Book Review: 61 minutes in Munich
The Story of Liverpool FC’s First Black Footballer Howard Gayle: 61 minutes in Munich, in collaboration with Simon Hughes, Liverpool, deCoubertin Books, 2016, 227 pp. (hardback), ISBN 978-1-909245-39-6
This book is much more than the story of a footballer. It is unique and an indelible read for a number of important reasons. Firstly, it sets the reader on the journey of comprehending the life and times of a young man of African heritage, born and raised in the famous City of Liverpool, England.
Secondly, as a young boy and teenager, Howard Gayle grew up under the burden of a dire lack of opportunity, due primarily to socio-economic decline in a city characterised by institutional racism, heavy-handed policing and gang culture in the 1970s. Thirdly, he emerged via a smog of oppressive forces not only to succeed in life but to stamp his name on the pages of Liverpool’s history. Lastly, he is the first Liverpool Football Club player of distinct and proud African heritage, raised in a city described in the book as manifesting ‘uniquely horrific’ racism, including that which emanated from the famous Kop itself. The book exposes the visceral strength of a human being dealing with the realities of discrimination yet rising above it to play a starring role, albeit in only one major European Cup semi-final. He got into this game as a substitute for the great Kenny Dalglish, who was injured early on in the proceedings.
Howard played 61 min in this crucial away game to Bayern Munich terrorising the defence of the noted German football club. Why Bob Paisley substituted Howard that night in Munich is beyond the average football fan’s understanding, as it is rare for a substitute to be substituted.
Howard takes the reader through aspects of his upbringing in Norris Green, a largely white working-class neighbourhood in the east of Liverpool. His honesty is captivating and at times heartfelt as he recalls the struggles of his beloved mother; his uneasy relationship with his father; petty crime, and his struggles in the school system with sexual abuse. Clearly, this is a book that speaks to racism embedded within society in Liverpool at the time. Yet, throughout the pages the reader witnesses friendships that rise above racism and capture the humanity of white people, largely working class, who see beyond the superficiality of colour and cultural heritage. Howard Gayle had to be a tough guy to survive, and the reader learns how he did it successfully. It is not the account of a braggart; it is more a narrative of survival against the odds.
Can you imagine, for example, not being allowed to enter the home of your white friend, while all the other children go inside, who happen to be white? As Howard puts it, ‘Racism imprisons you and it’s incredibly difficult to escape’ (p. 19). His experiences of growing up in Liverpool prior to his days at Liverpool Football Club will be both poignant and bewildering for most readers. He is after all reaching back 50 and 40 years when Liverpool was a much less welcoming city to Black families. The fact that he would be the first Black player to play for Liverpool Football Club in 1981 itself gives the reader food for thought. After all, Liverpool has the oldest Black Communities in Europe, going comfortably back to the 1800s. Howard explains the relevance of African seamen, with his father being one such man from Sierra Leone in West Africa. Liverpool Football Club was founded in 1892 and it took 89 years before a local Black player, Howard Gayle, made a breakthrough in its professional ranks. One could argue that he can be deemed the Jackie Robinson of Liverpool’s Black experience for breaking such an intransigent barrier, the collapse of which most British Black players take for granted in today’s game. However, in giving an assessment of the continued lack of opportunity for local born Black players, Howard states:
In Liverpool Football Club’s history, only three players from the local black community have represented the club, making it a total of sixteen appearances between them. Don’t you find that astonishing, considering Liverpool’s black community is well established and has been here so long? … I know I do. (p. 211)
Howard Gayle gave up the national award ‘Member of the British Empire’ recently, largely due to his opposition to the racism that coincided with the era of the British Empire. This was a bold and unselfish decision on his behalf. It speaks volumes of his commitment to social justice. Very few Black British individuals have passed over this award, so he is in a small group of conscientious persons who abhor British racism and its founding father: The British Empire.
Overall, Howard Gayle has written an autobiographical account of his experience of growing up in a racist city. His family survived much prejudice, much discrimination and much economic difficulty; like many other Black families in Liverpool in the 1950s–1970s. His story is important for not
only the present times in which racism is raising its ugly head all across Europe, North America and other parts of the world. It is a timely book that should not only be read as a historical record but as a contemporary insight into how a young Black male can succeed in any field of endeavour if the right opportunity emerges. Too often racism blights opportunity, it curtails human progress and marks an individual for unfair treatment. Liverpool still has a long way to go before racism is a bygone aspect of life in the city. This autobiography of Howard Gayle provides a powerful lesson that school teachers, university tutors and the general public can share and discuss. Howard’s life is as relevant to Liverpool as the Liver Birds are to its skyline. Anyone interested in the history of Black British experience and Liverpool Football Club should take the time to read this inspiring, yet at times heartbreaking, account in the life of one of its famous sons.
By Dr Mark Christian – First published in the Journal of Leisure Studies