By Bill Hern
Along with David Gleave, I am co-author of Football’s Black Pioneers. The concept is very simple, we identified the first black player at each of the Football League clubs then wrote about their background, experiences, career etc. It sounds easy but it took us four years to undertake the research and write the book.
Of course a lot of things changed over those four years, the most noteworthy and saddest from the point of view of this article is the tragic and totally avoidable demise of Bury Football Club.
I admit to a soft spot for Bury. I spent one of the happiest years of my life in the mid-90s living in Affetside and working in Bury. My affection was increased a year or two ago when I became acquainted with Bury fan James Bentley and he introduced me to several former Bury players who were, without exception, absolute gems. As a result I am now a proud member of Bury AFC.
By the time we went to print in August 2020 it was too late to find a good enough excuse to include a Bury chapter in a book focussed on current Football League clubs. In an effort to compensate we have included in our blog a Bury ‘chapter’ starring Steve Johnson, Bury’s first black player and one of the nicest people it was my pleasure to interview.
When looking at the book as a whole it struck me how prominently Bury featured. In all honesty that came as a surprise because I didn’t really think of Bury as pioneers when it came to fielding black players.
No less than six players who feature in the book as a first black player at one club or other also played for Bury.
Let’s take a brief look at each of them.
PAUL GARDNER – BLACKPOOL
Paul Gardner started his career with Blackpool where he became the Seasiders’ first black player on 21stSeptember 1976 (the day before his 21st birthday) in a League Cup third round tie at home to Arsenal. The game ended in a 1-1 draw. The replay the following week ended 0-0 after extra time. Arsenal won the toss which gave them the right to host the second replay which they won 2-0. Thus three of Paul’s first five games for Blackpool were against the mighty Arsenal. The League Cup was still a prestigious competition in those days and the three games were watched by almost 73,000 people.
Paul had a good first season playing 25 games as Blackpool finished in fifth place in the old Division Two. He went on to start 149 League games plus three appearances as substitute in six seasons with Blackpool before signing for Bury in August 1982.
He made his Bury debut in the first game of the 1982/83 season on 28th August in a 3-2 home win against Hereford. There was a full fixture list that day and Bury were the only club not to have a 3.00pm kick-off, electing to start their season and future Saturday afternoon home games 15 minutes after everyone else. The reason for this is, I am informed, because the Gigg Lane Social Club did not close until 3.00pm and kicking off at that time would have reduced their takings.
Paul went on to be an ever present that season as Bury finished in fifth place just two points behind promoted Scunthorpe.
When Bury beat Scunthorpe 1-0 on 30th April 1983 they were seven points ahead of the Lincolnshire club albeit Scunthorpe had two games in hand. Even going into the final game of the season Bury held a one point lead over Scunthorpe with a better goal difference. However, Wimbledon with the title long since secured didn’t take their foot off the pedal, came to Gigg Lane and won 3-1 while Scunthorpe got an 83rd minute winner at Chester to pip the Shakers to a promotion spot. It was the first time Bury had been outside the top four since September 1982, having also led the table for long periods during the season.
Paul missed only two League games the following season as Bury finished a disappointing 15th. New manager Martin Dobson clearly felt Paul was surplus to requirements and released him. Paul then had short spells with Swansea, Preston and Wigan before moving into non-league football with Chorley, Leyland and then Leek Town.
Typical of the camaraderie and team spirit amongst the Bury players at that time, Paul asked me to pass on his regards to the next player we are going to cover here, Winston White.
WINSTON WHITE – LEICESTER CITY
Winston’s parents came from the Caribbean island of Montserrat but Winston himself is Leicester born and bred although now living in Florida and looking just as fit as when he was terrorising full backs in the 1970s and 80s.
He made his Leicester debut and thus became the club’s first black player when he played in a 1-0 win at Stoke on 19th March 1977. He was 18 years-old.
Winston never established a regular slot at Leicester and in March 1979 joined Hereford United, then in the Fourth Division, where he made 175 League appearances over five seasons. It was while with Hereford that Winston got selected for a ‘representative’ match that has gone down in history. Winston was chosen to play alongside the likes of Cyrille Regis, Laurie Cunningham and Brendon Batson in the ‘Black versus White game’ at West Bromwich in 1979. The game was a testimonial for West Bromwich stalwart Len Cantello. Cantello would of course go on to play 9 League games for Bury in 1983.
After Hereford, Winston had short spells with Chesterfield, Port Vale and Stockport before joining Bury in December 1983.
His Bury debut was at Swindon Town on 17th December 1983, the game was a drab 0-0 draw watched by a crowd of only 3,748.
