“I didn’t know I was the first black player – I had no idea whatsoever,” said Brendon Batson, reflecting on making history as Arsenal’s first-ever black first-team player upon signing professional terms with the top-flight team in 1971.
Rewind almost 60 years ago when the now-68-year-old migrated to England from Trinidad aged nine and stayed with his aunt and uncle, along with his older brother.
It was only when he touched down in the UK, albeit slightly taken aback by the cold weather and his first glimpse of snow, that he discovered football and, more importantly, his talent for the game.
“It was a big adventure,” he explained. “I was born in Grenada, but my family were Trinidadians. We moved from Grenada when I was six and went to Trinidad. My mum did several jobs – she was a single mum at the time – and she felt there was something better for us out there.
“We’d heard about England where the streets were paved with gold! My mum promised that she would join my brother and myself two years after, so she sent my brother and myself first and we arrived in the UK in April 1962.”
Batson, whose only links to any form of fitness was running laps along the beach in his native West Indies, was encouraged to try a different sport by a schoolteacher, who missed his potential at first viewing.
“I’d never seen football before I came to England,” he conceded. “In order for me to feel part of it, I decided I needed to be part of a team. I therefore had a trial with a school team. I didn’t have any boots and I think I played in plimsolls.
“After my first trial game, the teacher – who was a geography teacher – asked where I came from so I told him my story, and he said, ‘that’s in the West Indies, isn’t it?’ And I replied, ‘yes, sir’, and he said, ‘well, maybe cricket is your game!’
“He let me come back the following week and I must have had a little bit of talent because before I knew it, I was involved in the school team and those were my first tentative steps into football.”
Batson continued to send clippings of him in action for the local district side to his mother via the post before she joined them in the UK.
And a move to Arsenal beckoned for the defender, after catching the eye of the top-flight giants, but he was somewhat alone out on the field.
“I think I was 14 before I saw a boy in the side who looked a bit like me, and he was mixed race,” he continued. “I knew I could be picked out very quickly because I was the only black kid as a youth team player.
“At 15 or 16 when I was going to sign, you started to hear the rumours that there was a campaign about being no black players and whisperings about them being lazy and ill-disciplined and they’ve got no bottle or no heart. That never deterred me, I just wanted to try and make my way in the game.
“I was highly embarrassed if anybody was talking about me as ‘that black kid’. I had a nightmare game and I heard it on the way back home on the bus when I was going from Highbury to Walthamstow. I played in a youth team game and I didn’t play particularly well, but I knew that and the people at the game knew that.
“They were talking about me on the bus, and they didn’t know my name, but they could single me out because I was the only black kid on the pitch. I think because we were young pros trying to make our way, your competitive instincts kick in and you want to try and do better.”
He went on to captain Cambridge United to the then-Fourth Division title in 1976/77, after making the decision to leave Highbury.
“That was really where my career started,” he expressed. “I’d made my debut for Arsenal at 18 or 19 and only appeared for about a dozen games. I knew I needed to kickstart my career somewhere else, but you almost get embarrassed when you’re not being selected for the first-team and making further progress, and you realise you’re going backwards in the pecking order.
“My mum always told me to be bold, so I made a bold decision to leave Arsenal at 20. Cambridge United was the first team to come in for me and my confidence was a bit low. To have somebody say, ‘we want you to come and play for us’, was a good booster.
“Cambridge were about to be relegated from the old Third Division. We were literally bottom of the Fourth Division the following season when Ron Atkinson came along in October, which was his first professional gig. He was the one that made me knuckle down. Before we knew it, we stormed the Fourth Division.”
Batson followed Atkinson to The Hawthorns, after the former U’s boss was appointed West Bromwich Albion manager.
The full-back made history once more, becoming part of a West Brom team who became the first Club to field three black players. Batson teamed up with Cyrille Regis and Laurie Cunningham, with the trio immortalised in statue form in 2014 at the West Midlands team’s home ground.
“I knew of Laurie Cunningham because he was down the road from me at Leyton Orient, so I’d seen Laurie play when I was about 14 or 15. In my naivety, I said, ‘I think this lad has got a chance to have a career’. He was absolute dynamite watching him play at that age. I’d seen Cyrille on the television and I thought, ‘wow, this lad looks something fantastic’.
“When I signed, there was a lot of excitement about the team because it was an emerging team. I do remember thinking, ‘this is going to be quite special meeting up with two black players’. They were very easy to get to know and made me feel at home, as did all the team.”
It marked a turning point in football and Batson hopes that, eventually, there will be less emphasis placed on bringing black players through the ranks.
“The seminal moment was when Viv Anderson got selected into the England team as a full international. I remember doing an interview with Frank Bough at the time and he was making a big thing about the first black player and I said, ‘look, he happens to be the best player for that position so why do you labour the point that he’s black?’
“The emergence then in the mid to late 70s really did have an impact for what we see now. I’d love for us to get away from the moniker of a black player. Nobody refers to Pelé as a black player, he was a Brazilian. I think we just wanted to be accepted as a player.”
Previously an MBE, he was appointed an OBE in December 2014 for his services to the sport and his efforts within the equality space.
“To this day, I don’t know who nominated me. You wonder what you’ve done to deserve that recognition because I’ve tried to do my bit by playing football. You do realise there’s a civil responsibility. Arsenal always had a saying: remember where you are, who you are and who you represent. I’ve always felt that whatever I do, I’m representing my community and my heritage.
“I had a good education, not just in football but outside of it as well because of the principles Arsenal installed in me. I was very fortunate, and football was very kind to me, particularly in those formative years.
“I think that recognition is a combination of all that I’ve learnt and hopefully, planning to put into practice.”
Throughout Black History Month, the EFL is celebrating current and former players and managers that have had an impact on the game by telling their stories in a series hosted by radio and television presenter Nick Bright.