Three men cast in bronze greet West Brom fans on match days. The 10-foot sculpture is a tribute to these heroes of the club, who were a cornerstone of the squad in the late 1970s.
But they were more than just talented footballers. The West Bromwich Albion trio Cyrille Regis, Brendon Batson and Laurie Cunningham were trailblazing black footballers at a time when racism was a normal part of British life.
“I love those guys, I really do,” says Murray Armoury, the founder of one of Britain’s oldest Saturday League football clubs. “The statue is a fitting tribute to black football players, who made a contribution and a difference to people’s lives – not just with one game but throughout their career and beyond.”
When Regis, Batson and Cunningham played together for West Bromwich in 1978, it was the first time a top club had regularly fielded three black players. The club’s manager, Ron Atkinson (whose own career as a UK football pundit ended when he was sacked for being recorded on a live mic using the N-word about a player 35 years later) dubbed them ‘The Three Degrees’ after the popular US black pop group.
It’s hard to overstate the significance of their achievement. In the 1970s, as the trio rose to prominence, young black players were often overlooked by Premier League clubs.
Black players were rarely seen in top-flight teams, and suffered widespread abuse from spectators and teammates alike.
Eventually, pockets of the black sporting community decided enough was enough. All-black clubs began to form throughout the 1970s and 1980s.
Founded in 1976, Learie Constantine FC was the brainchild of four friends –Murray Armoury, Paul Kidson, Alfred Langley and his brother Mick Langley – who grew frustrated with the lack of opportunities for black footballers in the sport.
It was named after famous Trinidadian-British cricketeer and activist Baron Learie Constantine, Britain’s first black peer, who died in 1971.
The four founding youngsters, all in their early twenties and semi-professional footballers, approached two community figures for support, Phil Cellie and Norman Mullings.
Not only were Cellie and Mullings well-respected within London’s black community, they had been instrumental in establishing the Learie Constantine centre in Willesden, north-west London – a safe and trusted space where the local black residents would often congregate. The football club, the first all-black Saturday league, was given permission to train at the centre.
“We fought Brent Council to get the facilities that meant if we won the league, we would progress to the next level, creating a clear path to the football league,” Armoury told HuffPost UK.
“Back in those days, a lot of the black teams played Sunday football - you can’t be in the system to go into the English Football League if you’re a Sunday team. There were only a handful of teams, including us, which were in the appropriate league that meant you could go into pre-Premier league.
“Sunday teams - if you win, you go down to the pub, have a drink and celebrate. Saturday teams - there was a clear path into professional football.”
Many of the players lived around Harlesden in north west London, and the Learie Constantine centre gave them a place where they could meet up and train, safely.
“Learie Constantine was an icon” Armoury says. “His legacy meant a lot to us and gave us that drive to emulate some of things that he had achieved - because of the struggles that he overcame. And every week we had struggles as a football club.”
“I had to go to meetings to represent our guys who were being discriminated against the by the referee where white players wouldn’t. It was an important but challenging time; I don’t think they’d met a club who was prepared to stand up to not only the opponents on the pitch, but the committees off the pitch. We had issues but we were respected at the end of the day.”
The original plan was for Learie Constantine FC to be comprised of just one team. But due to the demand it began with two and eventually grew to three. In addition to this, girlfriends of the players formed two netball teams which competed alongside them.
And it wasn’t long before black media got behind the budding talent that these all-black sides nurtured. The West Indian World newspaper started a competition for black teams to compete against one another from all over the UK – Manchester, Leicester; different parts of London.
“It was fantastic. That was the first time that Learie Constantine actually played against Continental FC - they were a good strong team.”
“I don’t want to belittle the experiences of nowadays’ black players when it comes to the racism they endure because no one can say how much it hurts an individual,” Armoury says. “But there are far more opportunities for black players in football now. Back in the day, for a black player to even get a trial at a club was very difficult.”
Back in the day, you did not get selected on your football abilities simply because you’re black...that’s a whole other level."
Learie Constantine FC closed in 2015.
“We just got too old and it had served its purpose,” Armoury says.
“We really wanted a black team in the football league - that was our highest goal. But right now there are so many black footballers at every level that, I suppose, we’ve achieved what we set out to do: to even out the playing field as far as opportunities for black footballers.