Winston played under three different managers in his first three months at Bury. Jim Iley signed him but was then replaced by caretaker manager Wilf McGuinness in February 1984 pending the arrival of Martin Dobson the following month. It would seem that Winston impressed all three as he held his place through to the end of the season.
1984/85 was possibly Winston’s best season, an ever present in the League, he scored five goals as Bury clinched promotion to the Third Division. This earned him a place in James Bentley’s book The Forgotten Fifteen which celebrates those never to be forgotten promotion heroes. No fewer than ten players made 38 or more League appearances for the Shakers that season.
The following season was another success for Winston but less so for Bury. Winston missed only three League games and was scoring his fifth goal of the season when he put the Shakers into a 2-0 lead against Blackpool on 22nd April 1986, they went on to win 4-1. With three games remaining that win just about secured the club’s place in the Third Division. They eventually finished in 20th place, one position above the relegation positions.
Winston played only seven League games for Bury in the 1986/87 season. He had a spell on loan to Rochdale before joining Colchester United in February 1987.
That wasn’t the end of Winston’s Bury career though. After leaving Colchester he had two successful seasons with Burnley, then two less successful campaigns with West Bromwich Albion. On 31st October 1992 he again donned a Bury shirt when he came on as sub for Lee Anderson in a 1-1 draw with York City. He started the next game, a 0-0 draw at Darlington wearing his usual number 7 shirt. But there was to be no fairy tale return and that was the last game Winston ever played for Bury.
In what remained of the 1992/93 season he had short spells with Doncaster, Carlisle and Wigan before hanging up his boots after 529 League appearances – 127 of them with Bury where he also scored 12 goals.
TONY CUNNINGHAM – SHEFFIELD WEDNESDAY
Tony Cunningham became Sheffield Wednesday’s first black player on Friday 11th November 1983 in a 1-1 draw at Fulham, scoring Wednesday’s goal. It was his 26th birthday the following day.
Born in Jamaica but brought up in Wolverhampton, Tony served his footballing apprenticeship at Lincoln City and then Barnsley who sold him to Wednesday less than a week after he had played for Barnsley against his new side.
After one season with the Owls he had a brief spell at Manchester City (then in the old Second Division) and three seasons with Newcastle United where he made his only First Division appearances.
He joined Bury from Blackpool in the summer of 1989 having spent two seasons with the Seasiders.
Sam Ellis who signed Tony for Blackpool had moved on to Third Division Bury for the start of the 1989/90 season and decided Tony was the man he needed to lead Bury’s promotion challenge.
The transfer fee was set at £40,000 by a Football League tribunal. Bury had offered £25,000; Blackpool wanted £125,000. It looks as if Bury got the better of this piece of public haggling.
He made his Bury debut at centre forward in a 1-1 home draw with Bristol City on 19th August 1989 watched by a crowd of 3,399. He opened his scoring account the following week at Preston. His 81st minute goal put the Shakers 3-0 up. Surely game over? Not quite…Preston scored in the 83rd and 86th minutes leaving Bury clinging on for a 3-2 victory.
Tony missed only two League games in the period up to 26th January 1990. At this point, with Bury on the verge of a play-off place, Tony was injured. He did not return to duty until the last League game of the season, a 2-0 win at home to Cardiff, although by then Bury were already guaranteed fifth place and a spot in the play-offs.
In the semi-final Bury played Tranmere, a team they had finished six points below in the League. Tony played in both legs but a 0-0 draw at home was followed by a 2-0 defeat at Tranmere meaning that Bury had to face another season in Division Three. Tranmere lost the Wembley play-off final to Notts County.
Tony played 25 League games that season scoring 8 goals. He was also sent off for the fourth time in his career in a 1-0 win at his old club Blackpool.
Now approaching the veteran stage, Tony spent most of the 1990/91 season with Bury scoring nine goals in 30 League starts and three substitute appearances but just before the transfer deadline window closed he joined Third Division Bolton who were vying for promotion with Bury. It was a huge gamble for Bury to let their first-choice centre forward join their rivals but they hung on to the final play-off place and ironically met Bolton, and Tony, in the semi-final.
Bolton had been pipped for an automatic promotion place only on goal difference by Grimsby Town and were favourites to beat Bury in the semi-final.
The first leg at Bury ended level at 1-1 but Bolton won the return 1-0 with Tony Philliskirk scoring in both games.
Bolton manager Phil Neal had dropped David Reeves to accommodate Tony thus breaking up the popular Philliskirk/Reeves partnership which had netted 29 goals that season.
