As he points out at the beginning of his book, Liverpool was a “slaving port” during the British Empire’s lust for money and power. The Empire doesn’t look so great from Liverpool 8.

Gayle asks the legitimate question as to why a city so ethnically diverse has produced so few black first-team players at Liverpool and Everton. It is not a comfortable question, but then we should all be shifting in our chairs.

Raheem Sterling has pulled the rug out and made us confront afresh the noises that formed the soundtrack to Gayle's upbringing and professional life.

There they were last Saturday at Stamford Bridge and we were shocked and disturbed. But then as Stan Collymore asked: for how long will we be shocked and disturbed? How long, for example, did it take us to get over the shock of Dalian Atkinson's death by taser?

What matters is how we change ourselves and our culture. It’s a broad question, one beyond football. But it includes football, where an edge in the tackle, in the stadium, in the pub, is relished. It reaches back to the streets Gayle wanted to call his own.

A small, unprovoked kindness might be a start. The offer of reassurance.

As Gayle says at one point: “All I wanted to do was fit in.”