Editorials

Let’s try this again – arise, Sir Clyde

  • Knight of the highest order: Clyde Best was watched by millions during his eight years in English football. But in an age of intolerance for people of colour, many did what they could to hound him out of the game. But he persevered and made the journey easier for next generations
  • In the presence of greatness: Bermudian football legend Clyde Best chats with Gianni Infantino during the Fifa president’s brief visit to the island this week (Photograph by Lawrence Trott)

The outpouring of love shown by the British football community, and those from all walks of life farther afield, in the wake of the death this week of Cyrille Regis has been palpable.

Regis, the former West Bromwich Albion, Coventry City and England striker, is fêted not only for his contributions to football but for having endured as a pioneer for blacks and other minorities in the Seventies and Eighties when overt racism was rampant throughout the United Kingdom, driven by the National Front.

What’s more, football presented the racists an amphitheatre within which to sharpen their knives of abuse, and in that cauldron of hate stood Regis, Brendon Batson and Laurie Cunningham — West Brom’s “Three Degrees”.

The first three blacks ever to run on a British football field at the same time, in the same team, are widely seen as having changed the face of British football for ever.

Cyrille Regis was the undeniable leader of the pack, a giant of a man, and a hero to the many players of colour who have followed in his footsteps. British and otherwise.

His hero is also a giant of a man. A man who first suffered the many abuses in English football as the likes of the National Front were building up a head of steam.

That man was Clyde Best. Bermuda’s own.

Best, during his eight seasons with West Ham United from 1968 to 1976, showed how to rise above while the monkey chants and worse were raining down from the terraces. His humility and dignified presence set the template for generations to steel themselves while bursting through the colour barrier.

And those effects are still felt today, to the extremes that the best black footballers in England’s Premier League earn more per week for kicking a football than the average punter will earn in a lifetime.

“I was always taught that you’re not playing for yourself, you’re playing for the people who are coming behind you, and that’s what kept me going,” Best told the CNN programme It’s Not Black & White six years ago.

Given the unhappily topical coincidence of Bermudians being up in arms over the apparent lack of diversity in the New Year’s Honours List, now seems an appropriate time to again put forward Best for a knighthood.

Towards the end of his playing days, after he had left England for the United States, Best took up the offer to visit apartheid South Africa with a multinational football team. It is that ill-advised decision that is believed to have led to him falling behind modern-day stars Shaun Goater and David Bascome in the honours pecking order before belated being awarded an MBE in 2006.

Best, modest to a fault, would have been entirely uncomfortable with the obscene salaries that leading players command today. And he is adamant that he did not enrich himself as a result of the South African venture, but rather noted in a 2012 Royal Gazette interview: “My thinking was that if I could go there and play, and maybe help a couple of youngsters to improve, to inspire them to play, then I would be doing some good. ... After all I’d done in England with regards to racism, the criticism [at home and abroad] was a bit of a slap in the face at the time.”

Best is still revered in Britain, and the passing of time has embossed the legacy of how he overcame untold adversity to inspire those (Regis, Cunningham, Batson, et al), who have gone on to inspire those (John Barnes, Ian Wright, et al), who have gone on to inspire those (Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira, et al), who have gone on to inspire the likes of Dele Alli and Raheem Sterling, who grace our television screens on a weekly basis.

For this lasting and continuing impact, it is more than worthwhile for Bermuda to revisit the possibility of elevating Best from Member of the Order of the British Empire.

In 2012, former House Speaker and professional footballer Randy Horton went very public in calling for Best to be given a knighthood.

Not much was done.

Three years later, former media personality Joe Brown built his keynote speech at the 21st Annual R.O. Smith Over-40s All-Star Classic around a personal mission to right a big wrong.

Not much was done.

It is clear by now that Whitehall is not going to be falling over itself to present a gong to a man whose last kick of a football in Britain was more than 40 years ago, so — like those who had most to complain about over the racial make-up of the honours list a fortnight ago — we have to do for ourselves and lobby those in position to effect the change we would like to see.

Every citizen in this country is free to put forward a nomination, although they cannot specify for which award, but they then are required to go the extra mile — to have the courage of their conviction, to see the job through.

In the case of Clyde Best, that means lobbying the honours committee, and there is no better place to start than the top — the Lord Coe of Ranmore, better known as Sebastian Coe, president of the International Association of Athletics Federations.

