Black Magic: How Viv Anderson transformed football’s racial profile

by , May 19, 2016

Modern football is inherently diverse. The Premier League and Football League contains players from every part of the world. Furthermore, homegrown black players have become a familiar sight. Fans at the City Ground regularly cheer on the likes of Dexter Blackstock and Britt Assombalonga.

It is easy to forget that this has not always been the case. Black players only started to emerge in English football in numbers from the 1970s. Those who did were forced to face chilling racist abuse and intense scrutiny.

Amongst this breakthrough generation was the Forest legend, Viv Anderson. The tenacious right-back became a pivotal part of the legendary Forest team of the 1970s and in 1978 achieved the hugely significant milestone of being the first black footballer to play for England.

Breakthrough at Forest

Anderson had a fairly humble upbringing. He was born in Clifton in 1956, the son of West Indian immigrants. He would have grown up at a time of great racial tension: the wave of Caribbean immigrants arriving after the Second World War was met with great consternation by many natives. Indeed, discrimination in housing, employment and everyday life was commonplace.

Football at the time mirrored this. The game was largely an all-white affair, both on the pitch and on the terraces. Nevertheless, Viv took to the sport and quickly rose up as a hot prospect at schoolboy level. At the age of seventeen, he was picked up by his local club, Nottingham Forest. There, he would find a valuable mentor in the form of the enigmatic manager Brian Clough.

Clough’s exploits are well known by all Forest fans. Something that doesn’t get enough exposure, however, is his role in changing race relations. He was a committed man of the left and had a fierce hatred of racism. Indeed, Clough became the chairman of the Anti-Nazi League, an organisation founded in order to combat the rise of far-right movements like the National Front. He even went as far giving the Anti-Nazi League free advertising space in Nottingham Forest match programmes.

Clough would go on to nurture the careers of some of other black players such as Des Walker and Stan Collymore, but his role in bringing through Viv Anderson is perhaps the most significant.

Abuse from the terraces

Anderson started to become a first team regular in 1974. He would usually be the only black player on the pitch. As a result, he became an easy target for racist taunts. This became apparent in one of his first appearances for the club against Carlisle. Clough told Anderson to warm up on the sidelines, ready to be subbed on. During his warm up Anderson was pelted with bananas from the stand. Demoralised and shaken, he trudged back to the bench, informing his manager what had happened. In keeping with his character, Clough diffused the situation with humour: “Get back out there then and fetch me two pears and a banana!”

The abuse continued to escalate – the cacophony of racist chanting and booing becoming almost a Saturday ritual. Anderson, still a young man coming to terms with the pressures of professional football, was pushed to breaking point. He recalls how he was close to quitting the sport. It was Clough who gave him the much-needed motivation to go on and defy his critics:

It was so hostile that I said to Brian Clough when I got back to the dressing room, ‘I don’t think I can play tonight, boss’.

He told me in no uncertain terms I had to play. He said if I wanted to forge a career in the game I had to ignore these people, rise above the chants and let my football do the talking.

Anderson did exactly that. Over the next few years, he excelled on the pitch, becoming a first-team stalwart as Forest were promoted, and then won the First Division title. Dubbed ‘the spider’ for his lanky frame and industrious playing style, Anderson became a firm favourite amongst the Nottingham Forest faithful.

International call-up

By 1978, Anderson had consistently proved himself as one of the best right-backs in the country. England manager Ron Greenwood could no longer ignore him and selected him for a qualification match against Czechoslovakia. The decision caused much debate in the press and criticism amongst some of the more hardcore elements of England supporters. Greenwood seemed less worried about the political dimensions, stating: “Yellow, purple or black – if they’re good enough, I’ll pick them.”

Anderson rewarded the faith shown in him. In the match, he played a part in setting up the winning goal and overall put in a solid defensive display. He ended up getting a standing ovation from the Wembley crowd that evening. Even so, few would have truly realised the significance of the moment.

Anderson’s appearance had broken a taboo in English football and laid the foundations for numerous black players to don the Three Lions. A matter of months later, West Brom’s Laurie Cunningham made his debut, as would talented black players such as Cyril Regis, Luther Blissett and John Barnes.

Ever the professional, Anderson did not see himself as some kind of trailblazer. At the time, he was concerned with nothing more than his game and putting in a good performance for his country. With hindsight, though, the modest Anderson does admit the importance of the night:

There were no black faces on the football field. OK, there was Brendon Batson and Clyde Best and a few others. But to be the first black player to pull on an England shirt in a full international – I can see why people made a bit of a fuss.


Anderson went on to experience further success in his career. He was a crucial element of the Forest team that shocked the world by winning consecutive European Cups in 1979 and 1980. He then had fruitful spells at both Arsenal and Manchester United. On the international stage, he had the privilege of earning 30 caps for his country.

Ultimately, Anderson’s true legacy is much greater than the silverware he won. He was a pioneer, a black man who shrugged off vile abuse to thrive in English football. His talent, modesty and work ethic helped change perceptions and win around a generation of football fans.

His example encouraged countless young black men to enter the game. As the players on the pitch became ever more diverse, the deeply ingrained prejudice on the terraces began to crumble.

Anderson carried on the cause after he hung up his boots. He is now heavily involved in Kick It Out, the organisation that has helped tackle some of the last remaining remnants of racism in the game. He has been venerated by both Nottingham Forest and the FA, and was awarded an MBE in recognition.

Today black players such as Deli Alli, Nathaniel Clyne and Daniel Sturridge flourish in English football, and the squad that travels to Euro 2016 will be amongst the most diverse ever. The nation has come a long way and this is no small part thanks to brave men such as Viv Anderson and visionaries like Brian Clough.