The play-off final at Wembley was played before 30,217 people and as the game went longer and longer without a goal the Bolton fans screamed for the appearance of Reeves from the substitute bench. Eventually Neal relented and put Reeves on in place of Tony but Tranmere scored the only goal in extra time and Bolton were consigned to another season in the lower reaches.
In 1991/92 Rotherham United manager Phil Henson identified Tony as the perfect man to lead the team’s bid for promotion to Division Three. Tony not only led the attack but was made club captain, a position he had also held at Blackpool.
Henson’s confidence in Tony worked and Rotherham finished the season in second place to win automatic promotion. Tony played a full part finishing top scorer with 18 goals from 34 starts and two substitute appearances. At the ripe old age of 34 this was Tony’s best ever season in terms of goals scored.
Tony signed for Division Three side Doncaster Rovers in 1993/94. He played 19 League games plus six appearances from the bench scoring one goal – his last ever – in a 4-0 win against Walsall on 19th February 1994. He played several games in central defence that season where his height, experience and reading of the game made him an effective centre half.
In a further twist to a long and varied career Tony was asked to take over as Doncaster manager in January 1994.
Tony managed Doncaster for only five games but a moment of British football history was almost certainly made when Doncaster played host to Lincoln on 22nd January 1994 as both managers were black. Keith Alexander was in charge of the Lincoln team.
Doncaster then appointed Ian Atkins as manager and Tony moved to Wycombe Wanderers who, under the management of Martin O’Neill, were in their first season in League football.
This was very much a swansong for Tony who started four League games and came on as substitute once as he helped Wycombe secure a place in the play-offs.
A long and successful career ended on 9th April 1994 when Tony left the field after being replaced by Tony Hemmings in Wycombe’s home game against Walsall.
He had a short spell playing non-league football with Gainsborough Trinity but by now his heart was in law and he has since worked as a criminal solicitor for a firm in Lincolnshire.
Tony appeared in 598 games spread over 15 seasons, played in every Division of the Football League and scored 150 goals.
GEORGE OGHANI – BOLTON WANDERERS
Bolton Wanderers were founded in 1874 and were members of the very first Football League in 1888, yet it would be 110 years after their formation before a black player appeared in their team.
That first player was George Oghani born in Manchester on 2nd September 1960, the son of Nigerian-born George Oghani senior.
George could very easily have become Bury’s first black player as he joined the club from Sheffield United before Steve Johnson achieved that title on 12th November 1977. However, George was a late developer and could not break into the first team at Sheffield United or Bury.
After leaving Bury George had a 5-year spell at non-league Hyde United where he played 175 games and scored 83 goals. That sort of scoring record caught the eye of several League clubs and in October 1983 Bolton’s manager, John McGovern signed him for the Trotters for a fee of £5,000.
George didn’t have to wait too long for his debut coming on a substitute in a 4-0 defeat at Wimbledon on 14th January 1984. A few weeks later, on 11th February 1984, George made his full debut in a 1-1 draw at Rotherham. The following Tuesday he made his home bow, again as substitute, in a 2-0 defeat against Lincoln.
The appearance of a black player in a Bolton shirt appears not to have attracted much comment or attention at the time and George himself didn’t remember the event being considered a big deal.
However, the Bolton fans’ forum ‘wanderersways’ thought otherwise. One contributor commented that when George came on against Lincoln a fan took off his Bolton scarf, stamped on it and walked out of the ground.
George went on to be a huge success at Bolton. In an often controversial career he also played League football for Wrexham, Burnley, Stockport, Hereford, Scarborough and Carlisle.
George Oghani – the man who was almost Bury’s first black player.
STEVE JOHNSON – WIGAN ATHLETIC
Steve became Wigan’s first black player on 11th February 1984 scoring twice in a 3-0 win at home to Sheffield United. Of course he had already entered the record books as Bury’s first black player way back in 1977.
Steve joined Wigan in February 1984 after a brief spell at Rochdale preceded by six very happy and productive seasons at Gigg Lane where he became a Bury all-time favourite for his never say die performances – not to mention his 65 goals!.
He later played League football for Bristol City, Rochdale (again), Chester City, Scunthorpe, Chester City (again) and Rochdale (yet again).
You can read more about Steve’s time at Bury in our blog Football’s Black Pioneers – see the hyperlink above.
EFE SODJE – MACCLESFIELD TOWN
Efe (or Efetobore to give his full name) Sodje became Macclesfield’s first black player in League football when they made their first ever appearance in the Football League on 9th August 1997. Efe also gained the distinction of scoring Macclesfield’s first ever goal netting the opener in a 2-1 victory at home to Torquay United.
