Forty years on – How Viv Anderson became England's first black player
Posted On March 22, 2019
In an exclusive interview, the former Arsenal and Manchester United defender discusses the racism he endured on his path to the top
Viv Anderson reckons his moment of English footballing history 40 years ago wouldn’t have happened under modern-day parameters.
“It wouldn’t be played today because half of the pitch was hard and the other side was soft,” he tells Goal, “so I wore rubber soles first half and studs second half!”
It was against Czechoslovakia on Wednesday, November 29, 1978 that the full-back changed the face of the England national team for good as its first-ever black player. It had, inexplicably, taken 106 years for anybody of colour to pull on the famous shirt of the Three Lions.
Anderson, only 22 at the time, had broken through with Nottingham Forest during a time when there were few black players plying a trade in the professional leagues, but it never crossed his mind that he couldn’t succeed.
“When I first started and I watched Match of the Day the only black face I ever saw was Clyde Best, who used to play for West Ham,” Anderson says. “I made a conscious effort of saying ‘I’d like to be on Match of the Day and I want to play football’, and I was lucky to be at a club with a manager who was there at the time that helped me on that path.”
That manager was Brian Clough, who had already led Forest to their only ever league title the previous summer and would take them to remarkable back-to-back European Cup triumphs over the next 18 months.
But just as importantly, the storied boss had done much to bolster the young Anderson’s resilience in the face of the kind of treatment from the terraces which was common for all black footballers at the time. Scandalously, the prospect of fruit being tossed from the stands as projectiles was just accepted as a part of the matchday routine for a coloured player back in the 1970s.
“I remember going to Newcastle when they had the great [John] Tudor, [Malcolm] Macdonald and that sort of team, really early on in my career – maybe three games in – and I walked out to have a look at the pitch beforehand and I got dog’s abuse,” he recalls.
“I went back in the dressing room and I said ‘Mr Clough, I don’t think I’ll play tonight,’ and he just said ‘You’re playing!’ He was great in that respect. It was one of those things you had to get on with, if you didn’t, you wouldn’t further your career and that’s really fundamentally what I wanted to be: I wanted to be a footballer. I wanted to play at the top level and try to achieve something.”
Just a few years on, he was making history in an England shirt; the ‘First Among Unequals’ as his aptly-named 2010 autobiography describes him.
“It stands out in my mind as if it was yesterday, 92,000 people there,” he says. “I remember getting a great response because in those days you came out the back of Wembley, you didn’t come out from the side as it is now, so you heard the roar getting louder and louder and louder as you came up the pitch. I remember getting a great cheer coming out, and they say I had a hand in the goal!”
Viv would end up with 30 England caps and was part of the squads which went to World Cups in Spain in 1982 and Mexico four years later without actually making it on to the pitch. But while black players have featured increasingly heavily in the England setup over the four decades since Anderson broke the colour barrier, the man himself insists he was not the sole pioneer.
“I’ve got to say that Cyrille Regis and Laurie Cunningham were trailblazers as well,” he acknowledges. “Laurie was the first black Under-21 international and everyone would say ‘Was there much rivalry between you two?’ but no, not really. We shared a room with England a couple of times and we never discussed it, we talked about cars and stuff like that.
“He was at Real Madrid at the time and we talked about what it was like there and everything else. Clearly, it was a big thing at the time and you don’t dismiss that fact, and there weren’t many black faces about.”
Anderson faced adversity of a different type before becoming a double European champion with Forest, as he was rejected as a schoolboy by his childhood side Manchester United in the early 1970s.
“I went for a year, off and on, every school holidays,” he explains. “I stayed with [1968 European Cup winner] Johnny Aston’s mam and dad. Then they said ‘I don’t think you’re going to make it at Manchester United’ so I went back and got a job: ‘Silk Screen Printer’, which means basically that you get the teas and get lunch!”