“A lot of the guys who are playing now and who get selected on ability, that came out of a lot of people who had the ability but were overlooked. For every Cyrille and Brendon, there are lots of guys who could’ve been there but the racism that was rife at the time says ‘no’.”
Ernie Harriott, who used to play for Learie Constantine FC, told HuffPost UK that black football clubs gave young black players a chance to express themselves and grow.
“We got tired of being excluded from other football clubs, so we made our own, he says. He doesn’t feel that the all-black clubs helped bring black players into the mainstream, but says they served another purpose.
“These clubs didn’t really improve prospects in terms of breaking the glass ceiling for black players on a mainstream level, because the big clubs didn’t take any notice, but it made a significant impact to young players who wanted to get on the field and hone their skills.”
According to Harriott, football legend John Barnes played two games for Learie Constantine FC before going onto then Sudbury Court then Watford.
“Our generation, which included the likes of Laurie Cunningham and Cyrille Regis, cleared the path for young black people to thrive today - on and off of the pitch.”
In 1958, Continental FC - the oldest all-black football club in Britain - was founded by the late Mitch Daley, his brother Lenney and Felix “Tex” Rudolfo. Daley, a retired post office manager, had migrated from Guyana just two years prior.
“Things were not easy in those early days. When we started the team we always used to get a good hiding. Ten-nil, 12-0 was not unusual,” Daley told The Voice newspaper in 1996. “Man, it was cold! We had no time to train, partly because we had to cook for ourselves and do our own housework. Those white guys were organised. Their mums cooked for them, they had club houses and they trained.”
Current chairman Roland Malcolm, 60, played for Continental FC from the age of 12 and has been running the club since 1999.
Unlike Learie Constantine FC, Continental is a Sunday League club and currently a member of the Barnet Sunday League. Over the years the small club has been a runner-up in the Middlesex County Senior Cup and reached the quarterfinals of the FA Sunday National Cup.
Though it doesn’t offer the same transition into league football as Saturday League, prolific players such as Jermaine Defoe and John Terry got their start in Sunday League football.
“We started off right at the beginning when racism was really rife,” Malcolm told HuffPost UK.
“It was formed because black players were not getting much of a chance to play football in professional circles; obviously people like Cyrille Regis led the way but it was very hard to get into those kinds of teams - and there wasn’t any black teams on a Sunday either.
“It was the coming together of like-minded people and also trying to make a statement to say ‘we can form a football team and be successful’. Continental FC was very successful; we got to the quarter final of a national cup which was countrywide, we also won the London Cup about four times. We had a lot of success in the 1980s, more than any other time, because most of us were playing semi-professional football. We had a very good standard of players.”
The Three Degrees statue in West Bromwich shows that, as black people, we won’t let racism stop us from going where we want to in life. Those players put up with a lot of discriminationRoland Malcolm, Continental FC Chairman
Having produced a number of semi-professional players such as Roland Malcolm (St. Alban’s/Enfield Town), Delroy Rhoden (Leyton FC) and Desmond Dennis (Tooting/Mitcham), Continental FC is still going strong today. Its management has now broadened its membership to now include non-black players in order to be more inclusive in a more diverse society. But how much has changed for black players in football?
“You can see from the amount of black players in the Premiership and in football, things have moved on quite a bit,” Malcolm says. “But institutional racism is still there and Brexit didn’t help because the agenda was very much ‘we want England back, we want our own country back’ and the Leave campaign was anti-immigrant.
“All of these closet racists got a bit more of a platform to start talking about it again. That hasn’t helped; I think that’s triggered a lot of [the] racism there is now.
“But there’s always been that in football; for example, how many black managers are there in the Premiership? There’s still this resistance to give black professional players, and people who have been in the game a long time, a chance to run a white team.”
Nodding to the recent sacking of former Brighton FC manager Chris Hughton, a mixed race man, and Darren Moore of West Bromich, Malcolm says he believes that racism continues to thrive in football, albeit less overtly.
“There’s racism there but it’s not as blatant as it used to be, back in the day, and that’s the key difference between where we were and where we are now.”