Efe was the fourth ex-Bury player I interviewed, Winston White, Tony Cunningham and Steve Johnson being the others. I also liaised by e-mail with Paul Gardner and George Oghani. Each expressed a genuine fondness for Bury, if only Steve Dale had discovered that special magic about the place.
Efe was sent off 18 times during his career (four times with Bury) and at 6 feet 4 inches he remains an imposing figure but he truly is a gentle giant.
Bury was Efe’s ninth and final League club joining in February 2008 when he was already 35 years old. Nevertheless he was to spend over five years at Gigg Lane making his last appearance on 27th April 2013 in a 3-2 home win against Yeovil Town.
Efe loved his time at Bury. He initially joined on loan from Gillingham making his debut on 16th February 2008 in a 2-1 victory at Stockport County.
Six of Efe’s nine clubs won promotion while he was with them. Bury was no exception. Efe was a key player in the side which won promotion to League One in 2010/11, missing only six League games and contributing three goals.
Bury went agonisingly close to promotion in 2008/09, Efe’s first full season at Gigg Lane. Just one more goal would have guaranteed automatic promotion but Wycombe pipped the Shakers to that coveted spot on goal difference. Bury then lost the play-off semi-final to Shrewsbury on penalties. Efe weighed in with seven League goals in 40 starts that season.
Efe made 196 League appearances for Bury and netted a very healthy16 goals. A Nigerian international, he played in the 2012 World Cup Finals in Japan appearing at right back against Argentina and England. Not many ex-Bury players can claim that distinction!
Many people will have little or no idea what a major football club Bury was in the early days of the Football League.
In Football’s Black Pioneers the Shakers pop up with remarkable frequency and, in particular, feature prominently in the career of Willie Clarke – like Bury, a name that isn’t as well known as it should be. Willie (routinely referred to as ‘Darkie’) was the first black player at Bristol Rovers, Aston Villa and Bradford City.
A Scot, Willie signed for Villa in the summer of 1901. At that stage they were the leading side in Britain having won the Championship in four of the previous six seasons. He made his debut in Villa’s first game of the 1901/02 season, a goalless draw in front of 13,000 people at Gigg Lane. Thus the second black player (following on from Arthur Wharton who played one game for Sheffield United in 1895) to appear in the English First Division did so at Bury.
Villa would have been pleased with a point as they had lost their League fixture at Gigg Lane in each of the three previous seasons.
On Christmas Day 1901 Willie became the first black player to score in the English League when he netted in Villa’s 3-2 win at Everton.
Willie scored in the return game with Bury at Villa Park on 4th January 1902, Villa running out 2-0 winners. That left Villa in second position with Bury, in the middle of a run of seven games without a win, slipping down one spot to seventh having been second less than a month previously.
Bury would end the season in seventh position one place above Villa who went into freefall winning only two out of the 13 League games they played after that win over Bury.
The following season Bury helped defer a piece of football history by 62 years. Albert Johanneson became the first black player to appear in an FA Cup Final when Leeds met Liverpool in the 1964/65 Final. The 1902 semi-final featured Bury and Aston Villa. The game was played at Goodison Park, Everton in front of a packed crowd of 50,000 (with receipts of £1,825). In previewing the game, the Westminster Gazette described Bury as “a dashing and vigorous side; well adapted for cup-fighting: and they are both dangerous in attack and strong in defence.” Nevertheless, the reporter felt Villa would have the upper hand.
He was made to eat humble pie though as Bury were three goals to the good early in the second half eventually running out 3-0 winners. When Bury went 2-0 up in the 48th minute the Sheffield Daily Telegraph reporter reported of “Bury enthusiasts showing their jubilation with rare tone.”
All of this meant that Willie Clarke would not be appearing in that year’s FA Cup Final and history had to wait another 62 years.
Before the Final the FA pronounced that should the game end in a draw the replay would be held at Stoke. Bury made sure that no replay was necessary and deprived Stoke of hosting a Cup Final by running out 6-0 winners. The team had stayed at Lytham for seven weeks prior to the Final and the sea air certainly helped. Bury became the second team after Preston North End to win the FA Cup without conceding a single goal during the course of the competition.
Willie and Bury were to cross swords once again in 1908 when on 26th September Willie scored Bradford City’s first ever goal in the First Division. He went on to score another in a 4-1 victory.
‘Football’s Black Pioneers’ can be ordered from Amazon or any good book shop. If you prefer, you can order direct from the publishers here.