But he would make it back to Old Trafford as Sir Alex Ferguson’s first official signing in 1987 following three years at Arsenal.
“Only alphabetically!” Viv points out. “Myself and Brian McClair came together, so I win it alphabetically if anybody asks! It’s always a quiz question: who was the first signing?
“I think he signed me on the back of me playing for Arsenal against Manchester United, and me standing up to Norman Whiteside, who’d kicked us from pillar to post! I think we’d gone 18 games undefeated and came to Old Trafford, and Norman just kicked everybody that moved, and got away with it!
“Obviously, Sir Alex saw something in me, and then I got a phone call from Bryan Robson saying ‘We’ve got a new manager and he wants to sign you’ and my contract was up at Arsenal.
“So, we arranged to meet in this hotel in Nottingham, I go in on my own and sit down and the next thing the door opens. Sir Alex walks in and says ‘Pleased to meet you! Have you seen the chairman?’ I said ‘No, I’ve been here 10 minutes, I haven’t seen him,’ so he goes to find him.
“Next thing you know, the chairman walks in and says ‘I’m the chairman, Martin Edwards, pleased to meet you, have you seen the manager?’ I told him he’s just been in two seconds ago, and it’s like a revolving door! So, my first impression was ‘What sort of club am I going to? They must have come in the same car!’”
Anderson admits there was some frustration with how his United career panned out, largely due to untimely injuries, but he insists that the club’s runners-up finish in 1987-88 was achieved against the odds as Sir Alex found it difficult to create a team in his vision.
“When we finished second that year we couldn’t play the Manchester United way because the pitch was so bad,” he argues. “What we used to do was knock it in the corners and Mark Hughes used to elbow people, boot people, and we’d get up the pitch that way and we’d end up winning games.
“It wasn’t pretty at times because the pitch wasn’t the best, the drainage wasn’t good, so he got all that sorted. It was hard work that year, but we achieved what we achieved and it gave us a springboard.”
Ferguson would, of course, eventually find the right blend at United, and Anderson had first-hand experience in helping to brace a certain Ryan Giggs for the star-studded career he would go on to enjoy.
“We didn’t know how good they were going to be,” he confesses. “Myself and Bryan Robson went to see the youth team play at Preston one night, and Giggsy came from school, and that night Bryan said ‘That boy’s going to be a superstar.’ You just knew it. He must have been 15, playing for the youth team in a Youth Cup game, and he was going to be a superstar.
“Then, about six months later, he comes out of school and plays for the reserves in this knock-about at The Cliff and nutmegs me and I say: ‘You want to make a career? You ain’t going to be doing that again!’
“Giggs always got the limelight but I remember the physio who was there at the time saying ‘The ginger lad’s going to be a player.’ That was Paul Scholes.”
After three-and-a-half years with United, Anderson went on to play for Sheffield Wednesday and manage Barnsley for a year before spending seven years as Bryan Robson’s assistant at Middlesbrough. And, looking back, he feels privileged to have played under the likes of Clough, Ferguson, George Graham, Ron Atkinson, Terry Venables and Bobby Robson in a 20-year career at the top of the game.
“I was just fortunate!” he admits. “When you say that you go to Forest and then Brian Clough came, you go to Arsenal and then George Graham comes, then at Manchester United the new manager is Sir Alex Ferguson, Sheffield Wednesday and Ron Atkinson, yes there are some managers there.
“Listen, you put it down on a piece of paper and you think it’s a fantastic career, and to play nearly 600 league games, manage to win European Cups, manage to win League Cups… Are you disappointed you didn’t play in a World Cup? It’s one of those things, it is what it is.”
One thing that will never be taken away is his place in England’s history books, though. He was the man who blazed the trail which is now, thankfully, trodden with great regularity by non-white players in the 21st century.
The sight of Viv Anderson stepping onto the Wembley turf with the Three Lions on his chest 40 years ago will always remain one of the country’s most important footballing moments.