Coe is the chairman of the sport committee upon whose recommendation the main committee will take its findings to the Cabinet Office before they are moved on to 10 Downing Street and then to Buckingham Palace for the Queen to give Royal Assent.

The official members on Coe’s eight-man committee are Sue Owen, Permanent Secretary for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, and David Sterling, the Interim Head of Northern Ireland Civil Service.

The independent members are Pippa Britton of Disability Sport Wales, Giles Clarke of the England and Wales Cricket Board, former sports journalist Tom Clarke, Donna Fraser, the vice-president of UK Athletics, and Liz Nicholl, chief executive of UK Sport.

Their details are easy enough for the Bermuda public to find, if we truly wish to press home the case for a man who has advanced the cause for minorities in British sport as much as any other.

If it were left to Tony Evans, former football editor of The Times in London, and now a football columnist at the London Evening Standard and a notable contributor at ESPN FC, Best would have been Sir Clyde for at least the past decade.

He wrote a moving piece on Regis in the Standard on Monday, highlighting his impact as a pioneer for black players. But in doing so he could not shake the name “Clyde Best” from his thought processes, and then set about a Twitter essay whose passion is the standard for what should be expected of Bermudians aiming to see one of their heroes awarded the highest honour.

With Tony’s kind permission, we reprint that here:

“Clyde arrived at West Ham in 1968, the same year as Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech. He was the only — as far as I could see — visible black player in the league until [Cyrille] Regis’s emergence nine years later.

“I remember getting his autograph at Lime Street one Friday night in, maybe, 1972? When I met him, he didn’t believe me. He laughed at my earnest attempts to convince him.

“What I also remember is the entire ground making monkey chants at Clyde. ‘Ullo der man’ was considered affectionate. The level of abuse he took was stunning.

“I met him in the States in the early 1990s. I saw a picture of him in the tiny local Irvine paper. He was coaching. I couldn’t believe it. I was desperate to interview him. I convinced the paper I worked for to do it by saying he was ‘England’s Jackie Robinson’.

“Bit over the top, yeah, but they bought it. The interview was standard — Clyde was wary about talking about race — but I was delighted. At the end, he asked if I’d ever been to West Ham. I blurted out a story about being locked out of our end and rushing round to the home end.

“The Busies were ...”, I started. And with that he laughed really loudly and immediately demanded I continue the story over a bevvy. We became mates. He gave me my first paying job in football. Not writing.

“I was a coach for San Clemente Soccer Club. A really bad coach but Clyde was my boss. But I digress.

“He did not like talking about how he was treated during his career. I suggested he should write a book. It would, I said, have to deal with racism. He was too nice a person to do that. He’d rather talk about the positive experiences.

“I was with him the night we heard Bobby Moore had died. He loved Bobby. He was out with him on the notorious episode in Blackpool [Google it] and was the only one not drinking that night.

“Then I was with him the night of the Rodney King verdict. I was furious. LA needed to burn. No justice, no peace. Clyde looked sad. ‘People die, Tony, people die.’ You could see the sorrow of suffering a lifetime of racism but he was more concerned with decency.

“I loved to talk about his career. West Ham, Feyenoord. I wanted to see all his mementos. He only showed me one. A pic of him and Pelé, signed by the great man. Well, one of the great men in the photo.

“I also played tennis and football with him. He was 22 stone and his knees were shot. He moved quicker over a yard than anyone I’ve ever seen. God, he was so good.

“So what’s the point? Well, we say lovely things about people when they die. Clyde never had the cultural effect of Cyrille — and [Laurie] Cunningham and [Brendon] Batson — but he took as much abuse, if not more. He is not spoken about or admired as much as he should be.

“And I just wanted to give him credit while he’s still alive. There’s no other vehicle, so I do it here. I was able to reflect on Cyrille’s greatness too late in @standardsport today. Just wanted to talk about Clyde’s while he’s still here.

“That’s it really. I was thinking about great men who challenged crank racist theories, showed that they were nonsense and helped change society for the better through football.”

There is no doubt that Clyde Best changed British society for the better through football. He had flaws, as we all do, but the statute of limitations for holding that against him has long since expired.

The goodwill that persists as a result of the brave step he took 50 years ago lives on.